Born: April 9, 1887 – Little Rock, Arkansas

Died: June 3, 1953 – Chicago, Illinois

Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, on one of four concerts presented at The Auditorium Theatre from June 14 through June 17 during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. The historic June 15th concert entitled “The Negro in Music” also included works by Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Alden Carpenter performed by Margaret A. Bonds, pianist and tenor Roland Hayes with the orchestra. Florence Price’s symphony had come to the attention of Stock when it won first prize in the prestigious Wanamaker Competition held the previous year.

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A Fight for Recognition

Although this premiere brought instant recognition and fame to Florence Beatrice Price, success as a composer was not to be hers. She would “continue to wage an uphill battle – a battle much larger than any war that pure talent and musical skill could win. It was a battle in which the nation was embroiled – a dangerous mélange of segregation, Jim Crow laws, entrenched racism, and sexism.” (Women’s Voices for Change, March 8, 2013). The same fate would also befall fellow Arkansan William Grant Still, the “Dean of Black Composers” (whose Afro-American Symphony was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Symphony under Howard Hanson, the first time in history that a major American orchestra had played a symphonic work by a black composer) and many others due to rampant endemic and systemic racism.

A Young Beginning

Professor Dominique-René de Lerma, distinguished American musicologist and eminent historian states “Florence Price was born in a racially-integrated community in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 where, at the age of four, she played in her first piano recital and her first composition was published at the age of eleven, all under her mother’s guidance.” De Lerma continues, “Her mother Florence Irene Smith Nee Gulliver, had been a school teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana before her marriage, and in Little Rock had a restaurant, sold real estate, and served as secretary of the International Loan and Trust Company. Her father, James H. Smith, was the city’s only black dentist (his patients included the state’s governor) who had moved to Little Rock in 1876.”

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Before the Birth of Florence B. Price

The grandmother of Florence B. Price was named Florence Irene Gulliver Smith. Florence Irene was considered a mulatto woman. The term “mulatto” was used during the 1800’s and it referred to a child that was born to a black slave mother and a white slave master. It is considered an offensive term by today’s standards, but within the historical content of this article, it is used with respect to the history of Florence B. Price. Florence Irene’s mother was named Mary McCoy who was born in 1835. Read about the Gulliver family, the grandfather of Florence Price:

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Parents of Florence B.  Price

The father of Florence Beatrice, Dr. James H. Smith, was a dentist. His parents were free blacks. His parents were of mixed races. Dr. Smith was born in 1843 in Camden, Delaware. His parents eventually moved the family up to New Jersey with the hope of better living conditions. Though blacks were considered free there were many conditions that would prevent blacks from obtaining legal residence and were prevented from becoming politically active. New Jersey offered living conditions for blacks that were a little better. Dr. Smith moved to New York by the time he was 15 and found employment as a private secretary as he continued his education. Eventually he moved to Philadelphia to study dentistry. He worked as an apprentice but when he tried to apply to dental schools, he was denied acceptance because he was black. There were no black dental schools in the nation. He would continue his work as an apprentice until he received certification and was able to practice dentistry. This was an amazing feat because by this time less than a dozen black dentists existed in the United States. Read more about her parents:

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Growing up in the Smith’s Home

At the time of Florence Beatrice Price’s birth, April 9, 1887, the home was elegant and lavishly decorated. Dr. Smith had a very successful dental business with black and white clients. He was also very involved in the community and was politically active as well. Her mother, who was an accomplished pianist, regularly entertained guests and would often play for the guests. It was known that she owned a Ivers and Pond piano, a very expensive instrument made with exotic woods with beautiful ornate designs in the cabinet of the instrument. Click Read More to see an advertisement of the Ivers and Pond piano during the late 1800’s:

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The Smith’s Home

Their home had such rooms as a formal library as there were no libraries for blacks. He owned many medical books and journals which Florence Beatrice enjoyed reading. They had carpeted floors, lavishly decorated parlor, a sewing room, a kitchen, and three bedrooms with walnut and oak furniture. Read about the famous guests that stayed in the Smith’s home by clicking Read More:

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Early Lessons and Composition

Early Piano Lessons

Florence Beatrice started piano with her mother well before the age of four because by the age of four she had played her first recital. Concert pianist John Blind Boone was in town at the time of her concert. He was very enthusiastic about her talent and would maintain a friendly relationship with Florence Beatrice for many years of her life.

