Below is a brief, and still very incomplete, chronology of some significant events involving African American vocal soloists or performing groups, composers, and authors/publishers of books related to vocal music. Please use the contact form if you wish to suggest other entries.

1791 – Composer and vocalist Newton Gardner (1746-1826) opens one the first black-owned singing school in the United States.


1853 – Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (ca. 1824-1876), known as the “Black Swan,” makes her New York debut at the Metropolitan Hall. Because African Americans are denied admission to the concert, she gives an additional performance at the Broadway Tabernacle.

1854 – Greenfield sings in a command performance before Queen Victoria of England.

1867Slave Songs of the United States, a collection of plantation songs and spirituals compiled by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, is published.

1871 – Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, begin their first tour.

1878 – James M. Trotter (1842-1892) publishes Music and Some Highly Musical People, which represents the first overview of African American music: popular, folk, and concert.

1883 – Marie Selika Williams (ca. 1849-1937) gives a command performance for Queen Victoria.

1886 – Amelia Tilghman becomes the first African American publisher and editor of a music magazine, The Musical Messenger.
1892 – The World’s Fair Colored Opera Company, with featured singer, soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933), becomes the first African American group to perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. They appeared less than one year after the hall’s opening.

1892 – Sissieretta Jones, known as the “Black Patti,” sings before Benjamin Harrison, president of the United States.

1900 – Composer J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) and writer James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) pen the music and words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

1914 – The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) forms, with James Weldon Johnson and composer/baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) as charter members.

1916 – H. T. Burleigh publishes the first art song arrangements of spirituals, Jubilee Songs of the United States.


1919 – The National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) holds its first convention in Chicago, Illinois.

1921 – Tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977) gives a command performance before King George V of England

1925 – Bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1898-1976), accompanied by pianist Lawrence Brown, gives the first recital of all Negro spirituals and worksongs at the Greenwich Village Theatre, New York, New York.

1927 – Lillian Evanti (1890-1967) debuts in the title role of Delibes’ opera, Lakmé, in Nice, France

1930 – Caterina Jarboro (1903-1986) debuts in the title role in the Verdi opera, Aida, at the Puccini Theater, Milan, Italy.

1933 – Composer Hall Johnson‘s (1888-1970) opera, Run Little Chillun, is the first Black folk opera produced on Broadway.

1934Four Saints in Three Acts, music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein, is the first opera with an all-African American cast performed on Broadway.


1935 – George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opens on Broadway, with baritone Todd Duncan (1903-1998) as Porgy, and sopranos Anne Brown (1912-2009) as Bess and Ruby Elzy (1908-1943) as Serena.

1936Negro Musicians and Their Music, an historical account of African American musical performers and styles, is published shortly after the death of its author, Maud Cuney Hare (1874-1936).

1939 – Contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) gives a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refuse to allow her use of Constitution Hall. The program drew a crowd of 75,000 and millions of radio listeners.

1945 – Duncan becomes the first African American to sing with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera, in the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci


1946 – Soprano Camilla Williams (1922-2012) signs a contract with the New York City Opera, the first African American to do so with a major American opera company. Her debut with the company was as the title role in Madama Butterfly.

1947 – Soprano Helen Phillips (ca. 1919-2005) becomes the first African American to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera when she was hired as a substitute chorister for performances of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

1948 – Hayes publishes a collection of folksongs entitled, My Songs: Afraamerican Religious Folk Songs.

1949Troubled Island, an opera by William Grant Still (1895-1978), becomes the first opera composed by an African American to be performed by a major American opera company, the New York City Opera.

1951William Warfield (1920-2002) and Muriel Rahn (1911-1961) become the first African American concert artists presented on television when they appear on The Ed Sullivan Show

dobbs21951 – Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera written specifically for presentation on television, is premiered by the NBC Television Opera Theatre, New York. The cast includes bass-baritone Willis Patterson (b. 1930) as King Balthazar.

1953 – Soprano and educator Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996) performs the U.S. National Anthem at the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower. This is the first time an African American sings at an American inaugural.

1953 – Soprano Lenora Lafayette (1926-1975) is the first African American to sing in a leading role with the Royal Opera House in London’s Covert Garden, taking on the title role in their production of Verdi’s Aida

1953 – Soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs (1925-2015) becomes the first African American to sing at La Scala in the role of Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algieri. She is selected for the role at the request of conductor Herbert von Karajan.

1955 – Anderson becomes the first African American to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, when she appears in the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, by Verdi. She would perform the same role on the Met Radio Broadcast later that year.

1955Robert McFerrin (1921-2006) makes his Met debut (the first African American male to do so) as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida.

1955 – Tenor Charles Holland (1909-1987) becomes the first African American to perform at L’Opera Comique in Paris, appearing as Nadir in Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

1955Leontyne Price (b. 1927) appears on NBC television in the title role of Puccini’s Tosca, the first time an African American sings in an opera telecast.

1960 – The soundtrack from the film version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess receives the 1959 Grammy award for Best Soundtrack Album, Original Cast, Motion Picture or Television. McFerrin voiced the role of Porgy, soprano Adele Addison (b. 1925) sang Bess, and Inez Matthews (1917-2004) performed the role of Serena on the soundtrack.

1961 – Soprano/mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry (b. 1937) becomes the first African American to sing at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany when she sings the role of Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.


1963 – Maynor opens the Harlem School of the Arts in community center of St. James Presbyterian Church, New York City, beginning with 20 students. By her retirement as its executive director in 1979, the school had grown to 40 instructors with over 1,000 students and had moved into a new, 37,000 square foot facility.

1966 – Leontyne Price, along with Justino Díaz, create the title roles in Samuel Barber’s opera, Antony and Cleopatra. The opera was commissioned especially for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new facilities at Lincoln Center.

1972Treemonisha premieres 55 years after the death of the opera’s composer, Scott Joplin (1868-1917), at the Atlanta (Georgia) Memorial Arts Center.

1975 – Maynor becomes the first African American member of the Metropolitan Opera board.

1975 – The 1951 recording of Porgy and Bess, with bass-baritone Lawrence Winters (1915–1965) and soprano Camilla Williams (1919–2012) in the title roles, is induced into the Grammy Hall of Fame

1976 – Joplin receives a special Pulitzer Prize posthumously for his contributions to American music.

1976 – The 1976 recording of Porgy and Bess, with soprano Leona Mitchell (b. 1949) as Bess, wins the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.

estes21977 – The Houston Grand Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess wins the Tony Award for Best Revival (Musical)–with five other nominations for acting and technical awards. The recording from this production, featuring baritone Donnie Ray Albert (b. 1950) and soprano Clamma Dale (b. 1948) in the title roles, also receives the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.

1978Simon Estes (b. 1938) becomes the first male African American to sing a major role on the stage at Bayreuth, performing the title role in Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander

1996 – Composer George Walker (b. 1922) receives the Pulitzer Prize for Lilacs, a work for soprano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony as part of its tribute to tenor Roland Hayes. This marks the first time an African American has won the prize for music.
2001 – Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (b. 1964) is the featured singer at the National Prayer Service held at the Washington National Cathedral following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

2007Lost Sounds, the companion audio compact disc to the book, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, by Tim Brooks, wins the 2007 Grammy award for “Best Historical Release.” The recording includes performances by H. T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, and Edward Boatner.


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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 10, 2016. Accessed:.