Discovering Inglewood: Mabel Messengill Gunn and Her Classical Legacy

Thursday, February 26, 2015 Written by 
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During Black History Month we, as a nation, celebrate and honor the distinguished accomplishments of ordinary men and women who committed extraordinary acts of valor in order to make the world a better place. They created a better place for their people, future generations and inarguably fulfilled their destiny. 


Courageous women like Ida B. Wells took the first defiant stance against racial discrimination in public accommodations before her successor 71 years later looked into the eyes of her oppressors and defiantly refused to go gently to the back of the bus. We celebrate the formation of the two schools of thought that emerged during the timeless debates of W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington on how the African American should progress economically and politically in the United States of America. 


This was well before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt a dream on a mountaintop and Malcolm Little traded in his zoot suit and street life for that of a visionary that gave voice to a generation of African Americans who wanted Justice—who would no longer wait for her to make up her mind on whether or not she would come to the rescue. Black History Month provides us the opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the wonderful legacies hailed from all aspects of life, from the sciences, literature, sports, politics, law, government, music, etc. As Black History Month comes to a close, I pay homage to the legacy of Mabel Massengill Gunn.


It is 1948. The world, as some of you readers remember or younger generations may have heard, was literally divided into black and white. However, a change was on the horizon and trailblazing African Americans sought to ride its waves. One such trailblazer was Mabel Massengill Gunn. Mabel was a local pianist who taught music in Los Angeles communities. She possessed a tremendous passion for music and an even greater passion to see African American musicians be included in American orchestras.


Up until 1948, American orchestras were predominantly segregated. African American musicians were shut out of orchestras with the excuse that they lacked knowledge and experience in the orchestra. So in 1948, Mabel Massengill Gunn gathered her colleagues and formed the first orchestra to welcome African American musicians, music teachers and patrons to experience the beauty of classical music, the Southeast Symphony Association (SESA).


In its infancy, the Symphony, performed four concerts, all of which were held in large churches of the African American community, its first year. From that moment on, it has become a musical and cultural institution and has secured its place in history as the oldest, longest continuously performing primarily African American orchestra in the world.


Since its inception, the orchestra has performed over 250 concerts which, according to their website, have been enjoyed by more than 200,000 patrons, most of whom have been African American. Additionally, the orchestra continues to be a vital training ground for many African American musicians whose current members and alumni have enjoyed the success of playing in the world’s great, esteemed orchestras: Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, The Minnesota Orchestra, the El Paso Opera Company, and countless others.


Although the Symphony’s formation was born of the necessity for African American musicians to have an orchestra to learn and hone their craft, and break the color barriers yesteryear, today, the Southeast Symphony is enjoyed by those of many different ethnicities. The main objective has remained to continue to train both current and future musicians, provide opportunities to nurture their love for music, and impact the world with their musical talents. Mabel Massengill Gunn left behind a legacy that bestowed upon Inglewood and surrounding cities the gift of classical music through the Southeast Symphony Association (SESA), the oldest founded African American orchestra, proudly situated in Inglewood, CA.


As I conclude this article, while listening to African American composer, William Grant Still’s “The Afro-American Symphony,” once performed by the Inglewood Philharmonic under the guidance of conductor, Leroy E. Hurte, I am forever grateful for the determination and commitment of Mabel Massengill Gunn to bless our communities with classical music. And yes, my fellow Ingelwoodians, you read that correctly. The City of Inglewood once had its very own orchestra, The Inglewood Philharmonic. . . Let the search to quench your thirst of all things in the City of Inglewood begin.

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