Mary Powell vs. Thomas Cornell Glee Clubs

Steamship Thomas Cornell
Steamship Thomas Cornell

In the summer of 1881, the Kingston Daily Freeman ran a series of articles about what became known as “glee clubs,” made up of Black or “colored” crewmembers of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell

The prevalence of crews singing aboard steamboats on the Mississippi is well-documented, but it is unclear whether or not Hudson River steamboats also had crews of roustabouts or stevedores (dockworkers) who sang at their work. Most of the bigger steamboats were designed for passenger use, so the only cargoes were fuel and food for the trip, and passenger’s luggage. One newspaper article from 1890 indicates that Southern Black longshoremen did come north for work in New York Harbor, particularly after white longshoremen were organizing unions and strikes(1). That same article also indicated that at least one “Mississippi roustabout” was leading a group in singing roustabout songs. 

Roustabout songs were among those included in minstrel shows – often performed by white musicians in blackface enacting racist caricatures of the Black Americans they purported to emulate. The popularity of minstrel shows and music date back to the 1830s, but during Reconstruction (1865-1877), many Black Americans saw career opportunities in taking control of the narrative and performing their own minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were among the most popular form of entertainment in 19th century America. Many romanticized plantation life and depicted enslaved people as simple and happy with their enslavement. These racist depictions were just as popular, if not more so, in the North than the South. 

It is against this complicated backdrop that we encounter the glee clubs of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell. 

Our story begins on July 29, 1881, with a short article in the Kingston Daily Freeman called “Musical Talent on the Cornell” : 

The steamer Cornell’s colored boys are fast coming into prominence as good singers, and it is believed that in a short time they will organize themselves into a vocal club. Wednesday night when the famous vocalist Mrs. Osborn favored the Cornell people with some selections from her repertoire, the boys started plantation songs and Mrs. Osborn, as well as several gentlemen on the steamer who are good judges of music, stated that the singing was excellent. If they organize they will give the Mary Powell singers a challenge to prove which of the two clubs is better(2).”

Four days later, the Mary Powell singers accepted the challenge, and ten days after that, the singing contest was on, set for August 20, 1881. By this time, the two groups had also renamed themselves as “glee clubs,” staking territory as professionals. Originally created in 18th century England, glee clubs were small groups of men singing popular songs acapella, often with close harmony. Started on college campuses in the Northeast, glee clubs soon spread across the country, but remained primarily the domain of white men. By the end of the 19th century, many of these groups were regularly singing minstrel music and “Negro spirituals,” often in blackface(3). 

The two groups of steamboat employees may have simply decided that being a “glee club” was more descriptive than “colored singers,” or more respectable, or might raise more interest among the general public.

The contest, held at the Kingston Music Hall on Saturday, August 20, 1881,  was covered by the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle. The two groups alternated songs, with the Mary Powell glee club focusing more on popular airs, and the Thomas Cornell glee club focused more on “pious tunes.” In an interesting twist, both groups ended up singing two different versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” 

Competition between the two groups was fierce, but eventually the judge declared the Mary Powell group the winners. The contest result was also reported in the New Paltz Times

Sadly, references to both glee clubs end with the contest.

If you’d like to learn more about the glee clubs, including the names of participants and transcribed newspaper articles, visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s history blog – www.hrmm.org/history-blog

To learn more about the history of Black Americans in the Hudson Valley, come to tonight’s program, hosted by the History Alliance of Kingston, “Introduction to the Black History of the Hudson Valley Collaborative Research Project,” 7:00 PM on Zoom.

 

Footnotes:

  1. “Colored ‘Longshoremen,” The Sun [New York], March 23, 1890
  2. “Musical Talent on the Cornell,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 29, 1881.
  3. “Glee Clubs – Minstrelsy & Negro Spirituals,” University of Richmond Race and Racism Project,
    https://memory.richmond.edu/exhibits/show/performancepolicy/glee-clubs—minstrelsy—negr

 

by Sarah Wassberg Johnson, Hudson River Maritime Museum
published February 16, 2021 in the Kingston Wire