Hitting the High Notes

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
February 14, 2023

Miss May Hitchcock’s class, 1881

In stark contrast to their mothers’ generation, the 487 known students of the Morristown Sewing School went on to work outside the home in far greater numbers. Approximately 37% held documented employment at some point in their lives, typically from graduation to marriage. Largely in step with national trends, many worked as domestic servants, stenographers/bookkeepers, dressmakers/seamstresses, and salesladies/store clerks. Some broke the mold, supporting themselves as photographers, entrepreneurs, reporters, school principals, or even (briefly) as a private detective. However, one of the school’s 53 black students, Clara Scudder, had perhaps the most exciting career of all her classmates.

Richmond Planet, Dec. 20, 1902

The daughter of a musician, Clara was born in New York in 1874. She moved with her family to Morristown by 1880, and her father worked as music teacher. During their time here, she was one of the students in Miss May Hitchcock’s class at the sewing school. She also learned to play the piano and pipe-organ from her father, and went to follow in his footsteps. One of the few students to travel internationally, she toured the UK from 1900 to 1902 with the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers. First formed in 1871 at Nashville’s Fisk University, a historically black college, the Jubilee Singers performed in venues all over the world. Clara joined the group of nine singers led by Frederick J. Loudin as a contralto, and sang in concerts across Ireland, England, and Scotland. Newspapers throughout the British Isles reported on their performances, including a solo sang by Clara (“O, rest in the lord”) in the North of England. Upon her return stateside, she performed in Richmond, Baltimore and Washington, DC as a pianist, organist, and vocalist.

The Crisis, May 1930

Like her father, she too worked for many years as a music teacher. From at least 1907 to 1911, she taught in Raleigh, NC, first at St. Augustine’s School and then at the state school for the deaf and blind. Afterwards, she returned to Newark where she continued to work as a music teacher for 20 years. Following her death in 1930, she was buried in Morristown’s Evergreen Cemetery, returning to where we first picked up her trail as we traced the lives of her sewing school classmates. 

An exhibit on the Morristown Sewing School highlighting the stories of Clara Scudder and her sewing school classmates will be on display at Acorn Hall through Mid-May 2023.