Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the civil rights movement

By - Friday 23rd March, 2018

How the Croydon-based composer and musician helped instigate change

For more information about this photo, see the postscript at the end of this piece.
Photo by Melanie Edwards, used with permission.

In the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, on 4th April 1968, it’s timely to examine the role of Croydon composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in the early modern US civil rights and pan-African movements. His mixed-race ethnicity, humble beginnings and untimely death make the story of his achievements all the more remarkable. Yet, even more remarkable than the individual, are the cultural and political movements that he contributed to.

Illegitimate son of a Sierra Leonean father and an English mother, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15th August 1875 in Holborn, London. His father returned to Africa before Coleridge-Taylor was born and, aged around one year old, his mother, Alice Hare Martin, and her parents moved with him to Croydon, where he was to live for the rest of his life. In 1904, at the age of 29, Coleridge-Taylor conducted his first tour of the USA – the first of three tours of North America – when the so-called ‘Jim Crow’ laws were firmly established in the southern states, legally segregating blacks and whites.

Segregation laws in the US multiplied in the decades after slavery was prohibited in 1865, and affected most aspects of daily life – from public education and housing to access to restaurants, with black facilities provided by inferior funding. Anti-miscegenation laws, dating back to the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland, criminalised marriage and sex between the races. The precise ethnic boundary between black and white, visibly blurred in the population by mixing, particularly through systematic rape by slavemasters, was the subject of debate.

Segregation in the south was sometimes enforced by lynchings

Enforcement of segregation occurred through lynchings, mostly happening in the south. The ratio of black to white victims of lynchings rose to 17 to 1 after 1900. On 10th September 1904, the Croydon Chronicle reported the lynching in Huntsville, Alabama, of Horace Maples, a black man accused of killing a white man: “The mob, unable to induce the militia to hand over a negro accused of murdering a pedlar, adopted the plan of lighting fires around the gaol and smoking out the militia in the guardroom. Half suffocated by smoke, the militia were at length compelled to give in, when the mob took the negro and lynched him in the usual way.” As well as being hanged, Maples was shot and had fingers cut off. Between 1877 and 1950, over 4,000 such lynchings have been identified.

A second era of slavery was entrenched through new criminal offences such as ‘mischief’, ‘loitering’ and ‘insulting gestures’ which were used to target blacks disproportionately. If court fees and fines could not be paid, the jailed remained prisoners indefinitely. Prisoners – exempted from the prohibition on slavery – could be leased out to private individuals under the penal labour scheme of ‘convict leasing’. In 1898, most of Alabama’s prisoners served in coal mines, providing the majority of the state revenue. Whipping was a common form of discipline and conditions were often worse than in the previous era of slavery. Those who survived their sentence could gain their freedom.

Constitutional amendments in the southern states between 1885 and 1908 restricted voter registration with the imposition of literacy tests, poll taxes and felon disenfranchisement. By 1940, only 3% of eligible African-Americans in the south were registered to vote.

Washington DC was not as hostile to African-Americans as the southern states

In upholding the constitutionality of segregation, in 1896, with Plessy v Ferguson, the US Supreme Court described as false “the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

For more information about this photo, see the postscript at the end of this piece.
Photo by Melanie Edwards, used with permission.

Washington DC, where Samuel Coleridge-Taylor started his US concert tour in November 1904, was not as hostile for an African-American as the southern states. Many had left the south for work and education in the capital, which boasted the renowned black Howard University. Segregation existed legally in the school system and in practise in other areas of life. Blacks were restricted from most jobs and increasingly in housing.

Most of the 3,000-strong audience for Coleridge-Taylor’s inaugural concert on 16th November 1904 in Washington’s Conventional Hall were black. Amongst the white audience members was President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary – and Coleridge-Taylor would subsequently be invited to meet the President. At the concert, Coleridge-Taylor conducted his popular trilogy of cantatas, Song Of Hiawatha, alongside the 2-300-person black members of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society. Amongst the soloists were soprano, Estelle Pinckney Clough, and Henry ‘Harry’ T. Burleigh, a renowned African-American baritone singer and composer. The orchestra was provided by members of the military’s US Marine Band.

