Clarksville’s Black History: Clarence Cameron White

Clarksville Violinist and Composer


Photo: Clarence Cameron White, photograph by Maud Cuney-Hare, 1936, from Negro Musicians and their Music.

NOTE: The information in this article has been taken from the Library of Congress at

Clarence Cameron White was born on August 22, 1880, in Clarksville, Tennessee. He spent his childhood in Oberlin, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C. White began studying violin at age eight; within four years he was studying with the accomplished violinist Will Marion Cook. He attended Oberlin Conservatory from 1896-1901 (accounts differ as to whether he graduated or left just before graduation to accept a teaching position).

In the course of his subsequent performances and teaching activities, White met Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harry T. Burleigh, and Booker T. Washington. He also met the African-British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, with whom he studied.

The nature of White’s compositions changed over time. His early compositions were “neo-romantic” in style. As his social circles expanded, however, he turned to black folk music as a source of inspiration and musical material. Among his many compositions are: “Forty Negro Spirituals,” “Kutamba Rhapsody,” “Symphony in D Minor,” the ballet score “A Night in Sans Souci,” and a violin concerto. He also composed Ouanga, an opera based on the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a slave who led a revolution and became the first emperor of Haiti. Many of his compositions won awards.

Bandanna sketches (Four negro spirituals) by Clarence Cameron White (New York, New York: Carl Fischer, 1918). Historical American Sheet Music: 1850-1920, American Memory, Library of Congress.

In 1916 White, along with R. Nathaniel Dett, attempted to organize the National Association of Negro Music Teachers. These plans were interrupted by World War I, after which Dett and White’s idea was taken up by Nora Holt. Holt formed the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919; White was a charter member.

White remained active in music throughout his life. Among his positions were conductor of the Victorian Chamber Orchestra in Boston from 1916-20 and the Hampton Institute Choir upon Dett’s retirement in 1933. White was director of music at West Virginia State College from 1924-31. He died in 1960, shortly after the completion and performance of his cantata, “Heritage.”