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Do You Know Dr. Eva Jessye?

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This Day In History: January 20th

Renowned choir director and educator Dr. Eva Jessye was a trailblazer in the music industry who received international acclaim. In addition to being the first African-American woman internationally recognized for choir directing, she also had ties to the Civil Rights Movement.

Eva Alberta Jessye was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 20, 1895. She was influenced by her great-grandmother and great-aunt which cultivated her love of traditional Negro spirituals. Despite her passion for spirituals, Jessye began her career as a teacher after earning her teaching certificate. She taught at several elementary schools before becoming a reporter and columnist for the Afro-American Newspaper in 1925.

Shortly after working as a reporter she moved to New York City and joined the Dixie Jubilee Singers, a choral group. The Dixie Jubilee Singers performed jazz, ballads, spirituals and much more on a variety of platforms. In 1927, Jessye published a collection of songs titled My Spirituals. She continued to build her reputation as a choir director and in 1935 she was selected to be the choral director for the original production of “Porgy and Bess.”

Jessye became an expert and was associated with almost every Porgy & Bess production worldwide. She achieved international recognition, but she was not exempt from the effects of the Jim Crow Era. This influenced her later involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. selected the Eva Jessye Choir to be the official sound of the historic March on Washington. The choir performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom Is The Thing We’re Talking About.” The recording from the march would later be used by Tom Mboya, a Kenyan activist during Kenya’s struggle for independence. 

The Eva Jessye Choir disbanded nearly a decade after the march and she returned to academia. In 1974, Dr. Jessye established the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and three years later the Eva Jessye Collection was established at Pittsburg State University

Over the course of her career, she received several honorary degrees from universities such as Wilberforce and Southern. Former Kansas governor Robert Bennett declared October 1, 1978 “Eva Jessye Day” and she was also named “Kansas Ambassador for the Arts.” Dr. Eva Jessye died on February 21, 1992, at the age of 97 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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