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  • Composing a SymphonistFlorence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship
  • Samantha Ege (bio)

Among her millions of citizens, America can boast of but few symphonists. Delightful piano pieces, songs, marches—yes; but very, very few symphonies.

—Shirley Graham, “Spirituals to Symphonies,” Etude 54 (1936): 692

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor in 1933. History was made: Price (1887–1953) became the first woman of African descent to make her symphonic debut with a major US orchestra. Price’s status as the first African American woman to achieve national and later international success as a composer demonstrates the magnitude of her achievements in a realm that was gendered male and oppressively racialized as white. However, this status barely acknowledges the artistic and intellectual milieu in which she worked; it gives no recognition to the black women that comprised her community and also thrived in the classical realm. Price was not an anomaly in the American musical landscape; behind the history that she made in 1933 lies an essential narrative that requires excavation—one that reveals how black women’s collective agency, advocacy, and activism paved the way for Price’s success.

Price’s musical education began in her home of Little Rock, Arkansas. Her first music teacher was her mother, Florence Irene Smith (née Gulliver), a soprano and concert pianist. From 1903 to 1906 Price studied at the New England Conserva-tory of Music in Boston and earned a double major in piano pedagogy and organ performance. She returned to the South after completing her studies. Contrasting Price’s return with her migration to the Midwest in 1927 reveals a definite shift in the nature of Price’s compositional output and the narrative that surrounded her creative endeavors. Pre-1927, Price’s works largely matched the “delightful piano pieces” and songs of Graham’s description. The surrounding narrative situated Price more within her domestic and pedagogical roles as a wife, mother, and teacher [End Page 7] and less within an artistic cohort.1 Once she moved to Chicago, however, the scale of Price’s works grew in tandem with the opportunities that she encountered. Here, primary sources affirm a life and career that were rich in fellowship and support. I interpret this salient shift as being in dialogue with the black, collectively authored cultural rebirth that redefined the parameters of African American lives across the United States and thus redefined the parameters of success.

Price’s arrival in Chicago coincided with the burgeoning transformations of a sweeping Black Renaissance. The Black Chicago Renaissance (approximately 1930–50) rivalled the cultural contributions of Harlem yet maintained its own distinctiveness as a result of the specific ways in which black Chicagoans, both newly arrived and previously settled, engaged in geographically grounded, intellectually vitalized, and artistically inspired methods of self-actualization and collective uplift.2 This activity emanated from the Black Belt, which sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton depicted in their 1945 study as Chicago’s Black Metropolis, “a city within a city—a narrow tongue of land, seven miles in length and one-half miles in width.”3 With the Loop and its commercial high-rises to the north, white working-class neighborhoods to the west, and more affl uent populations to the east begirding this “narrow tongue of land,” the Black Belt gradually extended southward.4 However, beneath the surface of Chicago’s expanding South Side were “patterns of life and thought, attitudes and customs” (as Drake and Cayton described) that resisted the restrictive psychology of the Black Belt and embraced the unfettered promise of the Black Metropolis.5

The expressive arts were important vehicles of change, and artists provided some of the most essential forms of activism. Darlene Clark Hine explains that “artists comprised the vanguard of the struggle to fashion new expressive sites for contesting racial, class, and gender hierarchies and reshaping public culture.”6 Numerous women were actively involved in these reshapings. Anne Meis Knupfer documents that as “artists, writers, theater directors, and musicians, [as well as] schoolteachers, clubwomen, founders and administrators of community institutions, activists, volunteers, and caretakers, black women were largely involved in...