BUILDING THE STAGE
Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962) was a singer, pianist, educator, concert manager, activist and opera company founder/director. As a Black woman born in 1894 at the beginning of extreme legislated segregation, she became a prominent figure in the history of African American opera. Born in North Carolina and growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, she devoted herself to providing opportunities to performers of color, insisting they be considered equal to, and often more accomplished, than their counterparts on white operatic stages. Through the Cardwell Dawson School of Music (1925-1941), the Cardwell Dawson Singers (c.1935-1941), and the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC; 1941-1962), she worked tirelessly to produce works from the standard European repertoire, and to feature works by African American composers. She was a champion for the inclusion of opera as a supported art form in the community, and in professional organizations such as the National Association of Negro Musicians. Her ambition, drive, and passion led her to lobby unions such as the American Guild of Musical Artists, political figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and academic institutions such as Howard University. She organized recitals, concerts, mass meetings, and festivals to provide work for NNOC members and to keep their cause moving forward. Finally, her company achieved the distinction of being one of the first outside companies, and certainly the first African American group, to present an opera by an African American composer on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
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"The richest child is poor without a musical education."
-QUOTED IN THE PROGRAM OF THE MERRY MILKMAIDS, 1932
Mary Cardwell and Walter Dawson on their wedding day and in front of their house on Apple Avenue, Pittsburgh.
Walter was Mary’s most enthusiastic supporter and worked closely with her in all artistic enterprises for the rest of her life. He was also an activist in his own right. He founded a union for Black electricians in Pittsburgh after having been denied membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This cost him his job with the city of Pittsburgh, and he moved to Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the war to work for the General Services Administration. He was given a broom closet for locker facilities and was assigned to cleaning out industrial fan vents. After President Eisenhower issued the executive order to desegregate federal facilities in 1954, Walter fought for his rights to equal locker facilities, job assignments and pay increases. He was represented by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and won his case in the mid-1950s. In 1972 he was honored by the NAACP for his efforts in fighting segregation in federal facilities.
Mary Cardwell was devoted to her family. Born in North Carolina, her father and uncle moved the family to Pittsburgh in the late 1890s to take advantage of work opportunities in the brick yards and steel mills. They settled in Homestead, purchasing a home in 1907 that remained in the family until approximately 2010. The oldest of four siblings, Mary often assumed responsibility for looking after her parents, brother and sisters when needed. In the early 1920s, Mary enrolled in the New England Conservatory, earning a teaching certificate in 1925. She met Walter (Bob) Dawson, an electrician from Fort Valley, Georgia, who was completing training for his master electrician’s credential. Upon graduation Mary returned to Pittsburgh and opened the Cardwell School of Music, while Bob went west to Montana to complete his journeyman requirements. He returned to Pittsburgh, and the couple were married in 1927. Bob was her most enthusiastic supporter and worked closely with her in all artistic enterprises for the rest of her life. He was honored by the NAACP for his efforts in fighting segregation in federal facilities in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mary, Walter, and Mary’s father, c. 1935-40
The Cardwell Dawson Choir
The Cardwell Dawson Choir was active between c. 1935 and 1941 and became the foundation for the National Negro Opera Company. They competed and won regional competitions and performed at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Their repertoire included works by European composers, African American composers, and spiritual arrangers. Recitals included works by R. Nathaniel Dett, Harry Burleigh, and Hall Johnson.
The choir was a select group, chosen by audition. Members included local performers, music teachers, and church musicians from the Pittsburgh area. They also became the core of the chorus not only for the initial performance of Aïda at the National Association of Negro Musician’s annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 1941, but were the central group around which Dawson built the National Negro Opera Company.
One of the major compositions in the choir’s repertoire was R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses. This piece, composed by Dett in 1932, received its official premiere in 1937, but the performance was stopped because of “scheduling conflicts.” The Cardwell Dawson Choir performed the oratorio in Pittsburgh in the late 1930s, and it became a staple of the National Negro Opera Company during the 1940s and 1950s, including a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1951 (the first full performance at a major concert venue in New York City).
The Cardwell Dawson Choir at the New York World’s Fair, 1939
Photos of the Cardwell Dawson Choir, 1937-1940
The National Negro
The Cardwell Dawson School of Music began in a storefront on Franks Avenue in Homestead and moved in the early 1930s to a house on Apple Avenue in the Homewoord District of Pittsburgh. Owned by Woogie Harris, the house also housed a jazz club and eventually provided lodging for Black entertainers and sports figures such as Lena Horne and Roberto Clemente. The school was a focal point for the community and Dawson hosted club meetings, poetry readings, and recitals as well as providing musical instruction. She also produced operettas through the school, often starring in them, and involving her students and members of church choirs across the city. The most famous of her pupils from this period was jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, who studied piano with Mme. Dawson beginning in 1937, and credits her with having significantly influenced his musical development.
