Eva A. Jessye

Eva A. Jessye was born on January 20, 1895, in Coffeyville, Kansas. She was the daughter of formerly enslaved people. Her father, Albert, was a chicken plucker. Her mother, Julia, separated from Albert during Eva’s childhood and moved to Washington state. Jessye moved back and forth between Kansas and Washington before settling for a while in Seattle after her father’s death. She began writing poems during childhood. Jessye then moved back to Coffeyville at age nine and resided with her great-grandmother. Jessye could not enroll at the local high school due to segregation. Instead, she began attending the Quindaro Freedman’s School (later, Western University) at age thirteen. She graduated in 1914, then enrolled at Langston University in Oklahoma. 

Jessye taught in segregated public elementary schools in Oklahoma. She then moved to Baltimore, where she became the director of music at Morgan College. Jessye also wrote for the weekly newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American. She moved to New York City in 1926, where she found work as a singer. The following year, she published My Spirituals (Robbins-Engel, 1927).

Jessye was the first African American woman to win international distinction as the director of a professional choral group and was one of the first women of any race to lead a chorus. She organized the Original Dixie Jubilee Choir (later, the Eva Jessye Choir), which performed throughout the United States and Europe as well as in the 1929 King Vidor film, Hallelujah. George Gershwin selected Jessye to direct the chorus for the first Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, which débuted in 1935. Jessye soon became known globally as the “curator and guardian of the score.” She next directed the chorus for the play Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).

The Eva Jessye Choir was selected by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the official choir for the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, where the group performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom Is the Thing We’re Talking About.” In 1974, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor established the Eva Jessye Afro American Music Collection. The collection includes poems written as odes to friends and colleagues, in addition to commemorations of public celebrations and performances.

Jessye received honorary degrees from Wilberforce University, Allen University, and Southern University. In 1981, she was appointed Kansas Ambassador for the Arts by Governor John Carlin. 

Eva A. Jessye died on February 21, 1992.