Eva Jessye was blessed with many talents that helped her become an internationally recognized poet, writer, artist, teacher, actress, performer, composer and choral director. 

On Jan. 20, 1895, Eva Jessye was born in Coffeyville, KS. Her parents separated when she was three years old. She was sent to live with her grandmothers and aunts while her mother worked in Seattle. She lived with her Aunt May Buckner Knight in Coffeyville. She spent her summers with her Great Aunt Harriet near Caney, Kansas, because her other relatives went to pick cotton. After the evening chores were done, her Great Aunt Harriet would sing the most beautiful spirituals to her. Her aunt had an amazing voice that fostered Jessye’s deep appreciation for music.

When she was thirteen years old, her mother sent her to the Black Western University in Quindaro, a part of Kansas City, Kansas. The university ignored the minimum enrollment age to admit Jessye a year earlier than normal because African Americans were still barred from attending the public schools in Coffeyville. The university’s music instructor, R. G. Jackson, let Jessye take charge of the University chorus because of her musical abilities.

In 1935, Jessye became the original choral conductor of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a new folk opera about Porgy, a crippled Black man who lives in Charleston’s slums in South Carolina. Porgy tries to free Bess from her drug-dealing pimp’s grip. Eva Jessye’s unique musical insight enhanced the cultural texture of the work. Over the next thirty years, she was involved in almost every worldwide production of the Porgy and Bess opera. She has been dubbed its unofficial curator and guardian.

During her lifetime Jessye received honorary degrees from Wilberforce University, Allen University, and Southern University, including an honorary doctorate. She also received numerous citations from government, educational, and musical organizations. In 1981, Governor John Carlin of

Kansas declared Dr. Eva Jessye to be Kansas Ambassador for the Arts.

In a 1984 interview by Jacob U. Gordon, Jessye was asked what she considered some of the drawbacks of being Black and elderly in Kansas? Her reply was, “I often think if I had been White, where would I have been? Perhaps not anywhere. Because I think I had it made, you know. Who’s that who said he took the path less traveled by? Robert Frost? I took the color less desirable and it made all the difference.”

Kansas Black History Facts are prepared for The Community Voice newspaper by Donna Rae Pearson.  

To see other daily Black History Facts click here. 

The Community Voice, a bi-weekly statewide newspaper, is a trusted source of news from the community’s perspective.  Read our latest edition here.  

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