Mme. Dawson planned the 1941 performance of Aïda at Syria Mosque from this house, and used the large upstairs ballroom for rehearsals for her choir and for the opera. In planning for this performance, she brought together singers from across the country who were travelling to Pittsburgh for the national meeting of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Performers represented the Detroit Negro Opera Company, the Imperial Opera Company of Chicago, the Helen Carter Moses Singers of Columbus, Ohio, The Forbes Music Study Club of Cleveland, and the NYA Chorus from Chicago. She also brought together individual performers from as far away as Texas, Florida, and Georgia to participate in the closing performance on August 29.
National Negro Opera Guild meetings
National Negro Opera luncheon
Mary Cardwell Dawson in recital
“Opera is no longer a luxury, opera is a vital necessity. It belongs to the people. We all must move and keep moving.”
—MARY CARDWELL DAWSON
The Goals of The National
Negro Opera Company
• To offer opportunity to the Negro Musician
in the field of Grand Opera
• To develop highest professional standards
in all fields of higher art
• To establish the proper appreciation and cultural background that Opera offers
• To inspire composers of both races, particularly the Negro composer, to create more interest in composition in the Operatic field using the background of Negro Folk Tunes
As part of her fundraising efforts, Dawson herself returned to the recital stage. She performed in churches in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. She also conducted numerous group concerts featuring singers from the NNOC, and organized galas, dinners, and luncheons.
Mary Cardwell Dawson was a tireless advocate for the opera and for singers of color. She attended official receptions and spoke of the need not only for performance opportunities, but also for permanent venues appropriate to the needs of operatic productions. Here she speaks with Eleanor Roosevelt during a visit in 1955. Mrs. Roosevelt, in turn, wrote about Dawson and the National Negro Opera Company in her “My Day” column, first on February 23, 1944, when she talked about the upcoming performance of La Traviata in the Madison Square Garden, and then on May 23, 1955, when she spoke of Dawson’s visit and an upcoming fundraiser. She also personally donated to the company.
In 1944 the American Guild of Musical Artists placed Mme. Dawson and the company on the Unfair List for having failed to pay performers the fees outlined in their basic agreement. As a result, they were unable to produce operas until all obligations were met. In the ensuing years she produced numerous fundraisers to erase these debts. Appealing to the widest possible audience, she broadened the events to include beauty pageants and fashion shows, with proceeds going both to the company and to scholarships for emerging singers. They were held in hotel ballrooms, the public rooms of YMCA branches, and as part of the yearly festivals.
In 1947 Dawson initiated a series of music festivals. The festivals were multi-day events, combining business meetings of the NNOC, public lectures about classical music and opera, and “conferences” on specific topics. They always culminated with a grand concert. Organized as a “variety” show, she was able to circumvent union restrictions, and involve singers from the company in choral and solo performances. The evening would include headliners guaranteed to garner wide audience appeal; these included Lucky Millender and his orchestra, Noble Sissle, and Blanche Calloway’s all-female jazz orchestra. The venue was Griffiths Stadium. Clark Griffiths, owner of the Washington Senators, donated the use of the stadium, and allowed segregated audience seating. You can see the audience in the background image to the left of Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the performance stage placed strategically over the pitcher’s mound in the blue image above left.
The National Negro Opera Company became a regional company in 1943-45. Their core repertoire included Verdi’s Aïda and La Traviata, along with Gounod’s Faust. Mme. Lillian Evanti, the Washington soprano known for her performances locally and on European opera stages, joined the company in the role of Violetta, and the NNOC produced La Traviata in Chicago, Pittsburgh (Syria Mosque), New York (Madison Square Garden), and Washington, D.C. (the Watergate Floating Stage). Thousands attended these performances, and in Washington they lined the grounds above the seated areas, as well as the bridge across the Potomac. When financial shortfalls resulted in the American Guild of Musical Artists placing the Company (and Mme. Dawson) on the Unfair List, she produced recitals and festivals to raise funds to erase the remaining obligations. She kept the singers on stage, and Dawson began to include works of R. Nathaniel Dett and Clarence Cameron White in their repertoire. The festivals took place at Griffith Stadium to sold out crowds, and featured performers such as Noble Sissle, Lucky Millinder, and Blanche Calloway.
Singers arrive in Chicago for La Traviata rehearsals