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Bicknell hosts new exhibit honoring Eva Jessye

Beginning on April 5th, the Bicknell Center for the Arts will be hosting a special exhibit honoring a famous black musician, actress and author Eva Jessye. Jessye once served as an artist in residence at Pittsburg State University and a collection of her poems and personal writings is kept in PSU’s archives.  

“Eva Jessye’s impact to the music industry and to the humanitarian movement of the mid-20th century cannot be understated,” said Noah Larson, president of history club and junior in history. “What brought Eva national attention was her involvement in George Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera Porgy and Bess. Before she came to PSU, she had lengthy career and paved the way for gospel music in the U.S. She helped revive and integrate slave spirituals into modern day American music during the 1920’s. She met with such figures as Langston Hughes and at the march on Washington in 1963, she performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom is the Thing We’re Talking About” before Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech.” 

Larson also discussed the impact Jessye had during her time at PSU. 

“During her stay, she taught vocal classes in McCray Hall and was an activist for Black History Month  

in the George W. Carver Social League,” Larson said. “In an interview with The Collegio, she is quoted as stating ‘I want to bring the world to the students and area residents and the residents to the world.’ Dr. Appleberry said that she was ‘a very demanding lady and we are lucky to have been witness to the standards of excellence that she beholds.’ Then freshman Jannette Mauk remembered that ‘students and faculty equally looked up to and respected Dr. Jessye.’ During her stay is when she published her autobiography with the help of PSU’s first archivist Gene Degruson and often published articles in the journal Little Balkans Days. It was at PSU in 1984, that she made the famous quote during an interview with Dr. Jacob Gordon when asked what the drawbacks were of being black and elderly in Kansas, she said ‘I took the color less desirable and made all the difference.’ When she turned 90 in 1985, she decided to move back to Ann Arbor, Michigan where she had established her American Music Collection. She passed away in 1992. Her memory and legacy are stored away in the Axe Library Special Collections.” 

Shawna Witherspoon, client services and gallery coordinator for the Bicknell, feels the accomplishments of people like Jessye are very important to acknowledge due to their historical impacts and mentorship potential. 

“I feel it is important to acknowledge her accomplishments and positive contributions she made,” Witherspoon said to PSU Marketing and Communication. “I also feel she is the perfect example of no matter where you are born or what city you come from, you can choose to make positive change, both nationally and internationally, if you put your mind to it.” 

Katelyn Phelps, senior in graphic design, took into account Jessye’s history when crafting an official brochure for the exhibit. 

“When I was in the process of making the booklet, the exhibit evolved into what it is now,” Phelps said. “I wanted to create a piece that would tie the experience of the exhibit together. Since I was selecting photos for the brochure, Shawna had me select the photos for the exhibit as well. The color choice for the brochure was based on an album cover for Porgy and Bess (by George Gershwin)…” 

Phelps also cites Jessye’s determination as particularly inspirational. 

“I think I relate most to Jessye’s determination to make her own path in life,” Phelps said. “Despite the numerous obstacles she faced, she found ways to overcome (those obstacles) and I think that is really inspiring.” 

The exhibit is set to run in the Bicknell Center gallery through May 14th. 

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