Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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The African Mahler

Many have heard of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), but how many people know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer and conductor? Known in America as the “African Mahler”, Coleridge overcame the constraints of his race to succeed in his career as a classical composer and musician. African people considered Coleridge-Taylor a beacon of hope for the future and continue to remember him as an iconic figure of Black British history.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born on 15th August 1875, the son of a white British woman and an African-American man from Sierra Leone. His father, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, met his mother, Alice Hare Martin (1856-1953), whilst studying medicine at King’s College London. After a short relationship, Taylor returned to Africa, unaware that Alice was pregnant. Alice, who lived with her father and step-mother in Croydon, South London, named her son after her favourite poet, although she preferred to call him Coleridge.

Coleridge’s grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, worked as a farrier, but also taught the violin. After his fifth birthday, his grandfather began giving Coleridge violin lessons and, after noticing the young boy’s talent, insisted he receive professional training. Coleridge also enjoyed singing and joined the local church choir.

In 1887, Alice Martin married a railway worker called George Evans and moved out of her father’s home. Although he no longer lived with his grandfather, Coleridge’s maternal family encouraged him to continue his music studies and arranged for him to attend the Royal College of Music. At only 15 years old, Coleridge began studying under the composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), one of the founding professors of the college. For his degree, Coleridge opted to focus on composition rather than the violin and, after graduating, began teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He also worked as a professional musician and became the conductor of the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. Due to a printing error in which a hyphen was added to his name, people came to know him as “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor”, which he kept as his professional name.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor c. 1893

In 1893, Coleridge-Taylor published his first composition, Piano Quintet in G minor. Following this success, he produced nonets, suites and symphonies for a variety of instruments. In 1896, his growing reputation caught the attention of English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Noticing the young man’s talent, Elgar recommended Coleridge-Taylor to the annual Three Choirs Festival, one of the oldest classical choral music festivals in the world. Dating back to 1715, the festival was instrumental to the careers of some of the most famous composers in history, including Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

After Coleridge-Taylor premiered at the Three Choirs Festival with Ballade in A minor, Elgar introduced him to August Jaeger (1860-1909), an Anglo-German music publisher. Impressed, Jaeger called Coleridge-Taylor “a genius” and offered to guide the young man in his professional career. With the help of this influential editor, Coleridge-Taylor produced one of his most successful series of works, The Song of Hiawatha.

Written between 1898 and 1900, Coleridge-Taylor based the trilogy upon his favourite poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). The Song of Hiawatha relates the fictional adventures of a Native American called Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha, whose life comes to a tragic end. The first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), consists of nine sections for orchestra and voice. The premiere, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford, took place on 11th November 1898 at the Royal College of Music and was attended by many famous names.

Before the performance, the English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote to Coleridge-Taylor, “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried.” He later mentioned in his diary, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original – he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour – at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done.” Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), a contemporary of Elgar, also praised Coleridge-Taylor and described the performance as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.”

Initially, Coleridge-Taylor did not plan to compose a trilogy, but the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned him the commission for a sequel. The first part rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity, but the second part, The Death of Minnehaha (1899), did not receive as much praise. The third part, Hiawatha’s Departure, which premiered in 1900, received the least admiration due to Elgar and Jaeger’s open criticism.

Christmas greeting card displaying the Coleridge-Taylor family, 1912

In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, who he met while studying at the Royal College of Music. Her parents tried to prevent the marriage because they did not want a man of mixed-race to marry their white daughter, but they soon relented, most likely on account of Coleridge-Taylor’s musical success. In 1900, Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie welcomed a son named Hiawatha (1900-80) after the protagonist of Longfellow’s poem. Three years later, Jessie gave birth to a daughter, Gwendolen Avril (1903-98). Both followed in their father’s footsteps to have careers in music.

Invitation to the Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, London, 23–25 July 1900

The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned Coleridge-Taylor the opportunity to tour three times in the United States of America. He also participated in the 1900 First Pan-African Conference, of which he was the youngest delegate. Organized by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1867-1911), the conference took place at Westminster Town Hall (now Caxton Hall) between the 23rd and 25th July. According to the chair, Bishop Alexander Walters (1858-1917), it was “the first time in history black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.”

The conference aimed to improve the treatment of Africans in Britain and the British Empire but also attracted many American attendees. Coleridge-Taylor became acquainted with the civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), who inspired the young composer. Working together, the 37 delegates penned a petition to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) to look into the treatment of African people, particularly in South Africa and Rhodesia, where they faced segregation, could not vote and had difficulty purchasing properties. The Queen responded positively towards the cause but passed away not long after.

In 1904, on a tour of the USA, Coleridge-Taylor met President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) at the White House. Whilst Roosevelt invited Coleridge as a result of the success of his music, African-Americans also viewed this as an achievement. At that time, black people very rarely received invites to meet the President. Encouraged by this, the American civil rights movement adopted The Song of Hiawatha as their “battle song”. Coleridge-Taylor also met with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who despite his skin colour, often advised the President on racial matters. Coleridge-Taylor shared his experiences of racial abuse with Washington and other members of the Black community, which inspired him to demonstrate his African heritage through his music.

