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More Than the Promise of the American Myth: Rethinking Burleigh and Sheppard in the Second Gilded Age

  • Carnegie Hall May Room - Weill Terrace Room and Lounge 881 7th Avenue New York, NY, 10019 United States (map)

More than the Promise of the American Myth: Rethinking Burleigh and Sheppard in the Second Gilded Age

Sunday, March 3, 2019


Carnegie Hall May Room

The Harry T. Burleigh Society’s first academic conference follows a historic performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, March 2, 2019. After they perform concert spirituals inspired by original Fisk Jubilee Singer Ella Sheppard (1851-1915) as well as those arranged by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), we will meditate upon their singing and the emergence of the concert spiritual.

The conference frames the work of figures like Burleigh and Sheppard as examples of how the interrelationships between power, race, America, virtuosity, and collaboration make possibilities for liberatory thinking and practices to contend with anti-blackness, and make commands for America to be more than the promise of its myth. The conference will also problematize historiographic insistence on a composer concept that obscures the ingenuity of women, students, and music unpublished by European/white companies. The Burleigh Society claims Sheppard and Burleigh as singers and composers within western art music, and attests to the paradigmatic impact of the concert spiritual tradition that they led.

Participants will offer their scholarly expertise, life experiences, ears, and hearts to create fresh, nuanced ways to think about one’s own work, as well as foster the creation of new projects. Leading our thinking will be a keynote address by Daphne Brooks, Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale.

On the pulse of what might be a second Gilded Age (Robert Reich) and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter era, we look to the generative genius of Sheppard and Burleigh in how they created and professionalized an entire music genre with courage, power, and longevity on the global stage. The time is ripe to examine the lessons of their successes and struggles and learn from their musicianship during overt state sanctioned anti-black violence in a world of inordinate wealth disparity.

Through exploration of the concept of black art music broadly, the institutionalization of concert spirituals, and the potency of family legacies, the Burleigh Society follows generations of black music makers and researchers to re-engage citizenship, racist suffering, black liberation, gender, exploitative economics, spirituality, and aesthetics both in historical context and the context of this very moment. With reverence to Burleigh and Sheppard as what Vincent Harding calls “artisans of democracy,” and probing “the question of what a free life is” (Saidiya Hartman), will provide a forum for discourse between family members, scholars and artists.

Conference Schedule

9:00am – 9:15am                 Registration

9:15am – 9:30am                 Opening Remarks

9:30am – 10:30am              Keynote Address

Dr. Daphne Brooks

10:30am – 10:45am              Break

10:45am – 12:00pm             The Concept of the Concert Spiritual & Black Art Music

Lucy Caplan, Kenneth Overton, Matthew Laughton, Dr. Paul T. Kwami, Dr. Louise Toppin

12:00pm – 12:10pm             Harry T. Burleigh’s Musical Geography

Dr. Louis Epstein, Isaiah Pressman, Reed Williams

12:10pm – 12:30pm             Break

12:30pm – 1:30pm               Institutionalizing Concert Spirituals

Lynne Foote, Andrew Davis, Dartisha Mosley, Majda Kallab Whitaker, Dr. Crystal deGregory, Dr. Jean Snyder

1:30pm – 1:45pm               Break

1:45pm – 2:45pm               Family Legacies: Sheppards, Burleighs & Their Contemporaries

Harry T. Burleigh III, Harry T. Burleigh descendant
Marie Burleigh, Harry T. Burleigh descendant
Sharde Curry, Ella Sheppard descendant
Jeremy Williams, Ella Sheppard descendant
K. Melanie Edwards, J. Rosamond Johnson descendant
Suzzanne Douglas, Bob Cole descendant
Dr. Carlos Handy, W.C. Handy descendant
Dr. Maribel Handy, W.C. Handy descendant

2:45pm – 3:00pm                  Closing Remarks
“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Marti Slaten, Kenneth Overton, Matthew Laughton

3:00pm – 5:00pm Post-Conference Lunch ($30 per person) at Molyvos


Free and open to the public.

To attend the post-conference lunch, attendees must REGISTER BY FEBRUARY 15th.


Founded in 2017, The Harry T. Burleigh Society is a non-profit organization that advances Burleigh Studies through supporting performances of compositions by and scholarship about African American baritone and composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). Grounded in African American history and culture, and committed to social justice, the Society consciously shapes arenas where interracial, creative, inter-religious, international, and intergenerational, encounters thrive—all fortified by beauty, seriousness, and compensation that follow Burleigh’s model and raise awareness about the broad swath of his impact.