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Growing up in Southern Virginia, Undine Smith Moore spent her earliest years in the rural Sussex County town of Jarratt before moving to the City of Petersburg in 1908. Her father, James, worked as a train coupler for the Norfolk & Western Railroad, and her mother, Hardie, was a homemaker. Both children of the newly emancipated, their parents had been enslaved on peripheral regions of the Tidewater, laboring on small farms that dotted the rural Virginia landscape. Despite only receiving rudimentary educations, Hardie and James were both known to be ambitious and smart, and post-1870 U.S. Censuses indicate their literacy. They encouraged their three children to be avid readers and moving from the isolated town of Jarratt to urban Petersburg was to pursue further opportunities for their children.

In the decades following the Civil War, the City of Petersburg was finding new footing with the rejuvenation of the tobacco industry. Despite sitting in the shadow of Richmond, early twentieth century Petersburg was a vibrant and lively place and offered rich opportunities in music and the arts – even for Petersburg’s black community. James Smith’s lucrative work as a coupler for the Norfolk & Western allowed him to make the most of these opportunities for his family, enabling them to buy an upright piano and afford lessons for Undine and her sister, Eunice. Undine’s talent on the instrument was quickly apparent, and she became the student of a locally renowned Fisk University music graduate, Lillian Allen Darden. Home of the Fisk University Singers, the college had garnered a strong reputation as a top music school, and Darden encouraged Undine to go when she was ready for College. Yet the financial burden was high, and Undine’s ability to attend the school was in jeopardy until a generous scholarship from the Juilliard School secured her full education. Flourishing at Fisk, Undine’s talents in composition emerged and she uncovered a passion for large-scale choral works, writing many for the Fisk Chorus while she was still a student.

After graduation, Undine turned down graduate study at Juilliard to begin work as a music educator in the Virginia State College and public schooling systems of Virginia. The limited access to scores & sheet music inspired Undine to simply write and arrange her own pieces to best highlight the abilities of her students, further honing her compositional identity. Undine did eventually end up in New York, commuting to the Columbia University Teachers College to complete her master’s degree. When she was finished, Smith-Moore continued to work at the Virginia State College for decades to come, creating a powerful and inspiring legacy at the school in mentorship, musicianship, and revolutionary efforts in forging an interdisciplinary relationship between music and related subjects. Post-retirement, Smith-Moore’s life was studded with countless honors, awards, and leadership positions in a variety of African American music organizations.

Working through the turbulent decades of mid-twentieth century America when centuries of segregation and institutionalized racism were coming to a head, Undine’s music reflected the changing sociopolitical environment and current events. Writing over one hundred compositions, the majority were large-scale choral works. She composed throughout her entire educational career, but in her retirement, she penned some of her most powerful masterworks, including Scenes from the Life of a Martyr (1981), which explores the remarkable life of Martin Luther King Jr. through a sixteen-part oratorio.

In addition to her contributions in composition and music education, Undine Smith-Moore was an incredibly astute commentator on the state of African American music, musicians, and composers in the United States. Smith-Moore was very cognizant of the “limits” that were placed on the aspirations of black people, and the ways in which these limits were easily internalized and absorbed. As Helen Walker-Hill points out in her anthology From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and their Music, Smith-Moore recognized that American music was already full of elements of black culture, but few were aware of its presence and origins. Additionally, she advocated for a more honest assessment of music by refraining from evaluating pieces through the lens of white European traditions, which placed the most stock in the works of European male “Great Masters,” inherently creating prejudice against works by black & female composers. She was also extremely cognizant of including more historically black music in her school curriculums and believed that the music & arts were a powerful agent for social activism & change. Undine Smith-Moore’s commitment to expanding the opportunities for the black community, empowering all who surrounded her and being a visible force in a predominantly white and male art form is deeply inspiring, and she certainly deserves modern recognition for her pioneering accomplishments.

Top Picks:

  • Scenes from the life of a Martyr (1981)
  • Afro-American Suite (1969)
  • Come Down Angels and Trouble the Water (1978)

Additional Reading:

From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and their Music,

by Helen Walker-Hill

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