Walking with the Saints


Henry Thacker “Harry” Burleigh

Henry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh (December 2, 1866 – September 12, 1949), was an African-American classical composer, arranger, and professional singer known for his baritone voice. The first black composer instrumental in developing characteristically American music, Burleigh made black music available to classically trained artists both by introducing them to spirituals and by arranging them in a more classical form. He is most remembered for recovering and arranging many Negro spirituals for solo voice and piano and bringing that gift to the concert stage.

Although Harry was classically trained at the National Conservatory of Music and enjoyed great accomplishments, the path that brought him there was not always smooth. His grandfather, Hamilton Waters – a slave who was granted manumission from slavery after paying $55 dollars ($50 for himself and $5 for his mother) – was once beaten so savagely that he was left blind. It was his grandfather who passed along the rich history of spirituals by singing them to Harry. The image of the blind former slave singing spirituals into the ear of his young grandson is filled with sweetness and grace in the midst of struggle.

As for Harry, he helped support his family by working odd jobs, lighting streetlamps, and selling newspapers. Later, when honoring the legacy passed from his grandfather and pursuing his passion for music, particularly spirituals, Harry supported himself in his Conservatory studies by working as a handyman for Frances MacDowell, who had advocated on his behalf for acceptance into the Conservatory (he was originally denied, citing poor grades, which apparently not accurate). 

In 1894, he became a soloist for St. George's Episcopal Church in New York City. Some parishioners opposed hiring Burleigh at the all-white church, because of his race, at a time when other white New York Episcopal churches were forbidding black people to worship. J. P. Morgan, a member of St. George's at that time, cast the deciding vote to hire Burleigh. In spite of the initial resistance from the parish, Harry became close with many of the parishioners. Throughout his amazing career and great accomplishments, he remained on staff as baritone in the St. George’s Parish Choir for 52 years, retiring in 1946.

For me, the story of Harry Burleigh is one filled with struggle, grace and beauty. Harry was an icon of dignity and authenticity. He seems to have known who he was and was not – could not – be moved away from his truth. Through it all, he carried himself with a poetic grace of hospitality and true generosity of spirit that all of us would do well to pay attention to.

Like our nation, the church has a complicated history with slavery and racism. Through the universal beauty and power of music, people like Harry Thacker Burleigh can bring us together in ways that can truly help us honor our baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every single human being, and do it not only with our lips, but with the way we live together and honor one another with mutual respect, kindness and real affection.

I am grateful that The Episcopal Church honors the life and witness of Harry Thacker Burleigh every September 11. Because Harry is teaching something important with the legacy of his life. How far have we truly come from a time when people are beaten blind because of the color of their skin? How far have we come from dissention in a parish over a person’s desire to bring their gifts to the choir, or to the parish at large, because of the color of their skin?

These questions are surely worthy of our consideration, but the more important question is how much further do we have yet to go in order to fulfill God’s vision of heaven right here on earth. A vision where everyone is not only truly welcomed, but honored for the gifts they bring – a vison where all of us embrace the truth that no one is beyond the grace and love of God. Then the question becomes, how do we get there? Maybe we get there by witnessing the authenticity of Harry Thacker Burleigh’s life and doing our best to model that type of authenticity in our own. I have a sense that Harry knew and lived to the best of his ability, the authentic Gospel life as taught to us and modeled for us by Jesus. That’s a pretty good place to start.