Close this Alert

Close this Alert
Page Header

History of the Tuskegee University Choir

The famous Tuskegee Choir is an organization steeped in more than a century of pride and the richest of choral traditions. Since its inception, the Tuskegee Choir has served as an artistic model while carving its place in American history.

1881 - 1930: The Legacy Begins

choir in robesSinging and the Institute founded at Tuskegee, Alabama have grown to become tantamount. From the beginning years of its history, students at Tuskegee Institute were encouraged to express themselves in communal singing. Founder Booker T. Washington, insisted on the singing of African American spirituals by everyone in attendance at the weekly Chapel worship services, a tradition which continues today. Further, he stated, "...If you go out to have schools of your own, have your pupils sing them as you have sung them here, and teach them to see the beauty which dwells is these songs..." Thus, the school developed and passed on a singing tradition.

In 1884, Booker T. Washington organized the Institute's first singers. The Tuskegee Quartet consisted of students Hiram H. Thweatt of Tuskegee, Alabama and John F. McLeMore of Cussetta (Chambers County), Alabama, Warren Logan, a Hampton Institute graduate from Greensboro, N.C. and leader Robert H. Hamilton, also a Hampton graduate from Hampton, Virginia. This group was sent out by the founder to "promote the interest of Tuskegee Institute" by acquainting benevolent audiences to the Tuskegee name and the Washington philosophy for several brief years. The quartet was reorganized in 1909 and intermittently traveled until well into the 1940's, sometime adjusting its members to five, six or even up to eight.

The school choir was developed in 1886 because Dr. Washington had determined that the Institute was in need of a group of singers who could lead vesper services and sing for special campus occasions. Huston Johns was chosen as the first director. The school choir would expand its role to providing vocal music for all cultural and religious campus activities.

Directors of the choir who led vesper services and other campus events include: Robert H. Hamilton (1887-95), Charles G. Harris (1895-97; 1899-1901), Elizabeth W. Morse (1897-99), Cornelius W. Pierce (1901-02), an interim term of Pedro T. Tinsley (1902-03), Edward N. Broadnax (1902-03), Jennie C. Lee (1903-28) and Portia Washington Pittman (1928-31). Portia Washington Pittman was the only daughter of Booker T. Washington.

1931 - 1970: The Dawson Era

A new era began for the Tuskegee Choir in 1931 under our most renowned director, composer and educator William L. Dawson, the "Dean of African-American Choral

Composers". The 100-voice choir appeared at the opening of Radio City Music Hall in New York City (1932). This event expanded Tuskegee's prestige worldwide.

The Tuskegee Choir was invited to sing at the birthday party of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York. A few days later, the Choir presented a concert at the White House at the request of President Herbert Hoover. In the years to follow, the Tuskegee Choir would perform a series of concerts on the ABC, CBS, and NBC radio networks. It would become the first African-American performing organization to appear at Constitution Hall (1946), Washington, D.C.

The Choir's television debut came in 1950. On February 5th, Edgar Bergen (the father of actress Candace Bergen) introduced the Tuskegee Choir to a national audience on his television program, "The Edgar Bergen Show". The Choir's popularity continued to extend across the television airwaves as invitations poured in for appearances on "The Kate Smith Show" (1952), "The Ed Sullivan Show" (1952), "The Eddie Fisher Show" (1953 and 1954), "Frontiers of Faith" television program (1954) and "The Arthur Godfrey Show" (1954). A record album, "The Tuskegee Institute Choir Sings Spirituals" (1955), closed the teaching career of Professor Dawson, who retired in 1955.

Mrs. Alberta Simms, a dedicated musician, who had served Tuskegee Institute in several music capacities since 1913, completed an interim period. Reliford Patterson assumed the position of director in 1956. A native of Lenoir, North Carolina, Professor Patterson came to Tuskegee after tenures at Shaw (Raleigh, North Carolina) and Wilberforce (Wilberforce, Ohio) Universities. Under Professor Patterson, the Choir celebrated the 25th Anniversary gala of Radio City Music Hall (1958) and performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (1959).