In England, Coleridge-Taylor collaborated with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems represented the lives of African Americans. Coleridge-Taylor set many of Dunbar’s works to music, which they performed in London at a joint recital under the patronage of John Hay (1838-1905), the US Secretary of State. Encouraged by the praise and support he gained from black people, Coleridge-Taylor endeavoured to integrate African music and themes into his compositions. In doing this, Coleridge-Taylor said, “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

As well as introducing African culture to classical music, Coleridge-Taylor based some of his compositions on historical events, for instance, his concert overture Toussaint L’Ouverture (1901). François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was a prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave in the French colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, Louverture rebelled against the government and led a successful revolutionary movement, earning him the epithet “Father of Haiti”. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor’s overture did not prove as successful as The Song of Hiawatha. Whereas the BBC Proms have performed the latter over 60 times, Toussaint L’Ouverture only appeared at the music festival once in 1919.

In 1902, Coleridge-Taylor composed the march Ethiopia Saluting the Colours to commemorate the Ethiopian victory over Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The outcome secured Ethiopia’s independence and made the country a symbol of Pan-Africanism. A few years later, Coleridge-Taylor composed Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1905), which also celebrated Pan-Africanism. Coleridge-Taylor based the melodies on 24 tunes sung by slaves across Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America. Slaves sang while labouring in the fields or in the evenings to express their pain and weariness. The songs also spoke of hope for the future and encouraged all slaves in the vicinity by letting them know they were not alone in their plight. In concert, the orchestra tended to play all Twenty-Four Negro Melodies in one sitting, but each piece differs in sound and style. Many Thousands Gone, for example, was based on a Negro spiritual, whereas Deep River sounded like a church-hymn and Warriors’ Song like a battle cry.

Coleridge-Taylor’s third tour of the USA took place in 1910 when he performed at the Litchfield Festival in May 1910. He also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which at the time was directed by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Initially, the musicians expressed concern about having a black conductor, but only one person refused to play. The success of the concert earned Coleridge-Taylor the sobriquet “African Mahler”.

When in England, Coleridge-Taylor worked at the Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music in London. Many described him as a shy person but an effective conductor, particularly for the Rochester Choral Society and the Handel Society. He often received invitations to judge music competitions around Britain, although he still faced racist abuse due to his mixed heritage.

Despite the racist judgements, Coleridge-Taylor’s works were undeniably successful, and he became an inspiration to a new generation of musicians. Unfortunately, composers earned very little, often selling their compositions outright when low on funds. Coleridge-Taylor sold his most successful work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a mere 15 guineas. The publishers, on the other hand, sold many copies of the music, thus reaping all the royalties. Although Coleridge-Taylor learned from this mistake and insisted on retaining his rights for future compositions, his financial situation remained precarious.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s grave at Bandon Hill Copyright © Peter Hughes

In 1912, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor contracted pneumonia and passed away at the age of 37. Many blame the stress of his finances for his early death. On his gravestone at Bandon Hill Cemetery in Wallington, Surrey, are engraved the words of his friend and poet Alfred Noyes (1880-1958): Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him.

Concerned for the welfare of Coleridge-Taylor’s wife and children, King George V (1865-1936) granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual pension of £100. A memorial concert held at the Royal Albert Hall raised an additional £300 for the family. Although they could not benefit from the sales of the Song of Hiawatha, which soared following the composer’s death, musicians formed the Performing Rights Society in his honour, which campaigned to gain revenue from all performances and publications.

A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review

The death of Coleridge-Taylor attracted attention across the world with news reports and obituaries appearing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church ReviewSierra Leone Weekly News and Crystal Palace Reporter, amongst other papers. He was mourned by many, particularly those who considered him a beacon of hope for Black lives as well as those who admired his music. Schools in Kentucky and Maryland were named in his memory, and the 200-voice African-American chorus established in 1901 continued singing under the name of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. In London, a blue plaque adorns the wall of his childhood home in Dagnall Park, South Norwood, and another where he lived and died in St Leonards Road, Croydon.

Both Coleridge-Taylor’s children followed in his footsteps to attain a career in the music industry. Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor adapted many of his father’s works for various performances, and his daughter, Gwendolen Avril, became a composer and conductor. Coleridge-Taylor did not live to hear his daughter’s first composition, which she wrote aged twelve. This song, Goodbye Butterfly, won her a scholarship at Trinity College of Music.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

In 1924, Gwendolen married Harold Dashwood but continued to compose under her maiden name. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and, after her divorce, she officially dropped her first name and worked professionally as Avril Coleridge-Taylor. In 1933, she made her first debut as a composer at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by becoming the first female conductor of H.M.S. Royal Marines.

During her career, Avril composed many successful songs, orchestral pieces, chamber music and keyboard compositions. Yet, Avril did not have as much success as her father due to her gender. On occasion, this forced her to compose under the pseudonym Peter Riley. Unlike her father, Avril did not experience racial abuse in England, so she was unprepared for the reaction she caused during a tour of South Africa in 1952. South Africa, which was in the grips of apartheid, treated Avril as a white woman until they learned of her one-quarter black ancestry. Immediately, the government banned her from composing and conducting in the country. From then on, Avril supported the efforts of Black African movements and composed the Ceremonial March to celebrate Ghana’s independence in 1957.

History books record little else about Avril’s career other than she wrote a biography of her father in which she recorded her memories. She passed away aged 95 in 1998 at a nursing home in Seaford, Sussex. Until recently, her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was also an unfamiliar name, but the Black Lives Matter movement has unearthed him from the archives. Whilst Coleridge-Taylor is celebrated for his involvement with Pan-Africanism, we ought to remember him for his talent irrespective of his skin colour.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor produced over 80 compositions during his short life, which is more than some composers write during a much longer period. Nicknamed the “African Mahler”, Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way to joining Gustav Mahler amongst the ranks of top composers and conductors. Unfortunately, he died before he could fully realise his potential, but his surviving achievements are evidence of his talent and genius.


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