Black History Month Spotlight: Henry Thacker Burleigh

Written by PA Intern Elizabeth Nam.

Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh was a prominent African-American composer who brought spiritual songs into the music world and left a notable footprint in music history. He was born on December 2, 1866 in Erie, Pennsylvania. During his childhood, he was noted by family and friends for his talented voice and was taught traditional Black music by his grandfather, Hamilton Walters. Burleigh had to work multiple jobs to support his family. However, it did not alter his love for music. He sang in churches, synagogues, and worked as a doorman for musicals. His hard work paid off as he received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music. Despite having a scholarship, Burleigh had to work in the labor industry and as a stenographer to pay for living expenses.

During Burleigh’s time at the conservatory, he worked with composers Edward MacDowell, Victor Herbert, and Antonín Dvorák. Burleigh is known for his influence on Dvorák’s music career as he applied to be Dvorák’s student. In New World Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “Going Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” can be heard in the opening, the melody, and the flute tune. Old Folks at Home featured Harry Burleigh and Sissieretta Jones as soloists. Burleigh’s many contributions to Dvorák’s work allowed him to become a music editor and paved the way for his successful career, along with his undeniable talent in music. In 1898, he married poet Louise Alson and had one son together, Alston. Later on, Burleigh became a lecturer and often performed at Black schools, spreading the beauty of his music to his community and the beauty of traditional Black music to the whole world. In 1949, he died at age 82.

One of his numerous notable achievements is becoming a soloist of St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York for 50 years. Burleigh is nicknamed the “Father of Spirituals” as he arranged adaptations of many African-American spirituals. He has won many awards, medals, and honors, such as the Spingarn Medal and honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University. Last year, the Philharmonic Association’s Triangle Youth Philharmonic performed From the Southland , one of Burleigh’s compositions for piano which he arranged for orchestra. Burleigh brought the music world into a new light, inspired generations of composers, and left a legacy that will not be forgotten.