Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

More than three decades after her death, Pittsburgh’s pioneer black opera company founder Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962) has finally been honored for her many contributions to the Commonwealth’s musical heritage. On Sunday, September 25, 1994, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission unveiled and dedicated a state historical marker at the site of the Cardwell School of Music, 7101 Apple Street, in Pittsburgh. It was at the music school she had founded that the black music teacher organized, in 1941, the first national African American opera company. Indignant because her students were denied professional opportunities in opera because of rampant racism in the field of music, Mary Cardwell Dawson founded a company that endured for nearly two decades.

Born February 14, 1894, in Madison, North Carolina, Mary Lucinda Cardwell was the daughter of James and Elizabeth Cardwell. She was the eldest of six children, several of whom shared her interest in music. At about the turn of the century, the Cardwell family moved to Homestead, the great steel-mak­ing center in Allegheny County. Many of Homestead’s blacks came from the neighboring states of West Virginia and Maryland, as well as from states farther south. Like many immigrants, they were drawn to the Monogahela Valley because of the promise of jobs with the Carnegie Steel Company’s monolithic Homestead Works. According to sociol­ogist and author Joe Darden, Pittsburgh was a northern city with a “high level of Afro-American residential segregation.” African Americans lived in only several residential areas: Homewood-Brushton, East Liberty, a commercial district near the noisy steel mills called “the Ward,” and a residential hill above the Ward known simply as “the Hill.” Adjacent to – but geographically distinct from Pittsburgh – was Homestead. This Monogahela River town included a close-knit community of blacks who established their own clusters of homes, schools, and churches.

It was in a local church that Mary Dawson developed her love of singing. Her family encouraged her musical aspirations by giving her piano lessons at an early age. After graduation from high school, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the most prestigious music schools in the nation. When she graduated in 1925, Mary Dawson pursued further studies at the Chicago Musical College and at a studio school operated by the Metropolitan Opera Company. Studying with teachers of opera and choral music, her goal was to become a professional singer and pianist. Longtime colleague and former pupil Peggy Pierce Freeman remembers Mary Dawson’s early ambitions. “People don’t know that Mary gave up a promising solo career, after all that education, in order to establish her opera company.”

Her marriage to Walter M. Dawson on June 24, 1927, changed her plans. A native of Fort Valley, Georgia, Dawson met Mary Cardwell in Boston, where he was studying electri­cal engineering at the Wentworth Institute. Mary realized that blacks such as Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson who made a living from singing classical music were the exception and not the rule, and resolved to start her own music school in Pittsburgh. After their marriage, the Dawsons settled in Homestead, where they rented part of a building on Frankstown Avenue for their disparate businesses. Walter’s electrical repair service shop occupied the building’s street level, and Mary took the second story flat for what eventually became famous as the Cardwell School of Music.

The Cardwell School of Music was located on a busy thor­oughfare in the midst of an ethnically-mixed suburban neigh­borhood of Pittsburgh. Although Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert Vann and several other middle-class blacks lived in the city’s Homewood-Brushton section, it was not considered a “black” community in the 1920s. The Cardwell School offered both private and class lessons in various fields, including voice, piano, organ, dance, public speaking, and even foreign lan­guages. The school’s annual recitals were major cultural events in the Pittsburgh community. Out of the Cardwell School emerged the Cardwell Dawson Choir, which acquired a reputa­tion as one of the best in Pennsylvania. Mary’s brother Harold Cardwell and her sister Catherine Cardwell sang with the group.

In 1931, Mary Dawson organized the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), a pro­fessional organization of African American musicians. She was elected its first president and the chapter’s first meetings were held at her music school. Mary Dawson told the Pittsburgh Courier that “the object of the association is to create a keener interest in and appreciation of Negro music, its composers and artists and to develop higher professional standards among Negro musicians through lectures, recitals and study.” Recognizing that her students needed role models, she brought black opera stars to Pittsburgh, including lyric col­oratura soprano Lillian Evanti. Evanti was the first black artist to sing with a European opera company, making her debut in 1925 the opera Lakme with the Nice Opera in France. She was the featured performer at the 1934 Pittsburgh NANM chapter meeting.

