Processing Fun: Undine Smith Moore’s Teaching Files

MARBLandNHPRClogos“Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.

My name is Ariel Svarch, and I am PhD candidate in Latin American History. An Argentine native, I am a fellow in MARBL, working on the project “Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals.” When I first joined, my colleagues were processing the extensive archive left behind by Undine Smith Moore, and my initial project was to catalogue her teaching files.

Martin Luther King Singers Salutes Undine Smith Moore,” benefit concert at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Chapel in New York in 1982

Martin Luther King Singers Salutes Undine Smith Moore,” benefit concert at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Chapel in New York in 1982

Despite her prolific work and the renown earned through “Scenes from the Life of a Martyr,” her tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Moore defined herself as “a teacher who composes, rather than a composer who teaches.” Processing and classifying her teaching files showed me her deep commitment to this philosophy. Moore taught different kinds of courses: some, under the general heading of “American Studies,” covered topics such as the history of American music or the contributions of African-Americans to modern music. Others were technical courses, where students were expected to learn musical theory and practice, as well as basic composition.

The teaching portion of her archive includes syllabi and course outlines, both of her own courses and from other faculty members. Researchers can retrace her teaching style by studying her surviving lesson plans, as well as the outlines she provided for her students, such as exercises, readings, song scores and lyrics, lists of books and audiovisual material available on reserve, biographical information on African-American musicians and intellectuals, and cheat sheets with technical musical vocabulary and commonly-used Swahili words.

The archive also holds dozens of students’ exams, as well as research papers on African-American music and musicians. I was struck by Moore’s pedagogical cunning: in order to familiarize her students with both the structure and thematic tropes of blues’ lyrics, she had them compose their own poems. All of which, of course, are available in her collection at MARBL.