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Digital Collections in the Friedheim Library

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About this collection

This collection contains concert programs of the Baltimore City Colored Orchestra, 1936-1939.

Barred from most symphony orchestras during segregation in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States, classically trained African-American musicians had few opportunities. The City Colored Orchestra, led by Charles L. Harris, made its debut in a performance on May 21, 1931, at Douglass High School with soprano Ruth Lee McAbee as soloist. Many of the musicians in the City Colored Orchestra were highly skilled, classically trained musicians. Though barred from studying at the Peabody Conservatory because of their color, some of the orchestra's musicians studied privately with members of the Conservatory faculty. A. Jack Thomas' school of music in the 1200 block of Druid Hill Avenue produced many of the musicians in the orchestra. Women were welcome to perform in the orchestra long before the all-white Baltimore Symphony allowed females to join its ranks. Many of the musicians who made up the core of the orchestra had worked with Captain Harris since his days with the Commonwealth Band.

The orchestra's principal cellist was W. Llewellyn Wilson, music critic for the Afro-American. A respected teacher of music at Douglass High School, Wilson succeeded Harris as conductor of the orchestra. At one time Wilson could rightfully claim that all of the black music teachers in the Baltimore school system had been his students.

Jazz pianist Ellis Larkins made his orchestral debut with the City Colored Orchestra in 1934 at the age of ten. A year later he performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at Douglass High School. 

Additional information about the orchestra and the history of musical life in Baltimore's African-American community is available at the online exhibit The Storm Is Passing Over.

 

 
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