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A performance of impossibilities

Mildred Katharine Ellis and the 1947 Negro Music Festival in Johnson City, Tennessee

By Jeremy Smith

Photograph of Mildred Ellis circa 1938.
Mildred Ellis (ca. 1938) (Photos courtesy of Amistad Research Center.)

“The Director of the Festival deserves unlimited praise for her untiring efforts in preparing the program, drilling the various groups, and for the artistic manner in which she presented the final rendition. . . It seemed a performance of impossibilities, at first, but the audience which heard the program felt it was hearing something very well worth-while.”

– Mrs. H.C. Black, member of the Johnson City Wednesday Morning Music Club

By all accounts, the concert on Aug. 15, 1947, was a triumph for Mildred Katharine Ellis. After more than three years of planning that came to a crescendo with 10 weeks of near-daily rehearsals, Ellis realized her vision for a music festival that would highlight compositions by Black composers, performed by Black musicians from East Tennessee. Known as the “Negro Music Festival,” this event held significance as the first concert ever to be presented for an integrated audience in Johnson City that featured works exclusively by Black composers. It was further noteworthy for its overt celebration of Black creativity on the otherwise racially-segregated campus of East Tennessee State College.

Mildred Ellis Biography

Ellis family, ca. 1915 (L - R) Clyde, Bertha, Addie (seated), Samuel, Mildred
Ellis family, (ca. 1915) (L-R) Clyde, Bertha, Addie (seated), Samuel, Mildred.

The event was a homecoming for Ellis, who was born at 312 West Myrtle Avenue in Johnson City on Sept. 20, 1906, and lived there through her high school years. During that time, she received formative training as a pianist from public school teachers and mentors at Bethesda Presbyterian Church, where her family attended. After graduating as valedictorian of Langston High School in 1924, Ellis moved to Nashville to attend Fisk University where she received a Bachelor of Arts in French and a diploma in Music in 1929 (magna cum laude). From there, Ellis adopted a rather nomadic lifestyle, moving no fewer than 22 times over the remainder of her life while teaching music and French at colleges and high schools in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Arkansas, Oregon, Indiana, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C.

During that time, she also pursued additional formal education, including at the University of Michigan, where she received a Master of Arts degree in Music in 1937, and Harvard University, where she spent the summer of 1941 conducting advanced graduate study in music theory and musical style. She augmented these formal degrees with other opportunities, including three years of private study in Philadelphia and New York with pianist Irma Wolpe and composer Stefan Wolpe. She would go on to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Music at the University of Michigan and would ultimately complete the degree at Indiana University in 1969. From there, she relocated to Washington, D.C., where she spent the remainder of her life teaching music and performing piano recitals until her death at the age of 97 on Feb. 14, 2004.

Mildred Ellis in Johnson City

Sam, Mildred (standing), and Bertha Ellis (ca. 1920s)
Sam, Mildred (standing), and Bertha Ellis (ca. 1920s).

Throughout her adult life, Ellis always found frequent opportunities to return to her hometown of Johnson City where she would visit friends and family, including her sister Bertha Ellis who was a respected educator in the area. These trips also gave Ellis opportunities to contribute to the city as a music teacher, which she did, for example, during her summer-long stay in 1938 when she established “The Mildred Katharine Ellis School of Music.” Through this school, Ellis taught piano to no fewer than 30 students and coordinated a concluding student recital on Sept. 1, at the Langston High School Auditorium. A similar event took place on Jan. 1, 1939, after a winter visit by Ellis.

Her contributions to Johnson City and her success as a musician and educator did not go unnoticed by local institutions. In 1945, Langston High's principal J. Niel Armstrong contacted Ellis to request biographical information for use in a newspaper article to be titled “Those Who Have Risen.” She was also recognized with an invitation by Johnson City’s Wednesday Morning Music Club to present a solo piano recital in 1943 at East Tennessee State Teachers College. For this performance, she combined canonical piano works by J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann, and others, with her own recently composed piece “Poéme,” which was described in a review as “a difficult composition in modern harmonies [that] shows unusual talent and originality.”

Mildred Ellis (ca. 1944) from Recital Presenting Mildred Ellis, Concert Pianist
Mildred Ellis (ca. 1944) from Recital Presenting Mildred Ellis, Concert Pianist.

One critic noted that Ellis “played brilliantly with unusual mastery of technique and interpretation.” The same critic went on to note that the auditorium was “filled (with) music lovers,” describing the audience as “especially enthusiastic in its reception of her own compositions.” In an advance announcement of the concert, one writer summarized, “She has caught the musical spirit of her people and has written several compositions embodying Negro tonal poems, which she will perform.” The performance was well-received, and the leaders of the Wednesday Morning Music Club began discussions with Ellis about sponsoring a subsequent concert as early as the following year.

The Negro Music Festival

Although planning for that concert began in late 1943, the staging of the event was delayed several years due to increased American involvement in WWII as well as Ellis’s existing teaching and performance commitments. In the summer of 1947, as soon as circumstances allowed, Ellis spent more than ten weeks in Johnson City planning and coordinating every detail of the Festival, which she crafted into a celebration of Black composers and Black performers. She selected all of the music, recruited and rehearsed the more than 200 performers from seven different cities in east Tennessee, and wrote the narrative script that would guide and contextualize the event. She also oversaw all of the stage direction and gave particular attention to lighting design, which she annotated in detailed notes in her scripts.

