Photograph of La Julia Rhea and Mary Cardwell Dawson. National Negro Opera Company Collection, Library of Congress.

The DGF team started doing research and realized that there were many fascinating “hidden figures” in the American classical music world. It became one of the goals of the organization to make sure that people knew Mary Cardwell Dawson’s incredible story of persistence and triumph. The impact of her story was so powerful that we were inspired to create far-reaching programs capable of embracing the historic and educational goals of our vision and mission.


DGF is rooted in the belief that now is the time to increase our nation’s commitment to its artists, both past and present—for America’s future and for the whole world. In paying homage to the achievements of so many who have gone before while serving the real needs of today’s emerging artist singers, The Denyce Graves Foundation is giving back and paying it forward at the same time.

The inspiration for the foundation’s focus came from learning about an extraordinary singer and entrepreneur named Mary Cardwell Dawson. Until recently, she was unknown to most (including those in the classical music world), and her successful, all-Black opera company—that she founded in 1941—was also a complete revelation. Mme. Dawson studied at the New England Conservatory of Music (as did DGF’s founder) and was an accomplished singer, pianist, teacher, and eventually, impresaria. She had dreams of singing opera in the major houses of the United States. However, her country wasn’t ready for people of color to perform on these stages. Her response was to form the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC). It was bold and successful, performing to mixed audiences and lasting over 20 years. One of Mme. Dawson’s many achievements was having her beloved NNOC perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York at a time when artists of color were still not welcome in that venue. However, the talent in the NNOC couldn't be denied and their productions received rave reviews from white reviewers in major newspapers. Mme. Dawson's company ended up having guilds in many major American cities, performing to great acclaim wherever it appeared.

Mary Cardwell Dawson CHOIR


Mary cardwell Dawson