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Trailblazer in African American Music and Education


Harriet Gibbs Marshall was born in Victoria, British Columbia on February 18, 1868. Her father was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, an attorney, and later the first African American city Judge in the United States. Her mother was Maria Ann Alexander who was a gifted school teacher. When she was just a year old the family relocated to Oberlin, Ohio where she began her study of music at the age of nine. She continued her study of music at Oberlin conservator of Music, studying piano, pipe organ and voice. She graduated in 1889 and was the first African American to complete the program, earring the equivalent of a BA in Music. A few firsts to be noted in this family.


After her graduation she trained in Europe for about a year and then returned to the States. She went on to become a pioneer in the world of African American music education. By a the turn of the century she was gaining notoriety. She was teaching music and founded the music program at Eckstein Norton University in Cane Springs in Bullitt County, Kentucky. She traveled giving concerts to many integrated audiences. She held the position of supervisor for the Washington D.C.’s African American Public Schools, and also served as the Director of Music in her district.


One of her primary goals was to provide advanced musical training for African American students. With that purpose in mind she founded the Washington Conservatory of Music in 1903. Later it was renamed the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression, expanding to include drama and theater. With this accomplishment she realized a life long goal. It was a school of renowned and staffed by African American musicians for the advancement of African American education. During her career, she was fortunate in that she was encouraged by her father, Judge Wistar Mifflin Gibbs. He contributed the building in which the school was housed, and in his letters he assured her of his support for whatever decisions she made.


Harriet married a lawyer from Massachusetts, Napoleon Bonaparte Marshall, in 1906. He was a strong proponent of her career and the conservatory she had established. However, his career drew her away from her work for a period of time. In 1922 her husband was sent to Haiti by President Warren G. Harding to be a part of the U.S. delegation. She chose to accompany him and they stayed for six years. Not one to remain idle, during this time she established another school, this time an industrial school in Port-au-Prince. It was the Jean Joseph Industrial School and their work there was with Haitian social welfare organizations and charities.


When her husband died in 1933, she once again focused her time and energy at her Conservatory in Washington D.C. In 1937 she founded the National Negro Music Center, an expansion to the conservatory, that operated to promote creative work of African Americans and preserve traditional African American music. Her Conservatory became a landmark in the history of black education. They sponsored regular concerts, trained many prominent musical professionals and attracted the most talented musical professionals and musicians to staff the Conservatory. After Marshall’s death in 1941, her cousin Josephine V. Muse directed the activities of the Washington Conservatory. Although there was never a surplus of money on hand, the school continued to operate until 1960 with assistance from white as well as black philanthropists.