19. Leontyne Price achieved international fame as an opera singer
During the 1950s and 1960s Leontyne Price, of the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, became one of the most acclaimed sopranos in the world. She attended Wilberforce College in Ohio, where she sang in the glee club as well as the chapel choir. In the late 1940s she began to give recitals in Mississippi before entering the Juillard School in 1948. By the early 1950s she sang on Broadway, including performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Despite no shortage of Black characters in many operas, Black singers faced racial bias which prevented them from obtaining many roles. Price toured giving recitals and concerts in Europe, India, and Australia before performing the title role in Verdi’s Aida, in Michigan in 1957. It became her signature role.
In 1961 she finally made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her performance earned one of the longest ovations in that venue’s long history. In the late 1960s she cut back on opera performances, preferring to sing in concerts and television. She sang at the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and at his state funeral in 1973. She performed at the White House at the invitation of President Carter in 1978, and later for Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. She is among the most decorated women in American history, having been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Spingarn Medal, 19 Grammy awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as numerous honorary degrees and testimonials. Miles Davis once said of her, “She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me”.
20. Phillis Wheatley wrote poetry admired by many of the Founding Fathers
Kidnaped from her African home and sold into slavery in colonial Boston, Phillis learned to read and write from the family which enslaved her. She studied the Bible, the works of Virgil and Ovid, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and other classic literature. Estimated to have been around the age of 7 upon arrival, by the age of 18 she wrote poetry of her own. In 1770 she published An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield. It became known under the more manageable name of the Whitefield Elegy, and famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Unable to find publishers willing to promote works by Black authors in America, she went to London, accompanied by her owner’s son. There she published Poems Subjects, Religious and Moral. It was received with acclaim.
Phillis received emancipation on her return to America. She applied the name Columbia to America in her poetry in support of the Revolution, believed to be the first to do so. Wheatley corresponded with George Washington, dedicated a volume of poetry to Benjamin Franklin, and hailed the rebellion against Great Britain after her return to America. She has been called the poet-laureate of the American Revolution. Wheatley married a freeman, John Peters, and took his name in 1778. Peters lacked any form of gainful employment during most of their marriage, and was evidently in debtor’s prison at the time of her death in 1784. Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book in the United States, quickly fell into oblivion for decades.
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