Francis “Frank” B. Johnson (1792-1844), a Philadelphia bugler and band leader, was the most popular black composer in the pre-Civil War United States. He published his first work, “A Collection of New Cotillions” in Philadelphia in 1819. Johnson’s band soon became the leading musical group for social events and marches in the region. Despite their popularity, racial violence broke out during at least one concert. The members were also arrested and fined in St. Louis for entering the State of Missouri as free blacks without official permission. In 1837, Johnson and his band members became the first African American musicians to travel to Europe to perform. Their triumphant return to the United States in 1838 generated more notoriety as they now performed outdoor “Promenade Concerts” throughout the Northeast. Johnson composed “Honor To The Brave: Gen. Lafayette’s Grand March,” which became a popular tribute to the French military leader who helped the United States win its freedom from Great Britain. The composition can be heard on the CD “The Music of Francis Johnson and His Contemporaries: Early 19th-Century Black Composers”.
Justin Holland (1819-1887), was a classical guitarist who composed and arranged hundreds of works which were widely played in the 19th Century. After two periods at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, he became Cleveland’s first black professional classical musician and music teacher.
Jose Silvestre White
José Silvestre White (1835-1918) was an Afro-Cuban violinist who excelled at the Paris Conservatory and later served as a professor there for many years. During the 1875-1876 season White performed twice with the New York Philharmonic under Conductor Theodore Thomas.
Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908) was a blind and autistic slave who was a classical pianist and a composer of popular songs. Owners and managers kept control of Wiggins and his huge income all his life prompting Geneva Handy Southall, his biographer, to subtitle her account of him, “Continually Enslaved.”
Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was known as the “King of Ragtime,” but he also composed classical works. His opera “Treemonisha” has been performed by the Gunther Schuller and the Houston Grand Opera.