|Image from Ol' Man Wik|
He was born in 1866 into a society undergoing big, big changes. Despite the endemic racism of the day, his singing talent opened doors as he was pretty quickly recognized as the finest baritone in his native Erie, PA. This led to numerous soloist jobs, and his success there led him to New York City and the National Conservatory of Music where he studied. He supported himself as a handyman at the Conservatory, where he sang spirituals in the hallways while working. This brought him to the attention of the Conservatory's Director, none other than Antonín Dvořák (who - unbelievably as it may sound - has never been featured here on Sunday Classical). Dvořák knew everybody who was anybody in the music world, and not only included some of the black spiritual melodies in his New World symphony, but was likely instrumental in getting Burleigh a job teaching at the Conservatory.
He was considered for the position of soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church but the congregation balked at hiring a black man (the church was segregated at the time). It was J. P. Morgan himself who cast the deciding vote to hire Burleigh, who held the position for 52 years. His annual Palm Sunday performance of Fauré's "The Palms" was a 50 year tradition in New York, and Mayor LaGuardia had him broadcast it from the Mayor's office in 1944.
Along the way he composed quite a lot of good music. This is a great example, with traditional themes (you very well may recognize some) done in a classical format. The music starts perhaps nine and a half minutes into the video, but there's a fair amount of background on Burleigh there.
Happy birthday, Harry Burleigh!