Eva Jessye


Eva Jessye


Eva Jessye

Kansas Women

60” x 72”

Acrylic and Oil on Linen


Eva Jessye was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 20th, 1895. She was left with relatives at age three when her mother moved to Seattle. During the summers, the families would go pick cotton elsewhere, and Eva would stay with her aunt on a farm near Caney. She felt fear and heartache on the endless stretch of plains. She remembers the times listening to her Aunt Harriet sing as the most enjoyable moments during that time. She joined her mother years later in Seattle where she stayed for 2 years. The railway porters gave her poetry books to read, from there grew her love of poetry.


Back in Coffeyville she stayed with Aunts Iola and St. Louis. Her interest in music developed through the years and she organized her first singing ensemble. She enrolled in a university near Kansas City, and began studying and eventually teaching music. Eva Jessye changed her last name from Jesse to Jessye to seperate herself from her “outlaw” father and his reputation. Though he was very much a musical celebrity and into many forms of music, she did not want to be known as Al Jesse’s Daughter.


She began supporting herself by ironing shirts for $13 a week, and sang in theaters during silent films. She was hired to sing on Broadway, a warm up act, that led to her forming a choir, the “Dixie Jubilee Singers.” She and the singers had regular appearances on national radio and later was involved in one of the first singing commercials,for Van Heusen shirts. Ms. Jessye published a book of black songs that she remembered from her childhood in Kansas, called “My Spirituals”. In 1929, Eva Jessye made it to Hollywood to direct the choir for King Vidors film “Hallelujah,” and she also appeared in many films. Four years later she was the choral director for Gertrude Steins opera “Four Saints in Three Acts.”


Then in 1935, the first true American opera “Porgy and Bess” opened in October, with Eva Jessye as choral director.

All the while, she thought and planned future projects.

“’Wait’ broke the wagon down. What’s the matter with now?”


She received several honorary doctoral degrees and was acquainted with many dignitaries. In 1963 she walked with Martin Luther King Jr.


“I often think if I had been white, where would I have been? Perhaps not anywhere. Because I think I had it made, you know. Who’s that who said he took the road less traveled?... I took the color less desirable and it made all the difference.”


Dr. Eva Jessye died February 21, 1992 at the age of 97.


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