Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1869-1941)
Harriet Gibbs Marshall was an educator, author, and concert pianist, born on February 18, 1869 in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1889, Harriet became the first African-American woman to graduate from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance. Harriet was an accomplished concert pianist and even studied with the brilliant European composer and pianist Moritz Moszowski in Paris. Harriet Gibbs went on to have an esteemed career as a pioneering educator of music, focused on helping African Americans develop and advance within the field. After teaching at the Normal School in Huntsville, Alabama, she established the music department at Eckstein-Norton University, a black industrial college in Kentucky.
In 1903, Harriet founded the Washington Conservatory of Music in the District of Columbia, to train, inspire and musically develop African Americans, and uplift the African American community to embrace a heritage of self-produced concert music. In 1904 Harriet’s father, prominent African American businessman and politician Mifflin Gibbs, gave her a building at 902 Tea Street in Washington D.C. which became the permanent home of the Conservatory. Harriet Gibbs recruited an esteemed and accomplished faculty to teach at her school, including violinist and composer J. Hilary Taylor, founder of the Negro Music Journal, and Shirley Graham, future wife of W.E.B. Dubois; In addition, the school was honored when Eleanor Roosevelt agreed to sit on the board of the Conservatory.
For decades, the Washington Conservatory of music was the most successful African American owned and operated music school to promote the study and performance of quality, self-produced black music in the United States. In 1936, Harriet Gibbs Marshall established the National Negro Music Center, for the research and preservation of the musical heritage of African Americans. It became “a storehouse for published works by African American composers. Thousands of pieces of sheet music of Black composers were collected and preserved under Marshall’s direction, thus fulfilling part of her dream of creating a historical reserve for Black music research."
Harriet Gibbs married Napoleon Marshall who also taught at the music conservatory, and in 1923 she moved to Haiti with her husband, who had been appointed cultural attaché, founding a school for girls while she was living in that country. As a writer, Harriet wrote The Story of Haiti, a comprehensive history of the island from its founding until 1929, and she also wrote a drama The Last Concert, based on the life and music of black British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Harriett Gibbs Marshall directed both the Washington Conservatory of Music and the National Negro Music Center until her death on February 25, 1941.
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