The S. Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington D.C.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor choral society founded by black singers in Washington DC (1906)
Copyright © Royal College of Music, London

Did you know that in 1904, 3,000 people went to a concert featuring only black singers (both soloists and chorus) with music by a black composer?

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s first trip to the United States took place in part thanks to the establishment of the S. Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society in Washington, D.C. This group was entirely made up of black singers. The treasurer of this group was an American friend of Coleridge-Taylor’s named A.S. Hilyer, whose wife was particularly a fan. She spoke highly of him after meeting him for the first time:

“The simple and unaffected manner, the ease and modesty of bearing, the enthusiasm and magnetic personality of this remarkable man, his intense interest in his people in the United States, his high musical standing in England, as the musical man of the hour, were qualities calculated not only to awaken our admiration, but unconsciously planted within us those seeds of inspiration, possibility and hope which were destined to grow in virgin soil and to blossom so abundantly, as you have all seen.” (Avril Coleridge-Taylor, The Heritage of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 50)

The S. Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society presented a highly successful performance of Hiawatha on April 23, 1903 for an audience of 2,000 people at the Metropolitan African Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The success of the Society greatly gratified Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and by the end of 1904, he had planned his first visit to the United States. He wrote, “I don’t think anything else would have induced me to visit America, excepting the fact of an established society of coloured singers; it is for that, first and foremost, that I am coming, and all other engagements are secondary. I am a great believer in my race, and I never lose an opportunity of letting my white friends here [in England] know it.”

The first concert of the festival dedicated to his works had an audience of 3,000 in Washington, D.C. The performance was a celebration of black singers, as both the chorus and soloists were all black. Their orchestra for the evening was none other than the United States Marine Band! The concert was attended by many prominent government figures, including the newly re-elected President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary. Roosevelt himself had intended on attending the concert, but was prevented by government business. A few days later, however, President Roosevelt invited Coleridge-Taylor to the White House, where the two men met and discussed racial justice and hopes for society’s attitudes toward black people to change.

Coincidentally, the baritone soloist was Henry Thacker Burleigh — a famous African-American known not just as a beautiful singer, but also as a brilliant composer and arranger of African-American spirituals. Coleridge-Taylor and Burleigh remained good friends, united by concerns for racial justice as well as a love for the music of Antonín Leopold Dvořák.

Among the gifts Samuel Coleridge-Taylor received on his first trip to the United States was a silver loving-cup inscribed:


To Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, of London, England,

in appreciation of his achievements

in the realm of music

Presented by the S. Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society

of Washington, D.C., to their distinguished

guest on the occasion of his first visit

to America to conduct Hiawatha

and Songs of Slavery,

November 16, 17, and 18, 1904.

It is well for us, O brother,

That you come so far to see us.

The Heritage of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor by Avril Coleridge-Taylor, pp. 55-56.

All info on this post is taken from Avril Coleridge-Taylor’s fantastic biography of her father, The Heritage of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, published by Dobson Books in 1979. I’ll definitely be posting more as I keep reading this amazing book!