Anna and Catherine Johnson: Black women and music in the antebellum South

One of the most remarkable collections I have investigated is that which belonged to Anna and Catherine (sometimes Katherine or Kate) Johnson, two Black women living in Natchez, MS. The daughters of barber William Johnson and Ann Battles Johnson, they grew up in an upper-middle class home (now a National Parks site) surrounded with all the accouterments of gentility. Anna (1841-1922) went to school in New Orleans, where she may have lived with her aunt, Lavinia Miller. No evidence survives that Catherine (1842-1909) did so. After their father was murdered in 1850, their mother continued to support their musical education, evidence for which is payment to a music teacher (name illegible) in her account books.

As I have shown in several papers and articles (and more forthcoming), the Johnson sisters performed music in their parlor according to the rules laid down in period etiquette books. For example, Anna wrote in a letter that “Mr. D. Mc[illegible] came down on Mon. Eve. a week ago and I played the Piano and sang for him until after 10 o’clock P.M. He sang with me too.” (William T. Johnson Papers, LSU) Similar references to musicking with acquaintances occurs in several instances throughout Catherine’s diary, too.

I will be describing the Johnson music collection–which is quite large–in a blog on my Binder’s Volume page. (To go directly to their collection page, click here.) Here I wish to draw attention to the fact that BIPOC studied scientific music in the antebellum South. This may seem obvious, but practically no scholarly literature on the history of music in the US mentions it. My recent book, Unbinding Gentility, is the first to situate Black women within the “cultivated tradition” of the period. The Johnsons, not surprisingly when one recognizes the possibility, were not the only Black women who undertook to learn and perform the same music as white women, or to use it with a similar cultural understanding. In articles to be published in the next year, I hope to bring more to light on BIPOC (men and women) who participated in the scientific music culture of the nineteenth-century US.

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