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Robert Winfrey

Robert Winfrey, musician, composer, music teacher, musical arts director and choral director, has revolutionized the musical scene and music education in Boston, Massachusetts over a twenty-eight year period. A builder of a multi-cultural school music program in Boston, Winfrey made music education available to all students at the high school level. In addition to his work in the city of Boston, Winfrey served as the director of the world-renown Kuumba Singers of Harvard University for twenty-five years. His signature composition, Let’s Build A City, is known and has been sung across the United States.

Winfrey was born in Atlanta, Georgia in June 1933. His parents, Pete and Ethel Winfrey, and two sisters, Frances and Betty lived in the Grady Holmes Housing Project during Winfrey’s growing up. He was a neighbor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s.

Winfrey graduated from David T. Howard High School in 1950 and from Morehouse College in 1955 with a degree in music composition. During his youth, he played piano and organ at Liberty Baptist Church, two blocks from Ebenezer Baptist Church.

From 1955 to 1957, Winfrey served in the U.S. Army as a minister of music to the chaplains of all faiths – Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. During his military service, he decided to become a music teacher.

In the summer of 1957, Winfrey studied music composition at Columbia University in New York City. Then, in the fall, he became the choral and band director at Hubbard elementary and high schools in Forsyth, Georgia. He returned to Columbia University in 1960 and earned his M.A. degree in music composition. For the next eleven years, he taught and directed the music program at Dunbar High School in Lynchburg, Virginia. In Lynchburg, Winfrey met Reverend Virgil Wood, pastor of Diamond Hill Baptist Church, and became Diamond’s organist and minister of music. In 1970, he received a Tangley Oaks Fellowship for graduate studies in music education at Columbia University where he developed an arts program for inner-city youth. Reverend Wood moved to Boston in 1963 and influenced Winfrey to join him in 1971. Winfrey reluctantly left Georgia with his wife Johnie (Evans) Winfrey and their two sons, Robert, born in 1968, and Peter, born in 1970.

In Boston, Winfrey taught music at Jeremiah Burke High School and directed Boston’s Model Cities’ “Teen Town” community arts program. At Burke, he established for the first time a choral ensemble and a band. Quickly his reputation and talent for developing singing groups spread across greater Boston. In 1975, the Boston Public Schools established a citywide music program, which became the Roland Hayes School of Music at Boston’s Madison Park Campus High School. Winfrey was appointed to plan and develop the Hayes School of Music and he served as its director from 1977 to 1999.

In 1972, Reverend Wood asked Winfrey to compose an original song for a Black Expo sponsored by the Boston chapter of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The result was Let’s Build A City, in which he changed ‘City’ to ‘Nation’. The theme of this Winfrey composition was so impressive and important, that it was used in the inaugural ceremonies of three former big city mayors, Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Thomas Bradley of Los Angeles and Coleman Young of Detroit. In 2005, Winfrey shared the message of this composition with the cities of Mobile, Alabama; Biloxi, Mississippi; and New Orleans, Louisiana after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The mayors of Mobile and Biloxi sent letters of appreciation to Winfrey for his thoughtful composition.

In 1973, Harvard University asked Winfrey to serve as the director of the Kuumba Singers. Under Winfrey’s direction, the Kuumba Singers performed in cities and towns across America – including public and private schools, colleges, churches, cathedrals, concert halls, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. In 1981-1982, the highlight of that tour season for Winfrey was their performance in King Chapel at Morehouse College -- Winfrey’s alma mater.

In 1983, Winfey was chosen as one of Greater Boston’s Black Achievers. At the awards ceremony, the Kuumba Singers performed in his honor. Winfrey’s greatest awards are the legions of students who are now achievers in both musical and non-musical endeavors.

Accession Number

A2005.254

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/7/2005

Last Name

Winfrey

Maker Category
Schools

David T. Howard High School

Yonge Street Elementary School

Morehouse College

Columbia University

First Name

Robert

Birth City, State, Country

Atlanta

HM ID

WIN04

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Georgia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Atlanta, Georgia

Favorite Quote

See How The Masses Of Men Worry Themselves Into Nameless Graves While Here A Faithful Servant Loses Himself Into Immortality.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Interview Description
Birth Date

6/14/1933

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Boston

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fish, Vegetables

Short Description

Education administrator, music composer, and music director Robert Winfrey (1933 - ) served as the director of the world renowned Kuumba Singers of Harvard University, and is responsible for building a multicultural school music program in Boston, making music education available to all students at the high school level.

Employment

Hubbard Elementary and High School

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

Jeremiah E. Burke High School

Roland Hayes School of Music

The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College

Favorite Color

Blue

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert Winfrey's interview, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Slating of Robert Winfrey's interview, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey describes his mother's background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey describes his mother's upbringing in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey describes his father's background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Robert Winfrey describes his father's family background and occupation

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Robert Winfrey describes his family life

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Robert Winfrey describes his music lessons

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Robert Winfrey describes his sisters' interest in piano

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Robert Winfrey describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey describes his childhood neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey remembers learning to play the piano

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey recalls growing up with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Robert Winfrey remembers segregation in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Robert Winfrey describes his elementary and high school experiences

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Robert Winfrey describes his high school activities

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Robert Winfrey describes his high school history teacher

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Robert Winfrey describes his employment during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Robert Winfrey recalls studying African American history

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Robert Winfrey recalls influential African American singers and speakers

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey talks about concert singer Roland Hayes

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey describes his organ lessons at Cable Piano Company

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey describes his experiences at Morehouse College in Atlanta

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey recalls his fellow classmates at Morehouse College

