Overview

The Eileen Southern Initiative is a multi-year, multi-part, collaborative project at Harvard University honoring Eileen Southern and the 50th anniversary of her landmark book, The Music of Black Americans (1971). The Initiative began in 2019 as a classroom-library collaboration led by Carol J. Oja (Department of Music) and librarian Christina Linklater (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library). Graduate students in a seminar taught by Oja worked toward curating an exhibit of Southern’s collection to be held at the Loeb Music Library. They also conducted oral history interviews with individuals who had a connection to Southern and her world. Not long after the course ended, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the project team to pivot. The Initiative has since morphed into several components: a digital exhibit, webinars, a documentary film, a concert, and more. Harvard undergraduate and graduate students, along with librarians, archivists, musicians, media experts, and scholars, from across Harvard and around the world, have contributed to making this project a success.

Portrait of Eileen Southern, 1986
Eileen Southern, 1986. Courtesy Lilian Kemp Photography. Radcliffe College Archives PC 479-1-2.
Eileen Southern (1920-2002) was the first African American woman tenured in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (1976), and new research suggests that she may have been the first Black woman tenured across all units of Harvard. She was on the ground floor in developing the Afro-American Studies Department (now African and African American Studies), serving as the department's second chair. She was also on the faculty of the Department of Music, teaching courses on Renaissance music and Black music.

 

The Music of Black Americans (W. W. Norton), represented an historic intervention into the European-dominated field of musicology, one that helped to launch the field of Black music studies. Southern conducted an extraordinary amount of archival research to recount the history of Black music in the United States; in The Music of Black Americans, Southern also placed Black classical music alongside popular music, ragtime, jazz, and, in the third edition, hip hop, revealing an unusually open-minded attitude for her day. In addition, Southern founded and edited The Black Perspective in Music (1973-1990), an academic journal produced from her home in St. Albans, Queens (New York City). Her husband Joseph Southern was its managing editor and publisher. The Black Perspective intervened in the field of musicology during an era when its signature publications were focused on European musical traditions.