Negro Music Festival annotated program from Morristown College, 1947.

Ellis organized the Festival into two parts, with an intermission to break up the evening. She divided the first part, themed “Scenes from American Negro Life,” into a Prelude/Introduction and Five Scenes that provided a chronological narrative about Black life from pre-slavery times in Africa to present day life in the United States: Early Slave Days, Working in Fields, Camp-Meeting, Working on Roads and Boats, and The New Negro. In the first half, Ellis included 23 works by W.C. Handy, Hall Johnson, John W. Work, James P. Johnson, William Grant Still, and others. She also included one of her own compositions, “Keep Working and Singing,” which she arranged for two pianos for the occasion and performed with LaVerne Miller Bryant. After the intermission, Ellis included performances of 15 additional compositions by W.C. Handy, Harry T. Burleigh, Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, R. Nathaniel Dett, and others.

Negro Music Festival, opening narration from Morristown College, 1947
Negro Music Festival, opening narration from Morristown College, 1947

Thirty of the total 38 works were for choral groups, including four for speech choirs, which are performance groups that recite a text in unison. One piano duet, for Ellis’s composition, and seven vocal solos with piano accompaniment rounded out the program. The choirs were from Bristol, Elizabethton, Greeneville, Johnson City, Kingsport, Morristown, and Mountain Home, while additional soloists travelled from Knoxville for the performance. It was important to Ellis that this event not only celebrate Black composers but also highlight the musical abilities of Black residents of east Tennessee. As she noted in the introduction to the Festival, “Some members of the various groups are promising artists in their own rights, but by and large, the participants come from the masses of working men and women of Upper East Tennessee.” This echoed what she regularly cited as her life goal: “to bring music to the masses.”

Celebrating Black Creativity

The Festival provided an unapologetic presentation of the value of Black creativity and the harsh and oppressive conditions despite which that creativity had thrived in the U.S. for more than a century. The night began with the song commonly known as the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which set the tone for what would follow by highlighting Black resilience in the context of U.S. history. From there, Ellis programmed a speech choir to recite James Weldon Johnson’s “O Black and Unknown Bards of Long Ago,” a poem that explicitly argues for the value of African creativity and celebrates the ongoing presence of African practices through slavery and into contemporary Black American arts. She included songs such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long” that highlight the toil and struggle of Blacks during slavery and “Southern Lullaby” which narrates the horrors of continued racial tyranny through lynching in the country’s post-Civil War period. Ellis was careful to position the reality of historic and ongoing oppression against the dignity and resilience expressed through Black citizens’ continuing advocacy for both political and cultural representation. A speech choir’s performance of James Edward McCall’s poem “The New Negro” exemplified this approach, while perhaps the most poignant example occurred when a children’s speech choir performed Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” declaring:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.


I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Reception and Impact

Prior to 1947, Ellis had programmed an entire concert of art music by Black composers only one time, in the context of a solo piano recital she performed for an all-Black high school in Mississippi in 1938. Instead, her typical approach was to program a recital around acknowledged masterpieces of the Euro-American canon while including one or two pieces by Black composers, as Ellis had done in her previous solo recital in Johnson City.

One of the risks of presenting an all-Black concert at East Tennessee State College was the potential of alienating a significant portion of the event’s integrated audience. For the 1947 Festival, Ellis took on additional risk in choosing to emphasize not only Black composers but overtly political pieces that addressed head on the structural and discursive racism that characterized life for Black citizens in the U.S. at the time. Despite these risks, the Festival was both well-attended and well-received. Mrs. H.C. Black of the Wednesday Morning Music Club wrote at length about the event, noting that it gave “a large audience, not only from our own city, but from neighboring towns, as well, the chance to hear really good Negro music and to come into the realization that the Negro has made a remarkable contribution to the musical culture of America in the last fifty years, especially. At this Festival, the music given was all composed by Negroes, and covered all types of the emotions in a dignified style.” Black went on to offer “unlimited praise” to Ellis for her work organizing and directing the Festival while voicing gratitude that the Club had been able to sponsor “not only Music, but good will among different races, for an appreciation of the contribution each race can bring to the culture of America is necessary to the well-rounded person.”

Ellis took great pride in the Festival’s success, specifically mentioning it in a number of job and school applications throughout the years and safeguarding the original manuscript of the narrative and program for the next 60 years, while she moved more than ten times to eight different states. She once even referred to the Festival as “the most significant occasion of ‘producing’ music for public consumption” she had ever undertaken. Programming this event required expansive knowledge of the available musical repertory, broad skill as a performer and conductor, and courage to assert the rights of Black people not only to be allowed in what were otherwise segregated spaces, but to be celebrated in those spaces. Through the 1947 Negro Music Festival, Mildred Ellis created a testament to music’s capacity both to inspire future social change and to enact that very change in the present. In the heart of Appalachia, Ellis demonstrated the value in celebrating Black contributions to American culture and in refusing to accept the idea that what might have seemed impossible yesterday must remain impossible tomorrow.

Jeremy Smith is director of the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University and holds a doctorate in Musicology from Duke University.


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