Detail of the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers from The Music of Black Americans, 1st edition

What is Eileen Southern and the Music of Black Americans?

Eileen Southern and the Music of Black Americans is a digital exhibit centered on Eileen Jackson Southern (1920-2002), an extraordinary scholar whose landmark book The Music of Black Americans (W. W. Norton, 1st edition 1971) inspired the academic subfield of Black music studies. In 1976 Southern became the first African American woman tenured in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In both research and teaching, she confronted racial and gender biases, yet she persistently pursued the work she believed in.

This exhibit highlights archival materials from the collection that Southern left to the Harvard University Archives, and it introduces visitors to Southern’s life and legacy. It’s also just one part of the Eileen Southern Initiative, which you can read more about below.

Why now?

The Music of Black Americans celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, and this milestone served as a driving force for the Eileen Southern Initiative. 

Half a century on, Southern’s scholarship is as relevant today as it was in 1971. The protests for racial justice in 2020 served as yet another reminder that there is much work to be done to realize justice and equity in the United States. And despite her trailblazing leadership and groundbreaking research, Southern has been little recognized at Harvard, by the musicological community, and beyond.

Southern opened the preface to the first edition of The Music of Black Americans by stating that “a history of the musical activities of black Americans in the United States is long overdue.” We believe that a history of the musical activities of Eileen Southern is long overdue, and we hope that this project will inspire conversations, research projects, musical collaborations, and other ventures aimed at honoring Southern’s achievements and continuing her work, which demonstrates that Black music has been, and continues to be, a vital force in American life.

Why is this exhibit so Harvard-centric?

In a word, COVID-19! Harvard graduate student researchers had planned to explore Southern’s archival collections at Fisk University and the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago during spring 2020. When pandemic lockdowns scuttled this plan, we regrouped to build a digital exhibit with the materials we had on hand. Primarily using documents from Southern’s Harvard archive, together with additional digitized sources, has limited our scope. But we have nevertheless sought to provide as full a picture of her career as possible.

What is the Eileen Southern Initiative?

The Eileen Southern Initiative is a multi-year, multi-part, collaborative project at Harvard University honoring Eileen Southern. The Initiative began in 2019 as a classroom-library collaboration led by Carol J. Oja (Department of Music) and Christina Linklater (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library). Graduate students in a seminar taught by Oja worked toward curating an exhibit of Southern’s collection to be held at the Loeb Music Library. They also conducted oral history interviews with individuals who had a connection to Southern and her world. Not long after the course ended, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to pivot. The Initiative has morphed into the following parts in addition to this digital exhibit:

Webinar I

On November 15, 2021, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted Black Women and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story.” Our speakers were Betty Hillmon, Founder/Director of the Boston City-Wide String Orchestra; Tammy Kernodle, Professor of Musicology at Miami University of Ohio; and Naomi André, Professor of Arts and Ideas in the Humanities Program, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and Women's Studies, University of Michigan. The event, emceed by Carol J. Oja and Braxton D. Shelley, also featured the premiere of Light the Way Home: Eileen Southern's Story, a short documentary about Southern by Harvard College students Daniel Huang (‘22) and Uzo Ngwu (‘23) with music by Devon Gates (‘23).

Webinar II 

On April 7, 2022, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study will offer a second webinar, Black Music and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story,” from 4:00—5:00 p.m. ET. The speakers are Marva Griffin Carter, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Music, Georgia State University; Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania; Braxton D. Shelley, Associate Professor of Music, of Sacred Music, and of Divinity, Yale Divinity School; and Katie Callam and Christina Linklater from the Eileen Southern Initiative. 


To honor Southern’s strong support for African American composers, Harvard’s Department of Music has commissioned two new musical works by Black composers, dedicated to Southern, that will be premiered at our culminating event. These works by Marques L. A. Garrett (Assistant Professor of Music, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Rosephanye Powell (Professor of Voice, Auburn University) will premiere on April 8, 2022 at Harvard's Sanders Theatre. The concert will also be live-streamed. The Harvard University Choirs, conducted by Andrew Clark, will collaborate with the Aeolians, an award-winning choir from Oakwood University, a historically Black institution in Huntsville, Alabama. The Aeolians are conducted by Jason Max Ferdinand.

In-person Exhibit

Many archival materials from this digital exhibit are on display for members of the public to explore in person from mid-February through April 2022 at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard.

Digital Appendix

Staff from Harvard’s Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library have been awarded a Harvard Library Advancing Open Knowledge grant to create a digital appendix of the music cited in The Music of Black Americans

What inspired the project? 

In addition to the 50th anniversary of The Music of Black Americans, two generative moments in particular sparked conversations that led to the project: Ganavya Doraiswamy, a doctoral student in music at Harvard, wrote a paper in a seminar taught by Carol Oja, which jump-started conversations about Southern’s archive. Around the same time, Christina Linklater heard Dwandalyn Reece, Curator of Music and the Performing Arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, give a talk at the 2018 meeting of the American Musicological Society. In it, Reece noted that a quote from Southern is included in the museum’s music exhibit. 

Who helped make the Initiative possible?

Our project received multiple grants and fellowships from across Harvard University and we are grateful for this generous support. 

From Harvard Library, we received an S. T. Lee Innovation Grant, which supported production of the oral history interviews, and a Pforzheimer Fellowship, which enabled the creation of captions to ensure their accessibility.

From the Division of the Arts and Humanities of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, we were awarded a Barajas Dean’s Innovation Grant for the design and structure of the digital exhibit; a SHARP (Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program) Fellowship, which funded part of the captioning process for the interviews; and a Provostial Grant for the Arts and Humanities, which helped support construction of the digital exhibit.

From the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, we received support for our webinars and the Aeolians’ residency, and we funded our undergraduate filmmakers through a Radcliffe Research Partnership.

From Harvard’s Department of Music, funding was provided to commission two new compositions in Southern’s memory and to support the final months of the overall Southern Initiative.


    Editorial note: Soon after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, American news organizations collectively began capitalizing “Black” as a term referring to people of the African diaspora. We adopt that policy here. At the same time, we have not changed the capitalization in Southern’s prose—or that of her colleagues—who were writing about race in a different era.