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If you look at the listings of the major orchestras in America you will see two things in common; very few of them are programming major pieces by women composers, and almost none have a woman on the podium. Despite the abundance of wonderful compositions by women, the world of classical music has been, for centuries, a man’s world.

Ella Sheppard, pianist and singer

Ella Sheppard (1851-1915), soprano, pianist and reformer, was the matriarch of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a social reformer, confidante of Frederick Douglass, and one of the most distinguished African American women of her generation. Sheppard was born a slave in 1851 on Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation. A German woman taught Ella Sheppard to play piano. Ella also managed to persuade an eminent white vocal teacher to give her twelve lessons, provided she keep them a secret, and arrive and depart at night by the back door.

Her skill as a pianist immediately drew the attention of Fisk Jubilee Singer George White, who appointed her his choir’s accompanist and assistant choral director. She accompanied the choir on piano, oversaw many of their rehearsals, conducted the Jubilees from her position among the singers on stage, and continued to collect and transcribe spirituals until the troupe’s repertoire numbered over a hundred. Ella trained and inspired generations of Jubilee Singers, and by the time of her death in Nashville in 1915, Ella Sheppard had become in intellect, in spirit, and in musical attainment one of the truly gifted women of the world.

Learn more about Ella Sheppard from the PBS series American Experience.