In the face of the racism of the classical music world that barred African Americans from performing in opera companies, Mary Caldwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) in Pittsburgh in 1941. She provided talented African American singers with opportunities denied them by unjust Jim Crow segregation. For twenty-one years she trained students in voice and classical music. She produced acclaimed opera performances in New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Washington. The NNOC repertoire included "Aida," "La Traviata," "Il Travatore," "Carmen," "Ouanga," "Faust," and "The Ordering of Moses." The National Negro Opera Company also gave voice to African American opera composers. Premiered by the NNOC were R. Nathaniel Dett's "The Ordering of Moses" and Clarence Cameron White's "Ouanga, Ouanga." The NNOC had chapters in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh, and Red Bank, New Jersey. Turned down for grants by racist philanthropic arts organizations Mary worked diligently to raise the funds to support the NNOC and the students. Her students went on the train other singers and to become successful performers. The first African-American man to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, Robert McFerrin, was a member of the NNOC. Mary Caldwell Dawson also trained jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and Broadway performer Napoleon Reed.
Mary Cardwell was born in 1894 in Madison, North Carolina. At age seven in 1901 she moved north with her family to Munhall, Pennsylvania. Her father found work at the Hobson and Walker Brickyard in Homestead. Mary learned to sing in the choir of her church. Mary enrolled in the New England Conservatory of music the only African American in her class. She put herself through school with a job cleaning a dentist office. She graduated at age 31 in 1925 with degrees in voice and piano. Aspiring to be an opera singer she continued her studies at the Chicago Musical College and in New York. Realizing that there were no opportunities for African American opera singers she returned home to Pittsburgh in 1927 with her new husband Walter Dawson.
Mary found work giving private voice lessons. Walter Dawson, a master electrician, found work cleaning fans for the government General Services Administration. In the evenings and weekends he worked at his own firm, the Dawson Electric Company. As the business prospered Walter opened an electrical shop and hired several employees. Mary opened the Cardwell Dawson School of Music above the Dawson Electric Company service shop on Frankstown Road in Homewood. At her school Mary trained she trained hundreds of African-Americans in operatic singing and classical music. She recruited students from churches. Others came to her seeking auditions. Eager to learn some of students barter their services for lessons. Mary also directed several black choirs. She directed of choir of 500 singers that won national awards in 1935 and 1937. From her students Mary formed the Cardwell Dawson Choir that became nationally known. Her choir toured the country in the 1930s performing at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
With the success of her school and choirs Mary Cardwell Dawson was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) in 1938. At the annual meeting of NANM in June of 1941 Mary produced Verdi's "Aida" with a company of African American singers selected from auditions in ten states. With public acclaim for her production, Mary was convinced the African-American singers needed an opera company to provide them with opportunities to perform that the white racist opera world denied them. Returning to Pittsburgh Mary Cardwell Dawson launched the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), the first African American opera company, with an inaugural performance of Aida at the Syria Mosque on October 30th, 1941. The company included prominent solos and choir members from Pittsburgh’s African American churches. The cast included La Julia Rhea, Robert McFerrin, Monto Cato, Carol Brice, and Lillian Evanti. The concert received rave reviews.
"We have rarely heard so impressive a chorus in all our opera experience" - Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram
“It wasn't simply 'good for Negroes' opera. It was a show that might have roused Verdi himself… You must see and hear this opera." - P.L. Prattis the Pittsburgh Courier
From the initial concert Dawson kept the NNOC alive for twenty one years and expanded its operations to several cities. The NNOC went on to produce operas in Washington, D.C, New York City, and Chicago. In 1943 The NNOC performed Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Washington, DC for an audience of 15,000. Sold out performances were held at the Washington National Guard Armory, the Watergate, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Hall. The National Negro Opera Company was the first outside company permitted to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
To fund the organization Dawson held many benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall and other major venues over the years enlisting the aid of popular performers such as Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and W.C. Handy. Her students and choirs performed fund-raising concerts at churches and community halls and presented fashion shows. She sang solo performed at many of those concerts. She campaigned endlessly to raise money for the NNOC. Her students sold tickets the NNOC opera productions. Her husband Walter donated funds, sold opera tickets, and posted flyers for performances.
In 1943 Mary established the second chapter of the National Negro Opera Company when Walter Dawson took a job in Washington D.C. The Pittsburgh and Washington companies exchanged singers for performance. Over the next few years Dawson added companies in Chicago, Cleveland and New York The NNOC staged operas in stadiums, theaters, churches, Carnegie Hall, the Met, Madison Square Garden, the Watergate, and the Syria Mosque. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, donated Griffith Stadium at no charge for nine straight years.
In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Dawson to the National Music Committee. Mary Cardwell Dawson died at age 60 in Washington D.C. 1962. Without Mary’s funding raising efforts and without private sponsors or an endowment, the National Negro Opera Company closed after her death. Mary left behind a generation of singers who are training other singers and who are performing in operas and choirs.
One singer who benefited from Mary Cardwell Dawson‘s cause was O'Labrice Beckom, In 1943 O'Labrice Beckom, a fifteen year old lyric soprano, auditioned for the Pittsburgh Opera. The opera judge impressed with her singing said "Boy, if we could only paint her white." Barred from performing by the racist Jim Crow policy of the Pittsburgh Opera, Mary Cardwell Dawnson allowed Beckom’s voice to be heard. Beckom sang opera on national stages across the country with the National Negro Opera Company. When Mary Cardwell Dawson moved to Washington, Beckom helped managed the Pittsburgh branch of the NNOC. She also sang solos with the Sewickley Civic Symphony in the 1950s and '60s along with performing in churches and concerts. She directed choirs at several churches and taught music in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Hill House.