Harriet Gibbs Marshall was born in 1868 in Victoria, British Columbia, to Mifflin Wistar Gibbs and Maria Ann (Alexander) Gibbs. Her father, a native of Philadelphia, was a prominent businessman, who moved his family to Oberlin, Ohio, a year after her birth. In 1889, she became the first African American to graduate from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Two years later, she founded a music school at Eckstein-Norton University, an industrial school in Kentucky. Her objective was to preserve the rich heritage of African American music by developing the musical talent of Black students.

     In 1900, she became director of music for the Black public schools of Washington, D.C. It was while she held this position that she opened the Washington Conservatory of Music in the True Reformers Hall (12th and W Streets, NW). The following year, Mrs. Marshall’s father gave her the building at 902 T Street, NW, which became the permanent home of the school (item #3 - photo of ‘T’ street building). Embarking on a letter-writing campaign in which she sought financial support for her school from businessmen, congressmen, ambassadors, and others, she received encouragement from such notables as W.E.B. Du Bois; composers W.C. Handy (item #4 - Handy letter), William Grant Still, and Nathaniel Dett; and Eleanor Roosevelt, who agreed to sit on the board of the Conservatory.

     When, in 1904, E. Azalia Hackley, concert soprano and pioneer music educator, accepted a position at the Conservatory, she wrote to Marshall: "In a faint, far-off way, I have been interested for some time in the kind of thing which you wish to do. But there is no such talent in other places as you have in Washington, D.C. So I willingly accept your proposal." Hackley was joined by Clarence Cameron White, noted concert pianist, and J. Hilary Taylor, publisher of the Negro Music Journal. Will Marion Cook, well-known composer, soon joined the faculty as director of the Conservatory’s choral group, known as the Folk Singers. Three years after the school was established, records show there were 160 students enrolled and nine instructors on the faculty, including Shirley Graham, who would marry W.E.B. Du Bois in later years. At the height of its success, in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the Conservatory employed 14 faculty members and enrolled as many as 175 students.

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February 2001