Black History Month Pt 3 - H.T. Burleigh meets J.P. Morgan
As promised, and continuing on the theme of last week, here is the story of how the African-American singer Harry T. Burleigh became one of the most famous church singers in New York. (See blog of February 8, 2013)
Burleigh had a beautiful baritone voice. In 1894, he tried out for the professional soloist position at St. George's Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square in NYC. The way it worked in those days was to have the singer audition for a committee behind a screen, so as to remove any possibility of favoritism toward auditioning singers. Everyone on the committee loved Burleigh’s voice, but when he emerged from behind the screen, the committee members gasped! Here was a black man.
They decided to hire him, in spite of other white New York Episcopal churches forbidding black people in worship. When Burleigh sang his first Sunday, a number of parishioners got up and walked out. The famous financier J. P. Morgan, senior warden of St. George's, immediately got up, went to the front door and took the names of those who left. He then announced that he would match their pledges dollar-for-dollar.
Harry T. Burleigh remained at St. George’s as bass soloist for 50 years!
Harry T. Burleigh
I had the privilege of conducting St. George's Choral Society in Dvorak's Te Deum and several spirituals of Burleigh. And speaking of connections, Ken Dake, the Minister of Music at Marble Collegiate, was formerly the organist/choirmaster at St. George's. I love these synchronicities!