From 1960-62, Professor Patterson secured leave to complete doctoral studies. His interim replacement was the outstanding young Howard University graduate, conductor and educator Odell Hobbs, who would go on to found and head an exceptional music program at Virginia Union University for twenty-five (25) years.

During the term of President John F. Kennedy, the Tuskegee Choir received special commendation from President Kennedy at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in Washington, D.C. (1962) and a concert at the United States State Department (1962). Dr. Reliford Patterson would amplify and complete his directorship at Tuskegee with appearances at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (1966) and Town Hall (1967), both in New York City.

Dr. C. Edouard Ward followed Dr. Patterson as head of the Institute's Department of Music and Director of the Tuskegee Institute Choir in 1968. Though Dr. Ward took over as musical leader at a time of crisis on campuses of higher learning in America, he continued the Tuskegee tradition of excellence in teaching and directing music. He competently presented the Choir in concert tours throughout the mid-west, east, and southeast. A true professional and master organist, Dr. Ward's music ministry at Tuskegee was comparatively short.

1971 - Present: The Legacy Continues

In the fall of 1971, the leadership of the Tuskegee Institute Choir was placed in the hands of one Roy Edward Hicks. Professor Hicks had formerly spent his entire teaching career in the state of Texas, primarily the Dallas Public School System. A man with an exceptionally pleasant demeanor, charm and musical gift, Professor Hicks is known to have led groups that numbered up to four hundred singers. He is credited with taking the Tuskegee Choir to new heights of excellence in choral performance.

Under Professor Hicks, The Choir made concert appearances at the Julliard School of Music (1972), the New England Conservatory of Music (1972) and recorded the Tuskegee Institute Choir - Live" album (1979). However, the highlight of Professor Hicks' tenure was a series of five concert tours to the Northern Tier of United States Air Force Bases for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1980.

While still serving as director, Professor Hicks died in August of 1990. His death occurred only three months after the Tuskegee family had mourned the death of our beloved composer William L. Dawson. An interim period was proficiently served by one of Professor Dawson's former students, author and arranger Clyde Owen Jackson, '49.

In 1993, Stephen L. Hayes, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, was named Tuskegee University Choir Director. He served until 1999. Professor Hayes led the Choir to Washington, D.C., for an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast (1994). The occasion is celebrated annually by the President, Vice President, Supreme Court and Congress of the United States. Mother Teresa was the speaker for the event. Later that day, the Choir commemorated its 1962 visit to the United States Department of State with a concert.

In a tour of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1995), the University Choir presented concerts at the Old South Church and the State house (Boston), the Berkshires, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Mt. Holyoke College. A return tour to the Commonwealth in 1997 observed the centennial of the Robert Gould Shaw monument. Dr. Booker T. Washington had delivered the dedicatory address (1897) for the famous monument featured in the movie "Glory".

In 1997, the Choir became the first place trophy winner at the prestigious American Negro Spiritual Festival, Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH. Additionally, the Tuskegee University Choir was honored to sing in the East Room of the White House in December 1997.

In 1999, Clyde Owen Jackson returned to serve as Interim Director of the Choir. He served through the spring of 2001. During that time, the Choir continued on campus and out of town presentations, including a performance of Adolphus Hailstork's cantata "I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes" with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.  Clyde Owen Jackson (Class of 1949), died July 11, 2016 in Houston, TX. He twice served as interim director of the Tuskegee University Golden Voices Concert Choir - 1990-1993 and 1999-2001. He was also was the founding director of the William Levi Dawson Alumni Choir at Tuskegee University in 1990. Tuskegee University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2010. His Memorial Service was held during Homecoming weekend, Friday, October 21, 2016, 5:30 pm, in the Tuskegee University Chapel. 

In 2001, Dr. Wayne Anthony Barr became Director of the Choir. He holds the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan, two Masters degrees from Southern Methodist University, and the Bachelor's degree in music from Westminster Choir College.