Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, pianist and educator George Walker has died at the age of 96. Walker’s death was announced to NPR by one of his family members, Karen Schaefer, who said he died Thursday at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, N.J. after a fall.
Walker’s music was firmly rooted in the modern classical tradition, but also drew from African-American spirituals and jazz. His nearly 100 compositions range broadly, from intricately orchestrated symphonic works and concertos to intimate songs and solo piano pieces.
“His music is always characterized by a great sense of dignity, which is how he always comported himself,” says composer Jeffrey Mumford, who, as a music professor at Lorain County Community College in Ohio, uses examples of Walker’s music in his classes. “His style evolved over the years; his earlier works, some written while still a student, embodied an impressive clarity and elegance.”
Walker was a trailblazing man of “firsts,” and not just because of the Pulitzer. In the year 1945 alone, he was the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York’s Town Hall, the first black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The following year, Walker wrote his first string quartet. In 1990, he revised the second movement into a new piece, Lyric for Strings, which has become his most often-performed work.
In 1996, Walker broke new ground again when he became the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. Lilacs for voice and orchestra, set to a text by Walt Whitman, is a moving meditation on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
For more than 150 years, Howard University has been associated with the highest caliber of scholarship on the African diaspora. Howard’s legacy as a hub for the intellectual exploration of Blackness is widely appreciated in the Africana subset of academia. Lesser known is the woman who conceived and facilitated the development of Howard’s wealth of archival resources into one of the primary centers for the study of people of African descent. The story of Dorothy Porter Wesley, a pioneer in the field of library and information science, is also the story of the triumphant beginnings of a new discipline. As a result of Porter’s vision and dedication, Black special collections began to occupy more prominent roles in their institutions, allowing engagement with historically marginalized narratives through the palpable past.
The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, an administrative unit containing the libraries, university archives, museum, and additional special collections at Howard University is the realization of a vision from centuries past. During Reconstruction, former Union general Otis Howard and his supporters in Washington D.C., founded the university that bears his name. From its inception, the school was to have a library. The first board members, many of whom were prominent figures in the local Black community or wealthy northern abolitionists, donated swaths of manuscript material, mostly concerning Africa and abolitionism.
These contributions reflected a wave of interest in studying Black history that coincided with the introduction of Black historical societies across the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In significant numbers, the Emancipated were reclaiming a history that white supremacy attempted to erase. After hundreds of years of white people in the United States denying Black people their agencies, histories, languages, and cultures, the very act of consolidating materials for study was radical, and the undercurrent of this practice is the genesis of a dedicated examination of Blackness.
Growing in an ebb and flow of major donations and smaller, continuous gifts, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center evolved from a one-room study in 1917 to a large-scale Foundation by the turn of the century. The University accepted donations of personal libraries and papers, including first editions and other rare texts and writings from Howard and his contemporaries. The generosity of donors was not unique to the University. Wherever freedmen settled, one of the first institutions in their communities was a school, and teachers were highly regarded. Additionally, wealthy, white, northern philanthropists felt strongly that contributing to the education of the formerly enslaved would partially atone for the “earthly torment” of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In these respects, the origins of Howard’s collections are comparable to those of peer institutions, although the school’s Du Boisian ethos differentiated it from its primarily vocational contemporaries.
By the 1930s, Howard University was one of the premier academic establishments for Black elites and their progeny. Sixty-five years removed from enslavement, the first generation of Howard graduates made way for a new crop. Among this number was Dorothy Porter.