Art as equity

People The Arts

March 28, 2024

Dancers Catherine Tab, Yvonne Jones (Kemp), Carol McClain, Marlene Jones, Yvonne Kerscham, Mamie Hamilton, Sarah Burney, Doris Burley, Erma Burney, Lois Jean Dougan, and Sylvia Davis, wearing costumes for a National Negro Opera Company performance of “Aida.”

At long last: How North Carolina native Mary Cardwell Dawson changed society and the opera world 

by Michael J. Solender

Open Wide the Door, the Story of Mary Cardwell Dawson and the National Negro Opera Company is a new exhibit at Charlotte Museum of History that uncovers the backstory of a Carolina native who had an outsized influence on America’s opera infrastructure. 

Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) in Pittsburgh in 1941. The company went on to be the largest and longest-running Black opera company in the country, and one of the most storied. 

It was the first Black opera company to take the stage at the famed Metropolitan Opera House. The NNOC furthered the career of notable Black performers such as future Broadway star Napoleon Reed, soprano Lillian Evanti and baritone Robert McFerrin Sr., the father of contemporary pop star Bobby McFerrin. 

“We’re telling three stories with this exhibit,” says Terri White, Charlotte Museum of History president and CEO. “One is how many North Carolinians, including Dawson, are relatively unknown in their home state (Dawson was born in the Rockingham County town of Madison in 1894). Two, we [dispel the notion] that often accompanies an urban-rural divide in America and show that people don’t need to be from a large city to be talented and have their talent appreciated around the world. The final piece speaks to justice, equity, and equality and how many of the artists we are highlighting in this exhibit use their art form to fight for these principles.”

The NNOC would not perform for segregated audiences, White explains — Dawson insisted her company be integrated. She also fought to ensure access and strove to broaden the reach of this classical art form.

Mary Cardwell Dawson, founder of the largest and longest-running Black opera company, at age 31.

Mary Cardwell Dawson at age 31

“Dawson wanted the company to not only appeal to established opera fans but to everyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status,” White says. “To do so, she made sure all performances were in English and often added narrators at the start of acts to summarize what was about to happen. She also fought to keep ticket prices affordable and hosted fundraisers to provide free tickets for children.”

The exhibit opened in late March and runs through the end of December — access is included with regular admission to the museum. 

Original costumes, rarely seen photos — including one of soprano La Julia Rhea wearing her Aida costume — and reproduction programs and ephemera are on loan from Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center, home to an extensive collection of National Negro Opera Company artifacts and the primary lending institution for this exhibit.

The museum telling is organized around an early performance of Verdi’s Aida. The exhibit shares narratives from the entire production team to explore the story of segregation and the sheer will of a Black woman from North Carolina’s Piedmont to create a unique place within the elite world of opera. 

White and her team are part of a contemporary museum movement uncovering Black American history that extends outside of slavery and civil rights.

“There’s this perception that black history is hidden in a vault guarded by a centurion guard,” White says. “This is one of those stories that no one’s really hiding. Dawson is not a secret. Much of this history is ‘hidden’ right in front of our faces. We simply must know where to look.”  SP

Featured image:

Featured image from left: Dancers Catherine Tab, Yvonne Jones (Kemp), Carol McClain, Marlene Jones, Yvonne Kerscham, Mamie Hamilton, Sarah Burney, Doris Burley, Erma Burney, Lois Jean Dougan, and Sylvia Davis, wearing costumes for a National Negro Opera Company performance of “Aida.” Photographs by Teenie Harris, courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art and courtesy Library of Congress Music Division.

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