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Burleigh in Saratoga
“I have a warm spot in my heart for Saratoga Springs and for its people. I’ll never forget the start I received there. It gave me encouragement to strive higher.” – Harry T. Burleigh, as quoted in The Saratogian, 1964.
Harry T. Burleigh may or may not have been discovered by the classical music world in Saratoga Springs. However, during the summers of 1892 and 1894 he was in the Spa City. The published record confirms the young singer’s dedication to work, worship and song which would mark his later life and career in New York City.
In Saratoga Springs, Burleigh was one of many African-American performers. In 1894, his stay overlapped with that of successful opera and troubadour singer Sissieretta Jones, known popularly as “Black Patti.”
1892: The Lore
Evelyn Barret Britten's article on the accomplished and well-known African-American singers who gave concerts to the Saratoga Springs summer visitors repeats a piece of well-worn (but not yet proven) lore -- that Harry Bureigh began his career in Saratoga Springs in 1880.
“The services at 4pm began to attract such crowds there was not
room for all to hear. To one of the services that year also came the
mother of the famous American composer, Edward C. MacDowell.
She was Mrs. Frances Knapp MacDowell, a guest at the United
States Hotel. Like the others she was entranced and came again
and again to hear the Negro youth. In 1892, Mrs. MacDowell
made is possible for Burleigh to attend the National Conservatory
of Music in NY, where another of his friends became Anton Dvorak,
- The Saratogian, April 24, 1964
1892: The Historical Record
Area newspapers, including the Saratogian and Albany Evening Journal, do not reveal a direct connection between Burleigh and Mrs. MacDowell. Nor do the Bethesda Episcopal Church archives. It seems unlikely that Burleigh first came to the area in 1880, at 14 (as the 1964 article said). In Newspapers seem to first have noted Burleigh in 1892, when an article described the Grand Union Hotel staff member singing in a service at a Y.M.C.A. affiliated with the Presbyterian church.
“The new rooms of the Young Men’s Christian Association were occupied yesterday for the first time for a Sunday service. The Rev. Dr. F. A. [Netle] of Chicago presided, and the Rev. Dr. Merrick Johnson of Chicago delivered an address. Harry Burleigh, colored,of Erie. Pa, assistant head waiter at the Grand Union, sang “I’m the Child of a King.” Selection from “Prettily Played: Shakespeare Produced on the Grand Union Lawn,” - August 15, 1892, Evening Journal. Fulton County Postcards Website
Y.M.C.A. In 1892, Burleigh pefformed at a Sunday service at the YMCA in Saratoga Springs, inaugurating its new rooms at 18-20 Phila Street for worship. This is a description of the YMCA’s mission and activities from Kirwin’s Saratoga Springs Directory.
1894: A Return Engagement
By 1894, the New York Herald confirms Burleigh’s growing stature. An article on “Saratoga’s Big Season” (August 19) includes Burleigh as a ‘notable guest’ affiliated with the National Conservatory of Music who will sing at a “musicale at the North Broadway cottage of Mrs. John. W. Ehninger of New York.” A week later (August 26), the paper reported how the home’s “spacious parlors were filled with a fashionable and appreciable audience.” Fellow African-American singers also performed in town, including the soprano Sissieretta Jones.
The ‘cottages’ of wealthy summer visitors lined North Broadway. At the top was Woodlawn Park, now the home of Skidmore College. On this street, Burleigh gave a private concert in August 1894.