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From Opera, Minstrelsy and Ragtime to Social Justice: An Overview of African American Performers at Carnegie Hall, 1892-1943

“It is probable that this hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country,” said Andrew Carnegie in 1890, when he laid the cornerstone of the building that would become Carnegie Hall.  In keeping with Carnegie’s firm belief in egalitarianism and meritocracy, the hall that bore his name maintained an open-door policy from the beginning.  In June of 1892, at the end of the hall’s first full concert season, soprano Sissieretta Jones became the first African American artist to perform there on a concert presented by the black social organization The Sons of New York.  Although this performance took place in the 1200-seat recital hall on the hall’s lower level (today known as Zankel Hall), Jones returned eight months later to sing in the main auditorium on a benefit for the World’s Fair Colored Opera Company, at which Frederick Douglass delivered an introductory address.

Black social causes frequently found a platform at Carnegie Hall during its first half century.  Booker T. Washington made the first of his 15 appearances there in 1896, delivering an address at a Presbyterian Home Missions rally.  In January of 1904, Washington shared the stage with W.E.B. Du Bois on a three-day conference of African American leaders.  Du Bois returned in 1918 to speak alongside Theodore Roosevelt on a benefit for the Circle for Negro War Relief.  The more controversial Marcus Garvey, inspired by Washington but denounced by Du Bois, addressed Carnegie Hall audiences four times between 1919 and 1924.

Sissieretta Jones paved the way for numerous other black classical musicians who followed her to Carnegie Hall.  Tenor Roland Hayes became the first African American to give a full-length solo recital there when he made his debut on February 5, 1924.  Contralto Marian Anderson made her Carnegie Hall recital debut on December 30, 1928, more than ten years before she was famously barred from appearing in Washington’s Constitution Hall.  Bass-baritone Paul Robeson soon followed Anderson to the hall, making his debut on November

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