In 1937, the Cardwell School of Music gave a banquet and recital in honor of Porgy and Bess stars Anne Brown and Ruby Elzy. Elzy created the role of Serena and Brown the role of Bess in the original production two years earlier. In 1943, when Porgy and Bess cast members played the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh they took the opportunity to return Mary Dawson’s favor. Popular performers Todd Duncan, Etta Moten, Avon Long, and Elzy took part in a production at the Leo Weil School to benefit the National Negro Opera Company, which Dawson had founded two years earlier.

Despite her pressing schedule as head of the Cardwell Dawson Music School, she was active as a choral and stage director. In 1932, she not only directed but acted in a musical play, The Merry Milkmaids, produced at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. The Cardwell Dawson Choir performed widely under her direction, and it was not long until the group began win­ning recognition and awards. On June 29, 1935, Mary Dawson directed a chorus of several hundred local singers in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram‘s annual music jubilee at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. According to a critic for the sponsoring newspa­per, “the crowd thrilled to the splendid spirituals sung by 500 Negro voices selected from Western Pennsylvania’s best choirs and painstakingly trained by Mary Cardwell Dawson.” The Cardwell Dawson Choir won a special Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram award that year and two years later placed first in its division in the contest. Even greater recognition of Mary Dawson’s tal­ent came when the choir was invited to perform at the New York World Fair of 1939. Experience in managing and directing musical groups served as an apprenticeship for Mary Dawson, who would not only establish but lead the National Negro Opera Company.

In 1938, she was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Under her leadership, the organization grew: twelve new branches of the organization were established between 1939 and 1940 alone. In the past there had only been sporadic attempts by blacks to organize opera companies. One, the Theodore Drury Company, performed about the turn of the century but it was primarily based in New York City. Mary Dawson realized the need for a national organization for blacks, and in 1940, under the auspices of the NANM, she created a “national opera committee” to draw up plans for a such a company.

Her timing was critical. Discrimination against African Americans in classical music circles had culminated in a nation­al scandal. The Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to allow Marian Anderson to sing in. Constitution Hall in the nation’s capital in 1939 led to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the organization in protest. With pressure from the White House, arrangements were made to allow Anderson to sing on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial. The incident garnered newspaper headlines throughout the world and undoubtedly influenced Dawson’s decision to orga­nize a company. According to Barbara Edwards Lee, Dawson’s niece, her aunt “was determined to fight racial prejudice.”

Dawson’s decision to establish an opera company was rein­forced by the simple fact that many of her talented students were unable to obtain professional experience in performing opera. Interviewed by Pittsburgh Courier reporter Ellen M. Perlmuter, one of Mary Dawson’s students recalled Pittsburgh’s black opera impressario. “She made sure we weren’t pigeon­holed to sing one or two things, that you could go in and be part of a grand opera,” remembered O’Labrice Casson Beckom. “Without her, we would never have walked on stage in full costume. There had been no opportunities for young black tal­ent in serious music.” Those who persevered, such as Marian Anderson, endured humiliation and segregation in the United States, or otherwise chose to make a career overseas as had Lillian Evanti.

The NANM’s national opera committee agreed to present an opera with an all black cast at the 1941 NANM meeting in Pittsburgh. The company, however, would be interracial; Dawson recruited soprano Si Lita Haley as stage director and former Metropolitan Opera Company conductor Frederick Vajda as musical director. Other white members of the compa­ny included the Victor Saudeks Little Symphony musicians and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony, which composed the orchestra. Many members of the chorus came directly from the Cardwell Dawson Choir.

