There is little awareness about the important role The Boston Conservatory at Berklee had and continues to have in training African American performing arts students since its inception in 1867. And yet their contributions to the world of music, dance and theater have secured them both national and international recognition and fame-demonstrating that by removing all social, culture and racial barriers success can be achieved by all.
Music, dance, and theater have served as some of the earliest and most powerful tools in the integration of Boston society. Yet they have often gone unnoticed.
Since its founding close to 150 years ago, The Boston Conservatory at Berklee has played a critical role in bridging racial divisions and leading the world of performing arts conservatories in creating educational equity and world-class training for African-American students.
Conservatory founder Julius Eichberg recruited black students to the institution just a few years after the Civil War. Even then, the Conservatory was a place where almost as many women as men filled each class, and where the traditional barriers to education and training – such as social status, culture, and ethnicity -- were removed. In Eichberg’s 1873 opera “The Doctor of Alcantara” was performed by the first all-African-American opera ensemble in the world.
Just a few of its pioneering former students and alumni who helped pave the way for the 21st Century performing arts student at the Conservatory include:
- P.G. Lowery, one of the greatest conductors of all-African-American circus bands (the so-called “sideshows”) for Ringling Brothers and others. Eichberg recruited Lowery from his native Kansas to study at the Conservatory under a leading cornet player and instructor of the day.
- A member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, after World War II Dabney N. Montgomery, studied ballet at the Boston Conservatory and befriended a Boston University doctoral student, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. A lifelong friend to King and fellow civil rights leader, Montgomery received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 2007.
- William Andrew Rhodes, who in 1940 became the first black man to earn a degree in composition from a Boston institution.
- Jonathon Heyward, 24-year-old conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England.