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Robert Winfrey recalls studying music at Morehouse College

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Robert Winfrey recalls being drafted upon graduation from Morehouse College

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Robert Winfrey describes his experiences in the U.S. army

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Robert Winfrey recalls his plan to teach and compose music

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Robert Winfrey recalls his decision to attend graduate school

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Robert Winfrey recalls working as a band director in Forsyth, Georgia

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey recalls attending Columbia University in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey recalls attempting to publish his music compositions

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey describes the churches of Harlem in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey describes his experiences in Harlem

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Robert Winfrey recalls deciding to teach in Lynchburg, Virginia

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Robert Winfrey describes Reverend Dr. Virgil A. Wood and Clarence W. Seay

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Robert Winfrey recalls meeting and marrying his wife

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Robert Winfrey describes the Tangley Oaks Fellowship and his return to Columbia University

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Robert Winfrey recalls accepting a teaching position in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Robert Winfrey explains why he left Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Robert Winfrey describes Reverend Dr. Virgil A. Woods

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Robert Winfrey describes his two sons

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey remembers Rollins Griffith

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey describes the culture shock he experienced in Boston

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey explains why he stayed in Boston

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey recalls adjusting to life in Boston

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Robert Winfrey talks about teaching and developing music programs in Boston

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Robert Winfrey remembers the popularity of his song 'Let's Build A City'

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Robert Winfrey remembers school desegregation in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Robert Winfrey recalls the proposal for Boston's Roland Hayes Division of Music

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Robert Winfrey recalls designing the Roland Hayes Division of Music facility

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey recalls the naming of Roland Hayes Division of Music

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey describes famous students from Roland Hayes Division of Music

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey talks about actor and singer Carl Anderson

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey recalls becoming director of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Robert Winfrey remembers directing the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Robert Winfrey talks about his retirement

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Robert Winfrey describes the founder of Berklee College of Music, Lawrence Berk

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Robert Winfrey describes how he wants his leadership remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Robert Winfrey describes his post retirement activities

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Robert Winfrey remembers the Carl Anderson tribute in Lynchburg, Virginia

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Robert Winfrey reflects upon his life

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Robert Winfrey describes his hopes for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Robert Winfrey describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Robert Winfrey narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$6

DAStory

6$5

DATitle
Robert Winfrey recalls adjusting to life in Boston
Robert Winfrey talks about actor and singer Carl Anderson
Transcript
And there were opportunities that began to open up for me to do things.$$For example?$$Well one of the things that I wanted to do is I've always wanted to be I was turned on with young people young minds and I did this in Lynchburg [Virginia] when I worked with some young people who went on to greatness like Carl Anderson and some of the others in fact they're now teaching in the colleges. I've always found that fascinating to motivate achievers, youngsters to achieve and to rise high. So that I, I found myself limited here until I got to know more people. I was introduced by some parents to a METCO [Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, Boston, Massachusetts] program and they said those youngsters could benefit to what you bring so I was interested in developing some kind of music program, maybe a choir or something like that with that program and then other things began to open up, Model Cities. I became a creative arts director for Paul--the executive director by the name of Paul Parks or so the executive director of Model Cities or so and one of the divisions so I became a creative arts. That brought me closer to young minds there over and beyond school.$$This is outside the schools?$$Outside the schools. You see one of the discouragements in schools and this was the thing that really frightened me was when I was accustomed to after school you had after school programs you know rehearsals and other activities. School was just a way of life and in the South. I was accustomed to that and the first thing that my first day of school they told me among and all the new teachers, "Look when the bell sounds for your last class, pack your bags and get out of here." And I said what? I was not accustomed to that. I was accustomed to saying okay young people we'll get together we'll plan a program, we'll plan some activity, we'll do some rehearsing or so for an hour or two. I didn't find that here. And I found that very, very discouraging but this town, this city was going through a transition or so and I guess for safety sake and I still didn't understand that, nobody's gonna bother me or so I wanna stay here. But they told me I couldn't do it, that fifteen minutes I have to get out of the building and that was one of the discouraging aspects of my teaching school here. That changed also. So I began to make other changes began to take place and I felt more like I could contribute to the, to the cultural life of the community, the educational life, motivate youngsters and that bit. And that's why I, I stayed.$Who is Carl Anderson?$$Carl Anderson was perhaps one of my most gifted students, maybe one of the nation's most gifted students, actor, vocalist in 'Color Purple' ['The Color Purple'] you name it. Starred in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' so the movie and the stage production so. I used to get Carl Anderson, Carl Anderson was not with Roland Hayes [Roland Hayes Division of Music at Madison Park High School; Roland Hayes School of Music, Boston, Massachusetts], he was with my first position in Virginia at Dunbar [Paul Laurence Dunbar High School; Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, Lynchburg, Virginia]. I used to work at the kinds of programs I disappointed in when I first came to Boston [Massachusetts]; I used to work with Carl after school. This when I could get to the individual attention or so after school and in addition to the classroom work after school. Carl went on to he was graduated from Dunbar High School and then he went to Washington, D.C. He went to Howard University [Washington, D.C.] and then he discontinued and he started singing at a church in Washington, D.C. and he formed a group and they were heard and then from there on he went to he auditioned for Broadway, big jump. And he made it. He was selected. Then he auditioned for the movie. He went to Israel and that's where they made the movie. And he went from there to sky's the limit. I'll be sitting in my living room and sometimes I'd be watching 'The Johnny Carson Show' ['The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson'] or some other culture program and there was Carl performing on that program, perhaps my most prolific student or so yeah.