JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — She was a Black girl growing up a century ago in Jim Crow-era Johnson City — but Mildred Katharine Ellis not only persevered, she excelled.

“She went from here to being a world-traveling bilingual composer and pianist with three degrees, a college educator, she won a number of awards,” said Jeremy Smith, who is researching Ellis’s personal papers in hopes of producing an academic paper about her.

Ellis, the youngest of four children, managed all that and much more despite the obstacles of her father’s death when she was three (in 1909), her mother’s death when she was 19, and the general challenge of being a single, Black female in the first half of the 20th century.

A 22 or 23-year-old Mildred Ellis in 1929 (left) the year she graduated from Fisk University, and an undated photo of Mildred (top) with her sister Bertha and one of her brothers. (Mildred Katharine Ellis papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

Her story remains largely untold, but Smith hopes to change that and bring to light the accomplishments of a musical and professional pioneer. He is working toward publishing an academic article on Ellis’s life by the end of this year.

Smith stumbled across Ellis’s name when he was researching a women’s suffrage project and learned about Bertha Ellis, Mildred’s older sister and a beloved educator who stayed in Johnson City and became the namesake for an African-American girls club here.

Smith learned Bertha’s younger sister Mildred, born in 1906, was a musician who had left Johnson City and become a professor, musician and composer. He was intrigued.

“When I had some time here and there, I started looking to see what was written about her and the answer was nothing,” Smith said. “Nothing in the scholarly literature for music or for Appalachian studies.”

His first question, Smith said, was why not, even given the little he knew about her accomplishments. He had his theories.

“Black female playing classical music. Appalachian music scholars are not going to notice a bright Black woman period.”

An announcement (c. 1939) about Ellis’s appointment to the faculty at Philadelphia’s Berean School. (Mildred Katharine Ellis papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

Smith was very intrigued, especially after seeing a bit of information in newspapers.

“I knew she was worth paying attention to, but I just didn’t know if there were enough resources to be able to write anything. The difficulty anytime you try to do historical research about African Americans at all, there’s just not much content that’s been preserved.”

One bit Smith saw that further intrigued him was publicity about Ellis’s 1947 return to Johnson City to plan and produce a “Negro Music Festival” at East Tennessee State College (now ETSU). The event made national news, with Ellis already having charted quite a career course after graduating with honors degrees in both French and music from Nashville’s Fisk University in 1929.

Then came Smith’s “aha moment.”

“I realized her personal papers are at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University,” he said. Smith was able to visit the collection last month. Here’s a smattering of what he learned of what she’d already achieved when she returned to her hometown for the festival:

She’d earned master’s degrees in both French and music at the University of Michigan in 1937. She’d done a research summer at Harvard (1941) and spent two years in New York working with renowned composers and musicians Stefan and Irma Volpe (1945-47).

She’d headed Wilberforce University’s music department (1940-44) and volunteered at Quaker camps and YWCAs. She’d taught high school or college full time straight through from 1929 and with all that still had time to give recitals throughout the South and Midwest, taught private piano lessons, conducted choral groups, and been active in the Presbyterian church wherever she lived.

Ellis was almost 41 when she returned for the music festival. She’d live another 56 years and accomplish a great deal more.

“Being a woman and an African-American, those were I think two of the core parts of how she embraced her identity,” Smith said. “She was very intentionally involved in organizations that promoted that.”

Ellis, aged 84 or 85, at the 1991 Johann Sebastian Bach music festival at an unknown location. (Mildred Katharine Ellis papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

Ellis spent her later years in Washington, D.C., where she started the local chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians.

“She was the president of that group for a number of years. She was a member of organizations for female academics, so she was very much advocated for the kind of space that she wanted to occupy.”

The Johnson City years

Smith hasn’t yet learned much about Ellis’s Johnson City childhood. Her father had run a store out of a part of their house at 312 East Myrtle Avenue, a home Ellis owned (though she didn’t live in it) until it was torn down.

“She was forced out in 1969. She had to sell for the Interstate,” Smith said. What is now Interstate 26 used eminent domain to cut through a Black neighborhood in Johnson City, repeating what was a very common occurrence as Blacks had less power to keep such projects out of their neighborhoods.

Mildred Ellis (lower right) with her mother, sister and brothers in 1915. (Mildred Katharine Ellis papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

Long before that, a now-fatherless Ellis set out for Douglass Elementary School before eventually entering Langston, Johnson City’s Black high school. She was valedictorian in 1924.

After her father’s death, Ellis’s mother “was probably a domestic worker. That would have been very common, but we don’t know at this point.”

Whatever her mother and older siblings were doing, Mildred was getting some type of musical and academic formation, certainly at school and likely at Bethesda Presbyterian, her home church.

An item from the Johnson City Staff newspaper shows Ellis and a Maria Townes topping the bill for a May 23, 1919 music program from the “Grammar Department” of Langston High School. The pair were performing an instrumental duet. Ellis was 12 at the time.

“I’m still trying to track down what her early music education was like. We know at Langston, they had music classes, they had music teachers. Inevitably through Bethesda, she was involved in the music there. There’s just not a lot of documentation I’ve found.”

Smith suspects the “high church” liturgy that would have been practiced at Bethesda, a Black church that merged with Watauga Avenue Presbyterian in the 1960s, introduced Ellis “to the Euro-American classical music tradition.”

Archives of Appalachia Director Jeremy Smith hopes to complete a comprehensive scholarly article about Mildred Ellis’s life by the end of this year. (WJHL photo)

“One of my next steps is actually to track down some available resources that are at the Presbyterian archives in Philadelphia, and see if I can get a better sense of what a liturgy would have looked like in the 1910s for an African-American Presbyterian Church.”

