In the 1920s, a young opera singer by the name of Mary Cardwell came face-to-face with a hard truth: the color of her skin would dictate the outcome of her career.
A National Negro Opera Company souvenir brochure from 1957 describes her realization:
During intermission, she often went back stage to really observe for herself, hoping eventually to find one of her people there. Actually, she was only to be discouraged, disappointed and finally made to wonder why the omission of her people… She thus began to wonder why even she had chosen this field for her life’s work. She found the same type of exclusion existing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which she often attended on Fridays, as well as operas in other cities from coast to coast. Everywhere, and in every respect, she found complete discrimination or exclusion. This weighed heavily upon that young student of the Conservatory. (link)
Racism has cost classical music countless stars. Many great musicians left the field altogether, and for good reason. But Mary Cardwell Dawson chose another path. She attempted to remake the art from the inside.
Mary Cardwell was the second of six children born to a farming family in Madison, North Carolina. Sources differ as to exactly when; some say 1894, while others indicate 1896. Around 1900, her father J.A. and her uncle moved to Pittsburgh to work at a brickyard in Homestead. In 1901, after the brothers had finally saved enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. In Mary’s new neighborhood, recently relocated African-Americans lived next door to white European immigrants. Growing up in such a place had a profound effect on her worldview.