Fact Friday 428 - Mary Cardwell Dawson and the nation’s first Black opera company

Fact Friday 428 - Mary Cardwell Dawson and the nation’s first Black opera company

Happy Friday!

This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Observer. If you enjoy their content, please support by considering a subscription. :)


Add N.C. native Mary Cardwell Dawson’s name to the list of “hidden figures” of Black history who are hidden no more.

Dawson, who grew up in the midst of Jim Crow, founded the first Black opera company in the U.S. — the National Negro Opera Company. She launched it in Pittsburgh in 1941, and it served as a nurturing springboard for hundreds of Black artists. Dawson also organized opera guilds in several major cities and was a fierce proponent of the arts, music, education and culture for all people.

And one of the main people responsible for elevating Dawson’s life and work is opera star Denyce Graves, through her Denyce Graves Foundation. That journey takes Graves to Charlotte now, where she will perform the title role in “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson” with Opera Carolina Feb. 15-17.

The play by Sandra Seaton, with music by Carlos Simon, tells Dawson’s story and her founding of the opera company that operated until 1962, when Dawson died. An exhibit opening next month [now open] at the Charlotte Museum of History also will shine a spotlight on Dawson; Graves and her foundation has a role in that too.

Dawson was born on Valentine’s Day 1894 in Madison, about two hours northeast of Charlotte near the Virginia line in Rockingham County. Like so many Black families from the South in the 20th century, Dawson’s family was part of the Great Migration and moved North to Pittsburgh around 1900. The family settled in a working class, racially-diverse neighborhood.

Graves recently spoke with The Charlotte Observer from the Opera Carolina’s rehearsal hall. Responses have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Dancers in Mary Cardwell Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company 1954 performance of “Aida.” The story of the NC native and her opera company is the focus of a play with music starring Denyce Graves performing with Opera Carolina Feb. 15-17. Teenie Harris Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art

When did you first become aware of Mary Cardwell Dawson?

A few years ago, when I was (performing with) Pittsburgh Opera. And during the pandemic, I got involved with the restoration of the National Negro Opera House. (Now known as the National Opera House.) And that’s when I really learned about her... And Francesca Zambello (the artistic director at the Washington National Opera) spearheaded the work to get a piece commissioned to tell her story.

You’ve called Mary Cardwell Dawson a great American hero, and I was hoping you could talk to me about that, and what she means to you.

She’s just a wonderful woman who was a pianist and a singer, and went to the New England Conservatory, where she wanted to be an opera singer. When she finally graduated, she quickly saw that, that in America, being a leading lady on the stages was not going to be possible. So what I love about her is that her response was, ‘Well, I’ll create my own opera house.’

And while she didn’t have the career that she sought out, her life’s calling was actually much greater. And so she hired over 1,600 singers, and she put together an orchestra and a director and a designer, and all that it takes to put on a production and to run a company. She created her own opportunities.

The National Negro Opera Company was the first of its kind, the longest running, the most successful and it was run by a woman. She took her all-Black opera company to the Metropolitan Opera at a time when there were no Black artists singing there. But they weren’t allowed to do the standard repertoire. They wanted to do “Faust,” but weren’t allowed to. So they did a piece by an African American violinist and composer, Clarence Cameron White, and a piece called “The Windup.”

Undated photo of Mary Cardwell Dawson Courtesy of Library of Congress Music Division.

She had chapters in Chicago, Detroit, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., where she lived, and of course, in Pittsburgh. And she mounted productions in Washington, D.C. and performed on the Potomac on a floating barge, and that’s where the Kennedy Center sits now. She was a real trailblazer, and an entrepreneur and an impresario.

She helped launch the careers of these magnificent artists. But because of entrenched racism (of the times), that pushed back against her own dreams. She turned those challenges into opportunities for others and became a renowned and remarkable advocate for the arts. She didn’t bite her tongue, she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, at a time when speaking your truth could have deadly consequences.

Can you give me an example of that?

There was a situation where she was walking around in a store and the sales clerks were trailing her. And she touched a hat, and that turned into a big deal. She got into a fistfight over it. (Another time), she slapped a white man from the union, because he said something derogatory. Black people were not outwardly defiant (at that time) like she was.

You know, Mary Cardwell Dawson really strikes me as another “hidden figure,” another great person in Black history who I had no idea about.

Right, right. And it was in learning about Mary Cardwell Dawson, that we formed the Denyce Graves Foundation. It’s about bringing into rightful prominence those great Americans who have shaped our cultural fabric, but have been left out of the telling of the American story.

An Opera Carolina promo for “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson,” a play with music led by opera star Denyce Graves in the title role. Graves called Cardwell an opera pioneer who created her own opportunities. Courtesy The Glimmerglass Festival.

How significant is it to you to perform this piece in her home state?

It is a tremendous responsibility. And an honor. I’m just so happy, because particularly where Black history is concerned, so much of it has been lost. Part of the issue, and we cover that in the play, is that they couldn’t find venues that would allow them to perform. This was during Jim Crow, during segregation, and this was one of the many, many, many challenges that she had. And so they performed in mosques, at churches, that sort of thing.

Did she ever perform in North Carolina?

No, not to my knowledge. And what does this play with songs cover that you are performing? It’s a day in the life of Mary Cardwell Dawson and the National Negro Opera Company. They had been performing in outside venues, where they were subject, of course, to the weather. It was the rainy season. She was trying to find places that would allow them to perform inside. And she had contracts with people that she had to still pay them whether the concerts happened or not. And they’re getting prepared for a performance of “Carmen” that evening. 

She had a real sense of pride in what she was creating and what she was doing, and that she was not going to subjugate her people to be second-class citizens.

This 1941 photo captured children wearing Egyptian costumes for the National Negro Opera Company’s performance of “Aida.” Teenie Harris courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art

What do you hope that the audience takes away from the show?

That they learn about her, that she existed, what she created. She was a real trailblazer. And I want history to remember her and to know what it was that she gave to America.

And it sounds like she’s quite an inspiration for you too, Denyce, since it also led in part to your foundation being created.

She’s sort of the godmother who presides over the work that we do at the foundation. And even in her death, she’s still creating and still giving birth to new and exciting works. And so, I’m proud. I’m proud of her. I’m proud of what she did. She is a tremendous woman. Her story is a story of great triumph.

From left, Johnnie Felder, Díana Thompson-Brewer and Denyce Graves in rehearsal at Opera Carolina for “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson.” The play with music centers on the life of Dawson, a Black opera pioneer. Logan Webber


Charlotte Museum of History Exhibit Press Release 

NEW CHARLOTTE MUSEUM EXHIBIT HONORS NC-BORN FOUNDER OF NATION’S FIRST BLACK OPERA COMPANY: “Open Wide the Door” is the first museum exhibit about Mary Cardwell Dawson and her Groundbreaking National Negro Opera Company



"A 'hidden figure' no more. Meet NC native who founded nation's first Black opera company," by Adam Bell, Charlotte Observer. February 8, 2024.

Email chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

Back to blog