Smith said he’d also love to know what other activities filled Ellis’s early days in a rapidly growing Johnson City, which grew from 4,645 people in 1900 to 25,080 in 1930.

“I would just love to hear more about the stories she told about growing up here,” Smith said, adding that he has found some people who knew her late in life and hopes to connect with them.

“There were integrated pockets of Johnson City at the time, but I don’t know the degree to which she felt that,” he said.

But around the growing girl, Johnson City was welcoming the arrival of the CC&O Railroad, the early years of the “Soldiers Home” (now Mountain Home VA) and the 1909 establishment of what is now ETSU.

“There’s all this growth and opportunity, at least for white people. I don’t know what it was like for her and that’s what I’d love to find out.”

Whatever her experiences were, Ellis was excelling, earning valedictorian honors in Langston’s class of 1924. She then made her way to Nashville and Fisk University, a historically Black, prestigious private school.

“I would love to know who opened that door for her how she knew about that,” Smith said. “I would love to know more about what music was like in her life as a child.”

Issues of the Johnson City Comet newspaper reveal some of the musicians who made it to Johnson City during her childhood, including a Black duo, a woman and a male baritone who were performing African-American concert music across the country.

A Johnson City Staff newspaper announcement about a Langston program shows Ellis receiving top billing.

“My hunch is, Ellis would have gotten to see that,” Smith said. “She had been 12 or 13 and that could have been one of those really formative experiences for her, because we do know that throughout her adult life, actively programming underrepresented African-American composers was a core of what she wanted to do.”

She didn’t fit into a lot of existing notions

A single Black woman teaching college, writing and performing classical music certainly didn’t fit into a ready mold, Smith said. And it had to take some grit to accomplish everything Ellis did, including finally finishing her PhD at Indiana University in 1969.

“She had a goal in mind and she was not going to stop until she got it, and I think ultimately, it’s just that resilience, just that determination and it’s also that adaptability — being willing to change and adjust when this door closes, pursue this one instead.”

Smith’s research at Amistad revealed what he said is a good example of her perseverance. Ellis was teaching at George Fox College in Oregon but was going to move back to Bloomington, Ind. to take some classes at IU.

“She learned to drive, got a car, rented a U-Haul. This is in the 1950s, this is still deep in the segregation era. She drove from Oregon to Indiana on her own, stopping along the way as needed. You know, she just did it. There was nothing that was gonna stop her from achieving the goal.”

Part of a 1940 feature article on Ellis in the Washington Afro-American newspaper. (Mildred Katharine Ellis papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

Those goals were arguably nonconformist. Ellis’s composing, teaching and musical talents received some recognition but weren’t of the style to get her widespread acclaim or turn her into a hometown hero.

“She didn’t fit into a lot of existing notions about what either Appalachian musicians were like, or what classical musicians were like, and so that intrigued me.”

Ellis typically included music by other African-American composers in her recitals — as well as playing some of her own — and during her Ph.D. work she sought to do a comparative musicological analysis between field recordings from Africa and contemporary (at the time) Black concert music.

Back to Johnson City and the Wednesday Morning Music Club

In the prime of her career, Ellis hatched a plan that would return her to Johnson City. She wanted to produce a music festival featuring Black musicians, Black music, and Black composers.

Ellis maintained frequent contact with people in her hometown at least into her 50s, and in 1947, a 40-year-old Ellis reached out to the town’s “Wednesday Morning Music Club,” a White organization.

The group supported her efforts and helped arrange to have the festival put on at ETSC more than a decade before the first Black students attended there.

“She programmed it, she produced it, she rehearsed everyone, she selected the material,” Smith said. “She included some of her original compositions, and it was performed and programmed and really well received.”

The August 15 event drew national press, getting a mention in the New York Times that noted the cross-racial cooperation. An article from an unidentified paper that identified Ellis as “of this city” (her handwritten CV lists her as teaching at Morristown College at the time) was headlined “Southern Whites Set Precedent With Negro Music Festival.”

That article notes Ellis was recognized as a “Tennessee State Composer” by the National Federation of Music Clubs. It cites the Times writer as pointing out the festival “sets a precedent for the south in that it is the first Negro music festival planned and presented by a white music club.”

Articles about the Johnson City music festival (right) and about Ellis’s 1944 appointment to the faculty at Charlotte, N.C.’s Johnson C. Smith University. (Mildred Katharine Ellis papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

The event included musicians from throughout Northeast Tennessee and was well-publicized locally before and after.

Smith is still sifting through the many gems he found at the Amistad Research Center, which include some greater insights into Ellis’s lifelong connections to Johnson City.

Ellis made a habit of writing a summary Christmas letter and sending it to friends.

“l got annual summaries, almost like diary entries from her for multiple years, and then I found out much more about some of her connections with Johnson City than I had known before.”

Those connections were strong enough to inspire Ellis to make West Lawn Cemetery in Johnson City her final resting place.

“She never lived here again (after Fisk), but she kept coming back and…she made it clear she wanted to be buried in Tennessee, beside her sister and her parents,” Smith said.

And if her personal papers, news media about her and Smith’s research show, Ellis seemed to get what she wanted. Smith thinks the examples of her mother and of Bertha, “who was very much a maternal figure to her,” laid a foundation for Mildred Ellis.

“She may have doubted, but she didn’t let that doubt stop her,” Smith said. “She kept going, she made space for herself, she achieved her goals and she really paved a path that I think a lot of others have been able to follow.”