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Secondary School Days

Florence Beatrice attended Union School which later became known as Capitol Hill High. Union School was at first an elementary school and a night school for blacks. Eventually it would expand to junior and senior school. Florence Beatrice enjoyed school and had such subjects as reading, spelling, writing, grammar, diction, history, geography, arithmetic, and music. Read about conditions of schools during the 1890’s for black students:

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High School

Florence Beatrice graduated from high school at the age of 14. She was valedictorian of her class. It was no surprise that she would graduate so early. Her mother focused on helping her daughter to develop leadership skills and helped her to develop a sense of organization. These would help Florence Beatrice in her later years in life as she would act as her own agent as well as keeping busy as a composer and pianist.

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Preparing for College

Florence Beatrice at the age of 14 was too young to go away to college. She faced the age challenge as well as the challenge of pursuing music as a female musician, and she faced the challenges of attending a predominantly white college.

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Pursuing a Double Major at New England Conservatory

Florence B. Price attended NEC from 1903-1906. This photo represen

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Composition at NEC

George Whitefield Chadwick, composer and professor at NEC, was a huge influence on Price. Chadwick was noted in particular for his attention and suggestions of use of Negro folk melodies and rhythms. When Czechoslovakian composer, Antonin Dvořák, arrived to the US in 1895, upon hearing the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic characteristics of the African American and the Native American folk music, he encouraged American composers to incorporate this rich material into their works.  Price started to respond to her compositional instincts and began her compositional study.

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Compositions Reflecting History

Taken at the Special Collections at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Price’s title of this work reflects one of the main sources for meals for slaves.

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Studying at NEC

Florence was very active as a recitalist at NEC and was often featured in many of the evening recitals. She was invited to play in commencement  and this is special because only 9 of a class of 50 were asked to perform on commencement.

Price received both the Teachers Diploma in Piano and a Soloists Diploma in Organ within just three years. 

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Price’s Class at New England Conservatory

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Florence Price as a Negro student at NEC

During the turn of the century in America, the Negro was suffering from many challenges ranging from those that lived in the south where the practices of the Jim Crow laws were strongly enforced to the North where many were in competitions for jobs with immigrants and foreigners. The conflict within the black race was increasingly becoming a challenge between the perceived lighter and darker complected as the lighter complected Negro was assumed to be smarter because there were more indications of white descent which translated as being smarter than the darker complected Negro. This would lead to jealousy and lack of support in addition to the usual racial components as a black from the counterpart white person.  Read how Ms. Smith handled this situation with her daughter, Florence Beatrice at NEC:

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Segregation’s Affects

Segregation was the order of the day and racial tensions began to mount in the city. Price was unable to find employment and, after being refused admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers Association, she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians and taught music at the segregated black schools. Little Rock had been a comfortable city for Black residents, but as racial problems began to develop resulting in a lynching, she moved with her husband, Attorney Thomas J. Price (whom she married in 1912) and their two daughters, to Chicago in 1927.

Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Price joined the R. Nathaniel Dett Club of Music and the Allied Arts (named for the black composer of Canadian descent) and did additional study at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago Teachers College, Central YMCA College, the University of Chicago and Chicago Musical College (now Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University) as a student in composition and orchestration with Carl Busch and Wesley LaViolette, graduating in 1934.

It was at Chicago Musical College that Florence Price met baritone Theodore Charles Stone, a member of the Chicago Music Association who later served as its President from 1954 to 1996).

The Chicago Music Association (CMA) had been established March 3, 1919 by Nora Douglas Holt, then the classical music critic for The Chicago Defender, in order to provide performance venues for classically-trained “Negro” musicians who were, by tradition, denied performance opportunities in major concert halls and on opera stages throughout the country. In July, 1919, musicians from Washington, D. C., met with the newly-organized CMA in Chicago at Bronzeville’s historic Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A. and organized the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (NANM); CMA became the first branch and awarded its first scholarship prize to Miss Marian Anderson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is significant to note here that these meetings were held during a horrific race war occurring less than three miles away at the 31st Street Beach and gunshots could be heard through the open windows of the meeting hall.

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Florence Price Recording Project

Dr. Walwyn looks forward to completing the first of four volumes of music for solo piano and some chamber work of Florence Price. She anticipates the completion of the first volume by July 2021. Updates will be announced here at our Florence Price News.
Most of the works to be recorded will be premiere recordings. It is a very exciting project, and we hope that you will check back to see how things are coming especially as we get closer to Florence’s birthday, April 9.

We are accepting donations towards the recording project.

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