Coleridge-Taylor conducted ballads based on Longfellow’s poems about slavery

The following evening in Washington’s Convention Hall, Coleridge-Taylor conducted three of his Choral Ballads based on poems about slavery by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, dedicating the performances to the choral society. Coleridge-Taylor played piano to accompany violinist Clarence Cameron White in performing selections from Four African Dances.

The Washington Post critic wrote of the events: “The Coleridge-Taylor festival filled this week with surprises of many kinds – the tremendous audience, the whiteness of people of color, the large proportion of prominent white people present, the beauty and perfection of the performances musically, the youth of the composer, and the admirable management of the whole unique proceeding. Both concerts were successes in a big sense.”

Two women were initiators of the festival – Mamie Hilyer and Lola Johnson

The success of the festival owed much to the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society that had been set up to organise and sponsor a visit from the composer, as well as to perform as a choir. Among the initiators were two women from Washington’s African-American music scene and members of the all-female Treble Clef Club. Mamie Hilyer met Coleridge-Taylor in London when visiting Europe in 1900. Subsequently, her friend Lola Johnson invited Coleridge-Taylor to the US and, as a consequence, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society was born in 1901.

Coleridge-Taylor performed in Baltimore and then returned to Washington where, on 21st November 1904, a public reception was held to honour the composer. At the end of the festival, he traveled on to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Coleridge-Taylor would return again to the US in 1906 and 1910, developing a great many musical, political and social connections, including with the educator and civil-rights activist Booker T. Washington, who was already an admirer of the composer.

In London, Coleridge-Taylor’s interest in his African heritage would have been encouraged by contact with others of African descent. At the age of 12, he performed in a local Croydon concert with West Indian harpist, Ida Audain, and later, formed a friendship with the prominent west African Easmon family. He would collaborate with US poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, on works such as Seven African Romances, a collection of poems put to piano music, and a one-act opera, Dream Lovers – performed in Croydon’s Public Halls on 16th December 1898. African-American spirituals began to influence him as a result of contact with Frederick Loudin, the director of the travelling Jubilee Singers. In London, also, the composer met W.E.B. Du Bois, the writer and civil-rights activist, who became firm friends with the Coleridge-Taylor family. In 1909, Du Bois would co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Coleridge-Taylor was prominent in promoting and preserving poetry and music

Whilst the 1904 USA tour was likely a high point for “Hiawatha mania”, Coleridge-Taylor remained a prominent member of a network of activists preserving and promoting poetry and music. He wrote: “(w)hat Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for Negro melodies.” At home, when not travelling across Britain, attending festivals and adjudicating at musical competitions, he focused much of his efforts in and around Croydon, where he regularly performed with an array of orchestral and choral groups, such as the all-female Brahms Choir, the String Players Club and the Central Croydon Choral Society.

Coleridge-Taylor was also associated with pan-African political activity, having attended as a member of the executive committee of the inaugural Pan-African Conference in 1900. The composer, who attended with his English wife, Jessie, organised the musical interludes at the event. Motions passed at the conference included re-naming the African Association the Pan-African Association, and affirming the address written by W.E.B. Du Bois. ‘To the Nations of the World’ challenged the “great powers of the civilised world”, amongst other things, to end segregation, give “rights of responsible government” to west Indian and African colonies and to “Let not the cloak of Christian missionary enterprise be allowed in the future, as so often in the past, to hide the ruthless economic exploitation and political downfall of less-developed nations…”

Statue of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, alongside Peggy Ashcroft and Ronnie Corbett, on Charles Street, Croydon.
Photo by The Lady Travels, used with permission.

Britain was fighting the Second Boer War at the time, and it was recorded by a delegate to the conference, Benito Sylvain, that the African Association, as it was known then, had advised some African-Americans against joining the British Army to fight in the Transvaal. As a result of the conference, a petition was sent to Queen Victoria inviting her attention to the treatment of blacks in Britain’s South African colonies, including conditions for indentured labourers living in segregated compounds and working in gold and diamond mines.

The Pan-African Association was short lived and another such gathering did not occur until 1919, which would reflect on worsened conditions for many black people. In 1905, British colonial rulers in Cape Colony and Natal passed legislation preventing all blacks from voting. In the US, lynchings fell from their peak but social and economic conditions, especially, in urban areas, meant that mortality rates for African-Americans set into decline. World War One broke out in 1914, unleashing global war led by the ‘great powers of the civilised world’.

