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Review: Eileen Southern and The Music of Black Americans

A review of Eileen Southern and The Music of Black Americans, a community-curated digital exhibition, directed by Katie Callam, Christina Linklater, and Carol J. Oja

Published onFeb 28, 2023
Review: Eileen Southern and The Music of Black Americans

Eileen Southern and The Music of Black Americans

Project Directors
Katie Callam, Harvard University
Christina Linklater, Harvard University
Carol J. Oja, Harvard University

A full list of team members is available on the site.

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Bethany Gareis, University of Tennessee

Project Overview

Katie Callam, Christina Linklater, and Carol J. Oja

Eileen Southern and The Music of Black Americans is a community-curated digital exhibition created at Harvard University. Its mission is to make materials relating to Eileen Southern (1920-2002) widely available, and to serve as a source of information about the first Black woman to hold a tenured position in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

The Eileen Southern Initiative (ESI) was created in 2018 by musicology faculty and Music Library staff at Harvard to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Music of Black Americans, Southern’s landmark work of musicology. First published in 1971, the book is currently in its third edition and has never been out of print. Our project commenced in 2019 with a graduate seminar taught by Carol J. Oja, who made several visits to the Eileen Southern personal archive at the Harvard University Archives with her students. Eventually the Eileen Southern Initiative grew to encompass two virtual symposia at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute; a concert and campus visit by the Aeolians, a choir from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama; and in-library and digital exhibitions curated by Oja's students, who selected materials from Harvard Library's existing collections and created new materials.

These new materials take the form of oral history interviews with Southern's friends and colleagues and with young scholars whom she influenced. Also, the digital exhibition illustrates Southern's global impact by presenting her letters from the archives in an interactive map. The digital materials in the exhibition are nearly all new scans and video generated by Harvard Library and other repositories. The project uses Omeka Classic with a custom theme designed by Cara Buzzell. In yet another component of the ESI, three Harvard undergraduates made a short film (with musical score) introducing the achievements and challenges of Southern’s career. Video content is hosted on YouTube, and we are currently working on depositing media to the Harvard University Archives. 

Three editors, Katie Callam, Christina Linklater and Carol J. Oja, designed the project's textual content. Additional text was composed by the students in Oja's seminar and other students who joined the project independently. Part of the project's aim is to encourage students to experiment with new technology, such as creating the map of Southern's international correspondence.

This project is aimed at a wide audience. Our users include musicologists, historians of African American culture, students and educators at all levels, and anyone interested in the life of a Black woman at Harvard in the 20th century. This project has received extensive financial support and expert guidance from Harvard University and its staff. 

Project Review

Bethany Gareis

Eileen Southern and The Music of Black Americans started as a class project designed to honor the 50th anniversary of Eileen Southern’s book The Music of Black Americans: A History (1971), and it has expanded to a project that explores many different aspects of Southern’s life and career. Southern was the first Black woman to hold a tenured position in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Her contributions to musicology reached audiences across the globe and inspired correspondence from countless academics, musicians, students, and foundations that recognized her accomplishments and sought out her expertise. This project also continues to inspire and encourage student research and technological design. Four years after the project's initiation, Harvard’s faculty and students have yet to finish telling the story of Southern as more archival material continues to be collected, recorded, and celebrated. 

This community-curated exhibit is hosted on a beautiful Omeka Classic site that integrates functionality from ArcGIS StoryMaps in the “Maps” section. The website uses an original theme that pays tribute to Southern’s book, with headers and backgrounds that feature some of the images that Southern selected for The Music of Black Americans in 1971. The smooth navigation leads users through a gallery of content that includes a multimedia biography containing photos, newspaper clippings, letters, and a selection of materials that inspired some of Southern’s work during her career. The project’s homepage features an introductory video from the oral history project that is just one of the many student-led modules of this expanding digital humanities project. 

More detailed accounts of Southern’s multifaceted work as a teacher, scholar, and cultural vanguard appear in various Omeka pages, each of which focuses on related archival objects that contain descriptive metadata. The “Timeline” page chronicles various events of Southern’s life and career, placing them alongside  U.S. history. The “Teaching” page gives a more detailed account of Southern’s pedagogical legacy and leadership. The “Life + Career” page uses Southern’s own words to provide a testimony of her experiences with racism and sexism, and also tells the stories of some of the great joys in her life, such as her love of Black culture, friends and family, tuna fish sandwiches, and baby grand pianos. Many of these memories were collected from Southern’s appearance in the 1981 documentary Oral History of the Tenured Women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

The “Scholarship” page provides a gallery of some of Southern’s scholarly work, organized into three sections: a section on The Music of Black Americans; sections on The Black Perspective in Music, an academic journal for Afro-American and African music that Southern and her husband Joseph Southern started in 1973; and “Renaissance Scholarship,” which features Southern’s dissertation on the Buxheim Organ Book as well as some of her subsequent work on 15th-century German music. 

The ArcGIS map embedded into the “Map” section of the exhibit features many letters Southern received and donated to Harvard’s archives, selected for display by graduate researchers at Harvard. Other collections of her correspondence are held at Fisk University and Columbia College in Chicago. Southern received mail from students, educators, and creators from five different continents, and the full content of these letters can be selected in “Self Navigation Mode.” The “Guided Tour” option immerses the viewer in a chronological introduction to some of Southern’s contemporaries who, like Southern, faced the challenges of systemic racism — and often sexism — and sought to collect and celebrate Black music in the U.S. and beyond.

In the future, I would be really intrigued to see (and hear) more audio and visual content from Southern and her contemporaries, as well as some of the scholars and musicians she has since inspired. I also look forward with hope to the growth of the “Map” exhibition as more letters and other archival materials are collected and shared.

In present form, however, this project is a testament to Southern’s contributions, making her story widely available and inspiring new conversations and collaborations that honor her work and carry on her legacy of demonstrating the beauty and importance of Black music in U.S. culture. 

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