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Eileen Southern Biography

Grew Up with Music at Home, Created Black Music Curriculum, Overcame Challenges at Harvard, Selected writings


Music scholar, pianist

An expert on the history of black music in America, Eileen Southern is credited with documenting and preserving musical traditions that had been all but ignored by the academic world. At a time when many people though that jazz and blues was all there was to African-American music, Southern showed that, from the early 1600s, blacks in America created a richly diverse body of music ranging from spirituals and folks songs to choral works and symphonies.

An acclaimed pianist as well as a scholar, Southern taught at several colleges and universities and in 1976 became the first black woman professor to receive tenure at Harvard University. Her landmark The Music of Black Americans: A History became the definitive text on the subject and established African-American music as a respected academic discipline. As Kay Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music, noted in a Harvard Gazette obituary, Southern was "an enormously distinguished scholar of Renaissance and African-American music and their history. She was a great lady and a great scholar who made important contributions to the field."

Grew Up with Music at Home

Eileen Stanza Jackson was born on February 19, 1920, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and music was a natural part of family life as she was growing up. Though Eileen and her two younger sisters moved often after their parents divorced, living at times with their father in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and at times with their mother in Chicago, they always had music lessons. Eileen's father bought her a grand piano when she was six years old; "you know," she told professor James Standifer in an interview posted at the University of Michigan's African American Music Collection Web site, "I thought everybody had a grand piano." Southern gave her first recital in Chicago when she was seven. Every evening at their father's house, the sisters sang accompaniment while their father played violin and Eileen played piano. "It seemed natural," Southern remarked in an interview quoted in Notable Black American Women. "I thought everybody lived that way."

It was also natural to have traveling musicians stay at her father's house, since it was often difficult for them to find hotel rooms on the road. Once, Louis Armstrong spent a night with the family. Though Southern enjoyed popular music—naming "Red Hot and Low Down" as her favorite radio program when she was a girl—her mother insisted that she study a classical curriculum.

Southern attended Chicago public schools and then studied at the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor's degree in music in 1940 and a master's degree the following year. Her master's thesis was The Use of Negro Folksong in Symphonic Form. Intent on a teaching career, she looked for positions at schools in the South since few opportunities were available for African Americans at northern universities. In 1941 she joined the faculty of Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical College in Prairie View, Texas. There she met Joseph Southern, whom she married in 1942.

Through the 1940s, Southern combined teaching with a concert career and motherhood. In addition to numerous appearances at colleges and universities, she played at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at Lincoln Center in Chicago. In 1951 she was guest soloist with the Louisville (Kentucky) Symphony Orchestra, playing Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor.

Created Black Music Curriculum

In 1951, Southern began work on her doctorate at New York University, where she studied under Renaissance music scholar Gustave Reese. She received her Ph.D. in 1961, writing her thesis on Renaissance music; it was later published as The Buxheim Organ Book. After teaching music in New York City public high schools from 1954 to 1960, she became an instructor and later an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). In 1968, she joined the faculty of CUNY's York College, where she became a full tenured professor.

That year, CUNY students began demanding that the university create a black studies program. When the music department met to discuss this issue, Southern recalled in Notable Black American Women, one faculty member exclaimed "Black music? Besides jazz, what is there?" Southern, the only African-American member of the music department, was furious and "stomped out of the meeting," as she recounted in her interview with Standifer. "I said to myself, 'I'll show them.'" Southern went on to develop a course in black music that covered the rich variety of traditions encompassing 450 years of black music in America. Indeed, the course was so broadly informative that one of Southern's teachers from NYU suggested she turn the material into a book. The Music of Black Americans: A History, which was hailed as a major achievement, "makes it clear that blacks have been fully involved in all types of music since long before Emancipation," wrote a contributor to Notable Black American Women. The book received an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1973, and remained the accomplishment of which Southern was most proud. As she commented in the Notable Black American Women interview, "I always had the feeling that I was not really making a contribution to the history of my people. Now I feel that I have done something worthwhile. It's really the one thing I have ever done that I have not felt frustrated about."

Southern also edited Readings in Black American Music (1971) and contributed to several books, including The New Grove Dictionary of Music and A Celebration of American Music. With Josephine Wright, she co-wrote Afro-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance, 1630–1920: An Annotated Bibliography and Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture (1770s–1920s). In 1973, she and her husband founded Black Perspectives in Music, the first musicological journal devoted to this subject.

At a Glance …

Born Eileen Stanza Jackson on February 19, 1920, in Minneapolis, MN; died on October 13, 2002, in Port Charlotte, FL; married Joseph Southern, August 22, 1942; children: April, Edward. Education: University of Chicago, BA, 1940, MA, 1941; New York University, PhD, 1961; piano study at Chicago Musical College, Boston University, and Julliard School.

