On September 15, 1945, Jessye Mae Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, to parents Silas Norman and Janie King-Norman. Janie King-Norman was a school teacher and pianist, Silas Norman was an insurance salesman. Jessye’s family was musically inclined, her grandmother along with her mother were pianist, while her father sang in their church choir of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. As a seven-year-old elementary school student, she enrolled in her first singing competition, unfortunately, she placed third in the competition because she didn't remember some of the lyrics of the second stanza. Her early musical influences outside of her family were two women by the name of Mrs. Golden and Sister Childs. From an early age she showed that she was a terrific singer; to help enhance her musical abilities her mother enrolled her into piano lessons helping keep her family’s musical legacy intact. She was introduced to the world of opera as a nine-year-old, her birthday present was a radio and on Sundays, as she cleaned her room she listened to a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. She was introduced to two incredible black women opera singers, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. These two women were her early opera influences; the best part about these women is Norman could see herself in these women and as a successful opera singer.
While attending middle school she began her lessons as an opera singer with vocal coach Rosa Harris Sanders. As a high school student, she received vocal lessons from a woman named Lucy C. Laney. She continued her opera training as a young teen with a non-profit organization named the Interlochen Center for the Arts located in the state of Michigan. At the age of sixteen, she earned a full scholarship to attend Howard University after she competed in the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition, which was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a student at Howard, she studied voice with Carolyn Grant, sang in the Howard University choir, became a soloist in the choir at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, and became a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma. In 1965, as a twenty-year-old, she became one of the founding members of the Delta Nu chapter of the Sigma Alpha Iota sorority. A year later she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition. The following year she earned her bachelor's degree from Howard then enrolled in the master’s program at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, before transitioning to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1968, while simultaneously studying voice with Opera singer Elizabeth Mannion and vocalist Pierre Bernac. She was also fortunate enough to receive vocal coaching from the legendary Sylvia Olden Lee during her career.
In 1968, Norman moved to Europe to begin her career as an opera singer, little did she know this was the beginning one of the most successful opera careers in history. She would win the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany, despite an attempt by a racist judge to suddenly change the rules of the competition to prevent her from winning. She then made her debut as a professional opera singer in the opera Tannhauser as the character Elisabeth, after signing a three-year contract to perform with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Following her performance, critics rated her performance and her voice as the greatest since Lottie Lehmann who was a German soprano singer. Norman experienced massive success as a black opera singer in Europe, her voice was outstanding, and she didn’t have the traditional look and size of the average opera singer. She performed in Germany and Italy with the most successful companies; she even often appeared as a European princess or a noble. Norman was outstanding, perfectly singing all the voice ranges from contralto to soprano. She sang in her first Italian performance in 1970 in Florence, Italy performing in the opera Deborah by Handel, the following year she performed as Selika in L’Africaine by Meyerbeer at the Maggio Musicale. Her star was shining bright and she wasn't slowing down any time soon. She followed her performance at the Maggio Musicale by staring in the role of Countess Almaviva in the opera Le Nozze di Fargo by Mozart at the Berlin Festival. She even recorded her role as Almaviva with the BBC Orchestra which became a finalist for the Montreux International Record Award, her performance made her a household name in Europe and the United States.
In 1972, she performed the lead role in the opera Aida in Milan, Italy at La Scala, next she performed in London at the Royal Opera and the Covent Garden as the character Cassandra in the opera Les Troyens. She made her American debut as a singer at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California for its 50th anniversary in the concert version of the opera Aida. She then performed in Lenox, Massachusetts in the All-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Music Festival. She toured the United States performing before she returned to Europe to continue touring. In 1973, she performed in New York City with the “Great Performers” series in the Alice Tully Hall at the Center for the Performing Arts. Norman moved to London in 1975 but found it hard to find local performances, however, she continued to perform internationally, she even was able to perform throughout North America and the United States further building upon a legendary legacy. Norman continued to perform as a singer but didn’t perform much as an opera singer much between 1975 and 1980. In 1980, she earned the title role in the opera Ariadane Auf Naxos at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany. In 1982, she made her debut as an opera singer in the United States with the Opera Company of Philadelphia as the character Jocasta in the Opera Oedipus Rex and the opera Dido. In 1983, she returned to New York to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in the opera Les Troyens as the characters Cassandra and Dido. Norman was so spectacular that she was considered as the world’s best soprano singer. She was also invited to sing at the inauguration of then-President Ronald Regan in 1985. In 1986, she sang for Queen Elizabeth at her sixtieth birthday celebration, later she became the soloist in the opera Four Last Songs with the Berlin Philharmonic while touring in the United States.
