Samuel Coleridge Taylor: the African American Perspective

TW: Discussions of racism and mention of lynchings. 

Coleridge-Taylor’s preeminent work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Anglo-African Composer – Mary Church Terrell Article from “The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts”


Before Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s first American tour, writer Mary Church Terrell traveled to London to profile Coleridge-Taylor as a prominent “Anglo-African Composer” for an American audience. Within her writing, we can see how an African American audience would perceive Coleridge Taylor’s music and status as a prominent British composer.

Mary Church Terrell, one of the first black women to ever receive a college education, worked at the forefront of Civil Rights activism for her whole life. She was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, an organization that predated the NAACP by at least ten years. 

In examining Church Terrell’s writing, she depicts Coleridge Taylor with the utmost respect and reverence. Unlike other white reporters and composers who described Coleridge Taylor as “the African Mahler,” 1she never compares his work to white contemporaries or established masters. Of his talents, she simply says, “He is primarily and essentially a creative genius.” 2

She also takes care in characterizing Coleridge Taylor beyond tokenization. She calls him “a cultured gentleman, affable, tho (sic) somewhat reserved;” 3 she portrays Coleridge Taylor and his family as “[a] beautiful picture of domestic happiness.” 4 

Terrell briefly describes societal conditions in Britain;

“Fortunately for Mr. Taylor, he was born in a country in which he is not handicapped on account of his dark face and curly hair. The English may have a slight antipathy to all dark races on general principles, as is asserted by those who are supposed to know, but it must be admitted that they place no obstacle in the way of those representatives of dark races who possess extraordinary gifts.” 5 

I find myself fascinated by the phrase “as is asserted by those who are supposed to know.” Is this a subtle dig at the general establishment, or a distinction between racism in Britain and America?

This article was published on November 24, 1904. According to the Library of Congress’ “African American Timeline,” seventy-six black Americans are known to have been lynched in 1904. We are still having conversations about the importance of positive representation for minorities, and here, Church Terrell’s writing provides stereotype free and nuanced depiction of a successful black man existing within an incredibly white domain. 


1Robles, 1.
2Church Terrell, 5.
3Church Terrell, 1.
4Church Terrell, 1.
5Church Terrell, 1.

Primary Source

Church Terrell, Mary. 1904. “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Anglo-African Composer.” The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921), Nov 24, 1141.

Secondary Sources

Dignity and Defiance: A Portrait of Mary Church Terrell. Directed by Hamilton, Robin N. Around Robin Production Company, 2017.

Robles, Zanaida Noelle. 2014. “The Sacred Choral Works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.” Order No. 10799226, University of Southern California.

“Timeline of African American History, 1901 to 1925.” Library of Congress. 

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