Trailblazers features biographies of innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania history. A special series to highlight PHMC's 2010 theme, Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common.

Early Life in Erie

One year after the end of the American Civil War, Henry “Harry” T. Burleigh was born in Erie, on December 2, 1866, into an African American family which still sang the songs of slavery. Burleigh was the son of Henry Burley and Elizabeth Waters. After her husband died, Elizabeth changed the family name to Burleigh. The younger Burleigh recalled that the slave songs were considered “Negro songs. No one called them spirituals then.” He learned the spirituals from his grandfather and mother. It was the most important music lesson he would ever receive, and it set him on the path to greatness. At the age of twelve, Burleigh found a job as lamplighter in Erie. He lit the kerosene street lamps at dusk and extinguished them at dawn. “I found a lot of solace singing as I started to extinguish the lamps at four o’clock in the morning,” he remembered. His aunt Louisa realized her nephew posessed a fine voice and gave him music lessons. As a teenager, Burleigh sang with a family quartet. He later joined the choirs of the Himrod Mission of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul, the Park Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Jewish Temple in Erie. When Park Presbyterian learned, in 1891, that Burleigh might join the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a collegiate choir that sang spirituals to raise money for Fisk University, it increased his salary. Burleigh continued to work as a stenographer for the Brown Folding Machine Company and the Colby Piano Company to help support his family. In 1894, he enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.


Civil Rights Activist

Much has been written about Burleigh’s relationship with Czech composer Anton Dvorak at the National Conservatory of Music, especially how he influenced Dvorak to incorporate African American themes into his music. Virtually nothing, however, has been written about Burleigh as a civil rights activist during his student days at the conservatory. In June 1895, the governor of New York signed a civil rights bill entitled “An act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights.” Burleigh and two other African American men, Charles W. Anderson and Richard E. Stovall, set out to test the law in what are now called sit-ins. They began at O’Neil’s Restaurant at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-third Street in Manhattan and visited twenty dining saloons in all. “Only at the Continental Hotel was there any unpleasantness and there a party of six withdrew in high dudgeon,” reported the New York Tribune.


A Black Joins the Choir

In 1894, while still a student at the National Conservatory of Music, Burleigh learned the position of baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church was available. St. George’s was one of New York City’s wealthiest and most prestigious congregations. He applied for the post along with sixty other individuals, but was the only African American candidate. To prevent their appearance from being a factor in the final selection, the singers stood behind a screen during auditions. When the rector of the church told the choir that the new baritone soloist was Burleigh, many were outraged. However, he was gradually accepted by the hesitant congregation, enjoying a career at St. George’s spanning fifty-two years. During that time, he was a proficient composer of songs such as “Jean” and “Little Mother of Mine,” two 1903 ballads which were sung by many white singers of the day and later by African American artists Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Unfortunately, some white singers stopped singing Burleigh’s songs when they learned he was African American. Irish tenor John McCormack (1884–1945) frequently performed Burleigh’s songs in concert and regarded him as his social equal. Once, when Burleigh visited McCormack at a hotel, he was directed to use the freight elevator. When McCormack learned of the insult, he rebuked the hotel manager and threatened to not patronize the hotel again. Reflecting later on the incident, Burleigh remarked, “I have never resented anything that I might have suffered because of my race.”


Musicians Have Rights Too

According to music historian Eileen Southern, before Burleigh’s publication of Jubilee Songs of the United States of America in 1916, “spirituals were performed on the concert stage only in ensemble or choral arrangements. Burleigh’s achievement made available to concert singers for the first time Negro spirituals set in the manner of art songs.” In addition to his arrangement of spirituals, Burleigh wrote more than three hundred compositions.

Before 1914, music copyright did not exist. Burleigh helped changed that. In 1914, he became a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), to protect the rights of the copywriter owners whenever their music was performed for profit. Initially, Burleigh and James Weldon Johnson were the only African American members of ASCAP, but gradually more Black musicians joined and fought for their rights as composers and musicians. Burleigh stood up for musicians’ and African Americans’ rights. He died at the age of seventy-two in Stamford, Connecticut, on September 12, 1949.


Eric Ledell Smith (1949–2008) was a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission from 1993 until his death. In addition to articles he wrote for scholarly journals and popular magazines, including Pennsylvania Heritage, he authored several books, among them African American Theater Buildings: An Illustrated Historical Directory, 1900–1955 (2003), Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873–1993 (1995), and Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian (1992). He coauthored, with John Weldon Scott, African Americans of Harrisburg, (2005) and, with Joe W. Trotter Jr., African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives (1997). His The State Museum of Pennsylvania: A Centennial History, 1905–2005 is available online at