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Music Scholars Discuss the Legacy of Harvard Professor Eileen Southern at Radcliffe Event

Located at 10 Garden Street, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study offers resources for students.
Located at 10 Garden Street, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study offers resources for students. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Caleb H. Painter, Contributing Writers

Professors of music and African American studies explored the legacy of Eileen Southern, the first African American woman tenured in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, at a virtual event hosted Thursday by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

The webinar, titled “Black Music and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story,” was part of the Harvard Music Department’s Eileen Southern Initiative, which examines the pathbreaking scholar’s impact in helping form the Black music studies field.

The event featured Georgia State University professor Marva Griffin Carter, University of Pennsylvania professor Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., and Yale University professor Braxton D. Shelley. Harvard Music professor Carol J. Oja moderated the webinar, which included a brief tour of the Eileen Southern digital exhibition.

Southern, a musician and scholar focused on Black folk music, was the first Black woman in the country to earn a Ph.D. in musicology. At the event, Oja said Southern’s landmark 1971 book “The Music of Black Americans” helped jumpstart Black music studies as a field of study.

“Eileen Southern laid the groundwork for the future studies,” Ramsey said. “If you had to get a lecture together, you start with Southern.”

But Southern’s work was disparaged at the time, according to Carter.

“It was believed there was nothing to be learned beyond Jazz, perhaps, in a course,” she said.

However, Carter added, Southern’s work proved that untrue.

“She sort of dared to lead the way, as opposed to being worried about doing what was in fashion and following the scholarly modes of her day,” Oja said in an interview. “And that’s crucial for any scholar to follow one’s own vision and have the courage to do so.”

Southern came to Harvard in the mid-1970s, where she taught classes in the Afro-American Studies Department. In 1976, she became the second chair of the department, now called the African and African American Studies Department. She was the first Black woman tenured in Harvard’s FAS.

Oja said very little of Southern's legacy at the school has been preserved.

“When I arrived at Harvard in 2003, I was just puzzled because there was just no trace of her anywhere,” she said.

This spurred Oja and other members of the Music Department to launch the initiative honoring her impact.

“While I think she’s being honored much later than she should have been, it’s still very gratifying to see it happening now,” Ramsey said in an interview.

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MusicFASRadcliffe InstituteAf Am Department