Career: Concert pianist, 1940–2002; Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University), Prairie View, TX, instructor in music, 1941–42; Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA, assistant professor of music, 1943–45; Claflin College, Orangeburg, SC, instructor in music, 1947–49; Southern University, assistant professor of music, 1949–51; New York City public schools, secondary school music teacher, 1954–60; Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY, instructor, 1960–64, assistant professor of music, 1964–68; York College of the City University of New York, Jamaica, NY, associate professor, 1968–71, professor of music, 1972–75; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, professor of music and Afro-American studies, 1976–87, professor emerita, 1987–2002.

Awards: New York University, Founders Day Award, 1961; National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Sojourner Truth Award, 1969; University of Chicago, Alumni Achievement Award, 1970; Voice of America citation; National Association of Negro Musicians, Outstanding Contributor to Music, 1971; American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Deems Taylor Award, 1973; Columbia College (Chicago), honorary D. Arts, 1985; National Black Music Caucus, Distinguished Achievement Award, 1986; Society of American Music, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000; National Humanities Medalist, 2001.

Overcame Challenges at Harvard

In 1974 Southern joined the faculty of Harvard University, where in 1976 she became a full professor holding a dual appointment in the Afro-American studies and music departments. She served as chair of the Afro-American studies department from 1975 to 1979. Ironically, Harvard had not accepted her as a graduate student years earlier. As she explained to Standifer, she was one of two black applicants from Southern University to Harvard's Ph.D. program and "I got the impression they didn't want two blacks at the same time." Harvard chose the other applicant, who had funding from a Ford Foundation grant. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Southern added, "but I think it's very funny now that I'm teaching there when they would not even accept me as a graduate student."

At Harvard, Southern built up library holdings and expanded the scope of Afro-American studies. "I had quite a problem getting librarians to order books belonging to the field of Afro-American Studies," she told Standifer. "They just didn't think it was that important. So I persuaded the Dean to give us a special fund to buy books solely for that purpose." Southern also reactivated the underused Afro-American reading room in Harvard's Widener Library. "You have to be very, very aggressive to get along with Harvard if you're a woman," she explained to Standifer, "and to be a black woman, I mean it's just a rough life." Yet she also acknowledged the extraordinary opportunities that Harvard had to offer. In an essay quoted in the New York Times, she wrote that, like her role model W.E.B. DuBois, she went to Harvard "because it was a great opportunity for me as a black female scholar, and I accepted the reality of racial and sex discrimination," adding that "In its role as nurturer of scholars, Harvard never let me down." Southern taught a wide range of courses at Harvard, including Renaissance Notation and a seminar in Renaissance Performance in addition to several courses in African-American music.

Southern could be outspoken about the quality of some recent scholarship about African- American musicians. She complained to Standifer that many studies concentrated too much on melodramatic issues such as musicians' sex lives or use of drugs or alcohol, instead of on the music itself and "what made [the musicians] tick." Once African Americans themselves "have the opportunity to define their music," she noted, "they will concentrate on the music itself and not on all these extra things that really are not that important."

After retiring from Harvard in 1987, Southern moved to Port Charlotte, Florida. Over the course of her long career she received numerous awards, including the Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Chicago in 1970, the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers for The Music of Black Americans: A History, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Music in 2000. In 2001 President George W. Bush named her a recipient of the National Humanities medal. In 2005, Southern's portrait was one of six unveiled at Harvard's Fogg Museum as part of the Harvard Foundation Minority Portraiture Project, which recognizes faculty and administrators of color who have made distinguished contributions to the university.

Southern died on October 13, 2002, in Port Charlotte, Florida, at the age of 82. She was remembered with admiration and respect by colleagues and former students, including Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, who eulogized her in the ISAM Newsletter as a "legend" and "the grande dame of black music research, the woman who had single-handedly turned the field into a legitimate scholarly specialty."

Selected writings


The Music of Black Americans: A History, Norton, 1971, revised edition, 1983.
Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.
(With Josephine Wright) Afro-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance, 1630–1920: An Annotated Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1990.
(Editor) African American Theater, Garland, 1994.
(With Wright) Iconography of Music in African-American Culture (1770s–1920s), Garland, 2000.



Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2005.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.


Harvard Gazette, October 17, 2002; May 12, 2005.

New York Times, October 19, 2002.


"Eileen Jackson Southern: A Tribute and a Mandate," ISAM Newsletter (Fall 2002), www/depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu (February 27, 2006).

"Eileen Southern," African American Music Collection, University of Michigan, www.umich.edu/∼afroammu/standifer/southern.html (February 27, 2006).

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