Norman continued to perform as an opera singer but she also began producing songs and performances during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, several of her production won her awards and critical acclaim, she even earned a television performance. In 1989, she featured as the soloist with the Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as it opened its 148th season. She even performed in Hong Kong at the opening of the Hong Kong Cultural Center, as well as performing in Taiwan’s National Concert Hall. Later in 1989, Norman sang the French National Anthem for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Norman eventually moved back to the United States and lived in Croton-On-Hudson, New York, and in 1990, she was able to perform at the one hundred fiftieth birthday gala for the legendary Russian composer Tchaikovsky held in St. Petersburgh, Russia. She also made her debut in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s performance of the opera Alceste before singing at the seven hundredth celebration party for the Swiss National Day. Norman had a stellar career as a singer and became an international opera legend; sadly she died in Manhattan, New York at the age of seventy-four on September 30, 2019. During her career, she earned thirty-five honors and awards, twelve honorary doctorate degrees, thirty-eight notable leading opera roles, and performed in over twenty-six notable oratorio and orchestral performances. She was a true legend with a voice so pure that even the gods were envious to her. Ms. Jessye Mae Norman, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
Click here to learn more about the On the Shoulders of Giants book series!!!
On January 24th, 1874, Arturo Alphonso Schomburg was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico to a free black Caribbean midwife named Mary Joseph; his father was a German merchant residing in Puerto Rico named Carlos Federico Schomburg. As a young child in school, Schomburg was having a discussion with one of his teachers, who went on to tell him that African people had no history and contributed nothing to humanity. Schomburg did not believe his teacher and was determined to find and display the history of African people to the world. He completed his formal education in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the Instituto Popular studying commercial printing. He also studied African literature at St. Thomas College. In 1891, Schomburg moved to Harlem, New York where he became a member of the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, a committee founded by Puerto Rican exiles who united with Cubans to fight for their independence from Spanish rule.
Unfortunately, the Cuban Revolutionary Struggle was unsuccessful and Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, Schomburg focused on uncovering the history of Africa and its many accomplishments. In 1911, Schomburg co-founded The American Negro Society, as well as renamed the El Sol de Cuba #38 Lodge to the Prince Hall Lodge #38. "Afroborinqueño" or Afro- Puerto Rican is the term Schomburg used for himself after experiencing racism; he wanted America to know he was proud of who he was and his ancestral heritage. While studying as much of African history and culture as he could, Schomburg worked as a clerk in a law firm and as a Spanish teacher. In 1895, Schomburg married a woman named Elizabeth Hatcher, the couple produced three sons before her death in 1900. Two years later he married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor, they produced two sons before her death. He then married Elizabeth Green and they also produced three sons.
In 1906, Schomburg worked for the Bankers Trust Company before becoming supervisor of the Caribbean and Latin American Mail Section. In 1904, his first article was published in the The Unique Advertiser titled "Is Hayti Decadent?” He then published a pamphlet titled Placido, a Cuban Martyr about Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, a Cuban independence fighter. In 1914, Schomburg became a member of the American Negro Academy, serving as the last president from 1920 to 1928. The academy was created to unite African scholars who disproved racist scholarship, while promoting the vastness of African history, culture and contributions to humanity. Enveloped within the cultural richness of the Harlem Renaissance, Schomburg was heavily influenced by other black scholars while in turn influencing them to study and promote the history of Africa. In 1912, he was the co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the Colored Race written by Daniel Alexander Payne Murray. In 1916, Schomburg published A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry. In 1925, Schomburg published the essay "The Negro Digs Up His Past” in the Survey Graphic magazine; the essay was powerful enough to influence the esteemed historian Dr. John Henrick Clarke to seek out Schomburg and become a historian himself. “The Negro Digs Up His History” was also in the essay collection titled The New Negro by Alain Locke.
In 1935, a librarian named Ernestine Rose who represented the New York Public Library purchased Schomburg’s extensive collection of African historical information and artifacts, for the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art housed in the 135th street branch of the New York Public Library. Schomburg was so impressive and influential a whole cultural center was named after him. The Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art was eventually renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Schomburg was the curator of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He also served as the curator for the Negro Collection at Fisk University’s library from 1931 to 1932. He became an honorary member of the Men’s Business Club, became the treasurer of the Loyal Sons of Africa, he became the past master of the Prince Hall Lodge #38 Free and Accepted Masons and Rising Sun Chapter Number 4. Schomburg died in 1938, but inspired many African people to learn about the greatness of African history and culture, and the many accomplishments African people brought to the world. Schomburg traveled the world collecting African historical artifacts and information to display to his people and the world. He was named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans in 2002 by Molefi Asante. Hampshire College and the University of Buffalo both have scholarships named in honor of Schomburg. He is one of the many African historians who laid the foundation for On the Shoulders of Giants to exist today. To the late great Arturo Alphonso Schomburg, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward
Click here to learn more about the On the Shoulders of Giants book series!!!
Click Here to join our mailing list