Coleridge-Taylor did not live to see the Great War. He died of suspected pneumonia on 1st September 1912, aged 37. He collapsed at West Croydon train station having planned to travel to Crystal Palace and, four days later, he passed away. Unlike his close friend and another composer influential in Croydon, William Hurlstone, who collapsed and died at the age of 30, Coleridge-Taylor had not been suffering long-term illness. Crowds were said to line the streets as Coleridge-Taylor was taken to be buried in Bandon Hill Cemetery.

“Think of a young musician who held numerous positions… his hand ever ready with sympathy and help”

Some years later, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of Coleridge-Taylor: “think of a young musician, father of a family, who at the time of his death held positions as Associate of the Royal College of Music, Professor in Trinity College and Crystal Palace, Conductor of the Handel Choral Society and the Rochester Choral Society, Principal of the Guildhall School of Music… He was repeatedly leader of music festivals all over Great Britain and a judge of contests. And with all this, his house was open in cheering hospitality to friends and his hand ever ready with sympathy and help.”

Coleridge-Taylor was a figurehead and inspiration in an era of great cultural activity and exchange, from which political solidarity developed, especially between African-American communities and supporters in Britain. To try and compare his influence on US civil rights and pan-Africanism to other figureheads is not particularly useful. He played a part in cultural and political movements of the famous and the ordinary that, with periods of setbacks, displaced savage forms of slavery, imperialism, segregation and apartheid and are now being shaped for the challenges of the present.

Further sources and photo caption information

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the Musical Fight for Civil Rights” – Digital exhibition published in October 2017 by the Royal College of Music.

Museum of Croydon and the Croydon Borough Archives – the Museum galleries contain several objects connected to Coleridge-Taylor, including a portrait painting by Stanmore Gibbs. The archives hold a collection of original printed sheet music by the composer, as well ephemera, photographs and biographies.

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network publishes regular online newsletters related to the composer and his work.

Caption, photo 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (centre) with African-American musicians, J. Rosamond Johnson (right) and Bob Cole during their visit to London in 1905. Along with James Weldon Johnson, Rosamond Johnson and Cole were a successful vaudeville team. Weldon Johnson would go on to be appointed executive secretary of the NAACP. This photo is from the J. Rosamond Johnson collection, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University.

Caption, photo 2: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with his wife, Jessie (née Walmisley), also a graduate of the Royal College of Music, and children, Gwendolyn and Hiawatha, 1905. They  are stood outside their home, 10 Upper Grove, Selhurst, where they were visited by a number of African-American friends and musicians, including the Johnson brothers and Bob Cole. This photo is from the J. Rosamond Johnson collection, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University.

Samuel Ali

Samuel Ali

Samuel recently worked as a Heritage Trainee with the Museum of Croydon, in conjunction with arts and heritage charity, Culture&. He is interested in opening archives and museum collections to engage diverse and under-represented audiences. All views are his own. Contact: sam491812 (at) protonmail (dot) com or @museumpoetry

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  • Barry Coward

    Back in 2010 I made a pitch to the BBC for a drama documentary on Coleridge-Taylor. The programme idea was taken up a commisisoning editor but the channel controller was only interested in olympic related material for use in 2012 ( the centenary of Coleridge-Taylor’s untimely death). During our reseach for the programme we alighted upon a report that at Coleridge-Tayor’s meeting in the White House, President Theodore Rosselvelt had told Coleridge-Taylor that he believed a balck man might occupy the White house but that would take 100 year for that to happen!reported

    Coleridge-Taylor was very much a dapper Edwardian gentleman. It is reported that on his first trip to the USA travelling from Boston to Washington the train conductor having received a complaint from a white passenger asked Coleridge-Taylor to remove himself from the first class coach to third class as black folk were not permitted in first class. It is reported that Coleridge-Taylor replied “Sir I am Englishman”. Which clealry took precedence ove the colour of his skn. The amazed conductor permitted Coleridge-Taylor to remain in his seat.

    Reading reports of his speeches and remarks he seems to have used his status as an English gentleman to great effect in the USA in the promotion of the rights of black folks. In my mid his conritubiton th civil rights in the USA at the start of the twentieth cnetury was in its time as significant as Martin Luther King 60 years later.