For the leading roles, Mary Dawson recruited two national­ly-renowned opera singers. Soprano La Julia Rhea, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, was a graduate of the Chicago Musical College. She had appeared in the 1931 Broadway musical Rhapsody in Black, starring Ethel Waters. In 1934, Rhea audi­tioned for the Metropolitan Opera Company but was not accepted; she made her operatic debut three years later, howev­er, with the Chicago Civic Opera Company. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, baritone William Franklin studied music at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He, too, had made his operatic debut in 1937 with the Chicago Civic Opera Company in a per­formance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. Other leading cast members included mezzo-soprano Nellie Dobson Plant of Detroit, and tenor Napoleon Reed and baritone Reginald Burris, both of the Pittsburgh area.

The National Negro Opera Company’s first production was Aida, performed in English, and believed to have involved about two hundred singers, dancers, and musicians. Such a tremendous undertaking required assistance from professional musicians, as well as from Pittsburgh’s cultural community. The National Negro Opera Company’s executive board included a 11umber of notable black composers such as Clarence Cameron White, Carl Diton, R. Nathaniel Dett, and William Levi Dawson (no relation to Mary). Black opera singers Etta Moten, Abbie Mitchell, and Mary’s sister, Catherine Cardwell, also sat on the board. Many of Pittsburgh’s black congregations helped with the planning of the inaugural pro­duction, including those of Ebenezer Baptist, Carron Street Baptist, Mount Ararat, St. James AME, Braddock AME, John Wesley AME, AME Zion, and Bidwell Presbyterian. Their efforts were augmented by members of the NANM and the Cardwell Music School.

The National Negro Opera Company presented Aida on August 29, 1941, at the close of the National Association of Negro Musicians’ convention in Pittsburgh. Reporters and reviewers alike praised both the performance and the perform­ers. Of La Julia Rhea’s portrayal of Aida, the Pittsburgh Sun­-Telegram reported that she “displayed a glorious voice, power­ful and flexible.” The Pittsburgh Press noted that “La Julia Rhea sang the title role with intensity and emotional power.” Napoleon Reed was also lauded for his performance as Radames. According to the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, his singing “was the best work of the evening.” Baritone William Franklin, considered by some the best baritone of his day, was duly complimented for his portrayal of Amonastro, which “will long be remembered for its intensity of musical feeling.” And the heady reviews continued.

“There was nothing amateurish about last night’s version,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The Pittsburgh Press raved about the “genuineness” of the acting. “This Aida was simply lived through as well as sung and acted with a feeling for its content that at times approached the sublime.” Above all, crit­ics credited Mary Cardwell Dawson and conductor Frederick Vajda for the production’s overall quality. Alluding to the Cardwell Dawson Choir, whose members comprised the opera chorus, one reviewer opined, “we have rarely heard so impres­sive a chorus in all opera experience.”

With the founding of the National Negro Opera Company, Dawson’s fondest dream had come true. Although the compa­ny was established in Pittsburgh, its headquarters would not remain there. In May 1941, Walter Dawson was fired by the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. The reasons for his dismissal remain unclear; Dawson was told he was relieved because he was not a union member. However, he was also known to be outspoken against Jim Crow practices in his trade. Dawson was subsequently hired as master electrician for the General Services Administration and he and his wife moved to Washington, D. C. With them went the National Negro Opera Company’s headquarters. For twenty years, Washington was the headquarters of the opera company, with local affiliated guilds in Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Annapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, and Pittsburgh.

Perhaps one of the most acclaimed performances of the National Negro Opera Company was its production of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Watergate in Washington on August 28, 1943.(The Watergate, no relation to the building associated with the 1970’s political scandal, was a floating barge that served as an “auditorium” for concert-goers during the summer perfor­mances.) The entire opera was sung in English. Evanti played the role of Violetta, Pittsburgher Joseph Lipscomb portrayed Alfredo and Charles Coleman performed the part of Germont. Evanti and the chorus were singled out for great praise. Of Evanti, a writer for the Washington Star, a black newspaper, wrote: “Her voice is brilliant with ringing high tones and a sparkling smoothness in florid passages.” Once again, Mary Dawson was celebrated for her choral direction. “The chorus, 100 strong, was by far the best vocally and dramatically that has been heard in this city.” More than thirty thousand people attended two performances of this production!

