Continuing with this week’s theme, I will discuss Francis Johnson and Theodore Wright.
Francis Johnson, musician, composer, and bandmaster, was born in 1792 in Martinique in the West Indies and immigrated to Philadelphia in 1809 at the age of 17. By that point he had already mastered the keyed bugle and the violin. By his early 20s he was building a reputation as a bandleader in Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania.
Johnson gained greater popularity after music publisher George Willig published his Collection of New Cotillions in 1817. This was the first instance of a black band leader having his musical compositions published. By 1818, 26-year-old Johnson had become a leading dance band conductor for Philadelphia’s high society. During the 1820s, Johnson’s band performed at the city’s most popular dance venues at schools, private parties, and balls. Prominent military regiments like the Washington Guards Company Three Band and the State and the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry also hired Johnson’s ensemble. He personalized his performances by experimenting with different instrumentations, strings, and winds.
During his prolific career, Johnson composed over 200 musical arrangements in various styles including cotillions, operatic airs, ballads, quadrilles, patriotic marches, quicksteps, and other forms of ballroom music.
Besides serving the musical taste of the white public, Johnson also performed spirituals at African American churches in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. One of his most memorable musical performances occurred in 1841 when he collaborated with Morris Brown, Jr., one of the leading black ministers of the era, to perform Haydn’s Creation at the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Johnson’s band also shared the spotlight with other black bands in Philadelphia including those led by James Hemmenway and Isaac Hazzard. Nonetheless his was the most popular black band of the era.
Besides having the distinction of being the first black American composer to have his arrangements published as sheet music, Johnson was also the first African American bandleader to conduct public concerts and in 1837 he led the first American ensemble to perform before Queen Victoria in England. Johnson was also the first black musician to perform in integrated musical events in the United States, and the first musician to introduce keyed brass instruments to American bands. Johnson left numerous manuscript and piano transcriptions.
Francis Johnson died in 1844 in Philadelphia after a lengthy illness at the age of 52.
Theodore Sedgwick Wright, prominent clergymen, antislavery leader, and reformer was thought to have been born in New Jersey in 1797. He attended the New York African Free School. With the help of New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, Arthur Tappan and others from Princeton Theological Seminary, he became the first African American graduate from an American Theological seminary. After graduation Wright became pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church in New York City where he worked for the rest of his life.
Wright despised slavery and racism and spoke openly about it, even though at this time it was very dangerous. He is best known for his works as an abolitionist and devotee of black civil rights. Throughout the 1830s he was an agent of the New England Anti-Slavery Society which sponsored his travels and lectures condemning racial prejudice. Wright’s two most influential speeches were “The Progress of the Antislavery Cause” and “Prejudice Against the Colored Man.” He wrote several entries and speeches for William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, the leading anti-slavery newspaper in the United States in the antebellum period.
In 1833 Wright became one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He served as the Society’s executive committee until May 1840 when he joined other abolitionists in forming the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. This new moderate abolitionist organization opposed Garrison’s radical proposals regarding slavery. Wright was also the chairman of the New York Vigilance Committee which tried to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks who would then be sold into slavery. Wright also assisted fugitive slaves; his New York home was a station on the Underground Railroad.
In 1833 Wright was elected vice-president of the Phoenix Society, an organization which worked toward the improvement of the African American training “in morals, literature, and the mechanical arts.” Throughout the 1830s Wright circulated petitions to the New York legislature for the termination of property requirement mandates exclusively for the state’s black voters. In 1841 Wright was elected treasurer of the Union Missionary Society which sent missionaries to Africa. When the UMS joined the larger, predominately white American Missionary Association, Wright became an officer in the combined organization. In 1844 Wright joined the Liberty Party and became a member of the committee that chose its presidential and vice-presidential nominees.
On May 29, 1837 he married Adaline T. Turpin from New Rochelle, N.Y. On March 25, 1847, Theodore Sedgwick Wright died in New York City.