Exhibit to honor pioneering Black musician, actress with PSU ties

Special to the Morning Sun / news@morningsun.net
Eva Jessye

PITTSBURG, Kan. — An exhibit opening Monday in the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts helps tell the story of pioneering Black musician, conductor, actress, and author Eva Jessye, who spent time at Pittsburg State University as an artist in residence and whose personal collection of documents is archived there.

Jessye also fought injustices in the world of performing arts that led to change, and was part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.

The exhibit includes photographs taken from PSU Special Collections, as well as three works of art that capture her likeness. An accompanying brochure, designed by graphic design major Katelyn Phelps, is available to visitors.

“I feel it is important to acknowledge her accomplishments and positive contributions she made. I also feel she is the perfect example of no matter where you are born or what city you come from, you can choose to make positive change, both nationally and internationally, if you put your mind to it,” said Shawna Witherspoon, a Bicknell Center staff member who curated the exhibit.

About Jessye

Born Jan. 20, 1895, in Coffeyville, Kansas, Jessye was inspired by an aunt who sang spirituals to her. By age 12, she had organized her first choral group, a girls’ quartet. At age 13, she attended Western University in Kansas City, to study music, followed by Langston University in Oklahoma, where she earned her certificate in teaching.

She would go on to become the head of the music department at Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1919 — a year before women earned the right to vote and some 30 years before the Civil Rights Movement began.

By 1927, she was living in New York and had published “My Spirituals” and had organized the Eva Jessye Choir, which went on to earn both national and international recognition.

But it was in 1935, when she and her choir were cast in the first production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” that she was put on the path to becoming a household name. She toured nationally and internationally with the show and for the next 30 years would be involved in almost every production of it, earning her the unofficial title as the “curator and guardian of the score.”

A scene from "Porgy and Bess."

Jessye fought discriminatory practices on the sets of several shows with which she was affiliated, and she protested against segregation at the National Theatre, helping to achieve the first integrated audience at the venue.

King chose her choir for the March on Washington in 1963; they performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom is the Thing We’re Talking About.” Recordings of those songs later would be used in the fight for Kenya’s independence in Africa.

In the 1960s, Jessye acted in the movies “Black Like Me” and “Slaves.” In the 1970s, she returned to academics and teaching, and was awarded several honorary degrees from multiple universities.

Iin 1977, she established the Eva Jessye Collection at PSU and served as an artist-in-residence from 1978 to 1981. She was active in the Department of Music and conducted and directed many concerts and programs.

To see it 

The exhibit will run through May 14 and may be seen during the Bicknell Center’s business hours, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It’s funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. 

The Bicknell Center is located at 1711 S. Homer. Admission is free.

“I hope many will leave the exhibit knowing more about an amazing and influential previous member of our campus and community,” Witherspoon said. “I hope that young adults can see that even though they were born in Southeast Kansas and not New York, that will not stop them growing up and making a name for themself or making a positive impact.”