In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque was the scene of some memorable National Negro Opera Company perfor­mances. A 1943 performance of La Traviata starred (once again) Evanti and Lipscomb. The role of the elder Germont was sung by William Robinson. The Pittsburgh critics were more restrained in their reviews than their counterparts in Washington. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette complimented Evanti. “Among the soloists, Miss Evanti takes first place rightfully. Here is a well-trained, experienced and cultured voice.” However, the reviewer thought that Lipscomb was miscast. “Whoever urged this young man to sing ‘Alfredo’ did him an injustice. At the present stage of his musical development he is not ready musically or dramatically for such a taxing role.” But that wasn’t all.

There is today theatrical makeup created especially for African American actors, but in the 1940s blacks made their own makeup. The chore was simpler for black women than men and in poor Lipscomb’s case, he appeared on stage in “indescribably bad make-up which distorted his naturally good features.” To make matters worse, Lipscomb performed “with some of the most outlandish costumes ever seen on an opera stage,” the newspaper review continued. The critic also panned the stage sets as “incredibly shabby.”

In 1946, the National Negro Opera Company presented The Ordering of Moses in Pittsburgh. Created by African American composer R. Nathaniel Dett, the oratorio was based upon the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. Featured performers were baritone John Burdette, bass James Smith, tenor Joseph Lipscomb, and soprano Barbara Banner. While the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette thought these soloists delivered fine performances, the real kudos were – once again – reserved for Mary Dawson’s choral direction. “Outstanding was the work of the choral group, which handled the score’s difficult and occasionally involved ensembles with the rhythmic fidelity and superb harmonic quality that is almost axiomatic in Negro group singing.” Critics wrote that the singing was so good, it actually enhanced the music. “Dr. Dett’s score,” wrote one reviewer, “did not always justify the training and effort that must have been expended to produce such uniformly fine choral effects.”

One key to Dawson’s success in bringing out the best in her company was her personality. Former National Negro Opera Company choreographer Ann Greene said that “Mary Dawson was a remarkable person. Very organized. She always had a housekeeper, cook, chauffeur, and gardener; though she was busy, she always masterminded the household. Mary had dis­tinguished people in the arts over [to] her house every Sunday. She was able to relate to both ordinary people as well as impor­tant people in a personal way. People would just drop by her place for a sandwich and conversation. She would call Eleanor Roosevelt just as one would call a casual friend.” It was little wonder that many were simply awed by the effect Mary Cardwell Dawson had on people. “She was a very stimulating and charismatic person,” Greene continued. “The way she had with children was astonishing. She’d play the piano and sing for them and have their undivided attention.” (Greene also remembered that Mary Dawson loved fashion – attested to by the fact that in nearly every photograph taken of her, she is wearing a hat.)

Much to Dawson’s credit, one of the greatest contributions of the National Negro Opera Company was its championship of black composers. The company staged the work of Dett and Clarence Cameron White. A classical composer who used African American folk music as a source of inspiration, White composed Ouanga, an opera based on the legend of Desalines, the liberator of Haiti from French rule. Completed in 1932, the opera was first performed by the Harry T. Burleigh Association in South Bend, Indiana, in 1949. A second production was under­taken in 1950 by Ora Mu, a black opera company, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.

It was not long until Dawson saw an opportunity to demonstrate that her company could perform non-European operas, especially works rooted in the African American musi­cal heritage. When Ouanga opened in New York on May 27, 1956, the National Negro Opera Company became the first black opera company to perform in the Metropolitan Opera House. Leading roles were played by baritone McHenry Boatwright, soprano Juanita King, and contralto Adelaide Boatner. According to black music critic Nora Holt, whose review appeared in the New York Amsterdam News, “the chorus of fine voices under Mrs. Dawson’s direction was instrumental in giving the production a sustaining background of brightness. The forward step has been made which gives a potential to Negro opera on the grand scale never achieved in the past.”

