Racism and Sexism Destroyed Her

Anne Gamble Kennedy: 1920-2001

In Anticipation of Anne Gamble Kennedy's 100th Birthday Celebration/Virtual Exhibit

Anne Gamble Kennedy began her career with faith, hope, and optimism. She was a black woman (albeit light-skinned), and endured the racism that was rampant in the American South during the first half of the twentieth century. Growing up in Charleston, West Virginia, she endured the humiliation of segregated schools, public accommodations and toilets. She eventually moved further south to study a Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941, she enrolled in the Conservatory at Oberlin College in Ohio where she earned a Bachelor of Music degree. Soon afterwards, she moved to New York City to study privately with famed pianist Ray Lev. Then she accepted teaching positions at Tuskegee Institute and Talladega College in Alabama, and began a successful concert career. She was invited to perform at several HBCUs throughout the south, and even received an invitation to appear as piano soloist with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 1949. She would have been the first African American to do so. Their conductor at the time was a progressive American citizen with Italian roots. He greatly improved the orchestra's reputation. Unfortunately, he met an untimely death before the concert was scheduled to take place. His replacement was a typical American racist, and cancelled Miss Gamble's contract. Decades later, her husband (my father) would tell me that he felt that she never recovered from this disappointment.

  The Fisk University Choir in 1952. (Anne Gamble is seated at the left piano.)

Anne Gamble joined the piano faculty at Fisk University in 1950, and enjoy status as their premier faculty member. She gave faculty recitals and was often reviewed in The Tennessean. Famed composer John W. Work was the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at the time, and he asked Miss Gamble to serve as piano accompanist for the group. In addition to accompanying the singers, she would perform piano solos on their programs during their tours. 

All was well, until the arrival of a Matthew Kennedy on the campus as a young faculty member. He had served as a soldier in WWII, which had delayed his Fisk graduation. He went to Juilliard for his master's, then returned to Nashville to teach at Fisk in 1954. While he was an undergrad, he had served as piano accompanist of the Fisk Jubilee Singers under Mrs. James A. Myers. When Dr. Work fell ill, he asked Matthew to take over as director of the group. Anne Gamble continued in her role as piano accompanist after Matthew took over as director.

Another major event in the lives of Anne Gamble and Matthew Kennedy happened in 1956. President Charles S. Johnson donated their wedding that took place in the Fisk Memorial Chapel. Anne was initially pleased to be a married woman, but I don't think she was prepared for the pressure from family and friends to give up her career and focus on being a wife and mother. At that time, she may have thought that marriage would increase her political clout on the campus. But many of the men in the administration simply saw her as Matthew's wife, and did not feel that she was deserving of an adequate salary. She was by far the better pianist; but as a female, she was not given the recognition.

The next significant event that happened in Anne Gamble Kennedy's life was the death of her mother in 1958 - just two years after her wedding. Anne and her mother were extremely close. Her father had been killed in a car accident when she was eleven years old, so her mother was her everything. Her mother, Nina, probably had a lot to do with securing all of those engagements she received as a young performer. She had served as president of Charleston's Women's Improvement League, and had traveled abroad as a teenager with Frederick Loudin's Fisk Jubilee Singers. Anne had spent the first half of her life living up to her mother's expectations. After Nina's death, and Anne realized that this marriage was not resulting in the political clout that she had hoped for, she became depressed. She was still a woman in mourning for her mother when her daughter was born.

After her death in 2001, my father said to me, "Well, if your mother hadn't been pregnant with you, she would've left me." I saw her as a woman who struggled with depression throughout her life. It's unfortunate that I never got the chance to meet the woman in the pictures from before their wedding. She looked like a dynamic, hopeful, energetic young woman. Something happened to her. She gave up on the hope of having her own successful career, and became determined that I would become the concert pianist that she was not allowed to become. Well, I hope she enjoys this 100th Birthday Celebration/Virtual Exhibit that we have put together honoring her.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Register for the September 25th launch of the exhibit at www.celebratelifesmoments.online.


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