Exhibit highlights local black pioneer

African-American composer Francis Johnson

Photo credit: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The early nineteenth century was a difficult time for African Americans, with slavery, prejudice and racism the norm. Even still, African-American composer Francis Johnson, through the power of his music, was able to transcend the racial hostilities of the day and garner the respect of both blacks and whites.

Johnson, a free man born in 1792, was the first published African-American composer and one of the important early nineteenth century musicians in all of America. Now, the Otto E. Albrecht Music Library at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is paying tribute to Johnson’ life and work with the ongoing exhibit, “Francis Johnson: Music Master of Early Philadelphia.” The new exhibit features a variety of artifacts from Johnson’s life, including published sheet music donated by collector Kurt Stein.

Johnson made a name for himself by performing with his dance band at venues such as the Walnut Street Theatre for rich and prominent Philadelphians, including Phoebe Ann Rush. He also performed in a military band for local militia meetings, including the Washington Guards, the Washington Grays and the State Fencibles.

Richard Griscom, head of Penn’s Music Library and curator of the exhibit, says Johnson played the key bugle—an early nineteenth century instrument similar to the trumpet but with saxophone keys—in his military band and the violin in his dance orchestra. He lived in various places around Center City; a historical plaque marks his former Pine Street home.

Despite the prejudice of the day and the difficulty many blacks faced in increasing their social standing, Johnson was nonetheless able to become a well known and much loved musician, and a regular man-about-town. In 1842, he performed at the commencement of the Penn Medical School. The library exhibit contains a newspaper announcement about the performance and a record of payment from the University.

Of course, not everyone was supportive of Johnson’s musical talents. Near Pittsburgh, he and his band were mobbed, called racial epithets and bombarded with bricks, bats, stones and rotten eggs. In Boston, he was barred from performing because of his skin color.

But by the time of his death in 1844, Johnson had earned fame and respect across much of the United States and even abroad in London, where there are accounts of him performing. He was buried at the former African Episcopal Church at 5th and Walnut streets, which has since been torn down.

“It was a time when there was a lot of prejudice against blacks, and he was able to rise above that and become a prominent musician, despite this prejudice,” Griscom says.

The exhibit is on display at the Music Library, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, 4th Floor West, until the fall of 2009. An exhibition reception will be held on April 10 at 5:30 p.m. featuring special guest Penn Associate Professor of Music Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., who will talk about Johnson and his place as an African American in early nineteenth century Philadelphia. There will also be a performance of music from the exhibit by pianist Tim Ribchester.

For more information, go to www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/francisjohnson.html.

Originally published March 6, 2008

Originally published on April 10, 2008