The triumph of Ouanga came on the heels of an earlier suc­cess. Dawson’s protégé Robert McFerrin made his Metropolitan Opera debut on January 27, 1955, just a few weeks after that of Marian Anderson. He was the first African American male to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Discovered by Dawson in 1938, McFerrin sang with her company for a num­ber of years before his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Ethiopian king Amonastro in Aida. Pittsburgh Courier columnist P. L. Prattis was quick to recognize that McFerrin’s triumph was also that of Mary Cardwell Dawson. “It was because of the background of experience which McFerrin had with Mrs. Dawson’s productions and her constant pressure and interces­sion that McFerrin won his chance to compete in the auditions of the Metropolitan Opera Company.” But such triumphs were won only after much struggle.

From its beginning, the National Negro Opera Company not only had to build an audience but to attract funding as well, and a financial arm of the company – the National Negro Opera Company Foundation – was established in 1950. Dawson wanted the best musicians to perform with her compa­ny, even if it meant paying them more than prevailing union scale wages. A National Negro Opera Company performance could cost between eight thousand and fifteen thousand dol­lars. When the company traveled, union rules demanded that the performers travel by Pullman, requiring that the opera company pay for the train travel, in addition to board and room for each person. For productions requiring a huge chorus and cast, the costs were staggering. Corners were cut in order to mount the productions, which helps explain why critics sometimes criticized the quality of the scenery and the costum­ing. When the company’s finances came up short, as they often did, Walter and Mary Dawson reached into their own pockets to make up the difference.

Inevitably, the National Negro Opera Company’s financial difficulties grew more acute. Even the debuts of Anderson and Mcferrin at the Metropolitan were mixed blessings for the company. On one hand, Anderson and Mcferrin opened the doors of American opera to blacks. On the other, black singers bypassed organizations like the National Negro Opera Company. Although Dawson’s company had been able to attract singers Lillian Evanti and La Julia Rhea, famous black soloists – such as Caterina Jarboro, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Camilla Williams – sang instead with white companies. The lack of box office names and decreasing financial support from the black community led to a curtailment of opera productions. After 1956, the company’s only regular offering was The Ordering of Moses. To raise money for the company, Dawson began offering annual “historical and musical teas,” fashion shows, and similar events. She also con­ceived the idea of holding “opera meets” around the country as a way of bringing together blacks in opera, as well as soliciting support for her company.

On March 19, 1962, just one year after President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his National Committee on Music, Mary Cardwell Dawson died of a heart attack in Washington, D. C. And with her died the National Negro Opera Company.

Perhaps Pittsburgh newspaper columnist P. L. Prattis offered the best summary of the seemingly endless contributions of Mary Cardwell Dawson. “The most important fact about her and her struggling organization is this: she has suc­ceeded in doing what she set out to do – make opportunities for gifted Negroes. The difficulties which even a layman could see did not daunt this little woman from Homestead, Pennsylvania.” It is fitting now, that on Apple Street in Pittsburgh, a state historical marker honors “this little woman from Homestead” who is so much a part of the Keystone State’s – and America’s – musical heritage.


For Further Reading

Abdul, Raoul. Blacks in Classical Music. New York: Doubleday, 1971.

Darden, Joe. Afro-Americans in Pittsburgh: The Residential Segregation of a People. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1973.

Gottlieb, Peter. Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Hays, Samuel P., ed. City at the Point: Essays on the Social History of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.

Hopkins, Leroy, and Eric Ledell Smith. The African Americans in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1994.

Smith, Eric Ledell. Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873-1993. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1994.

Story, Rosalyn. And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert. New York: Amistad, 1990.


Eric Ledell Smith is an associate historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He is the author of Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873-1993.