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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

THE TOMBSTONE’S TALE

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

The Mother of Florence B. Price



The tombstone (a marker, really) is in Achor, Columbiana County, Ohio. On it is the name of Florence Bartram (1859-1948), who was the widow of John A. Bartram (1870-1945), a retired florist and the widower of Luella (Louella) Bartram, née Guy (1869-1924):


It is a tombstone with a tale to tell – a tale of tragedy, of cruelty; a tale that springs from deep in the history of this country; a tale profoundly important for the twentieth-century’s history, for its song.


Florence and John Bartram had lived in Columbiana County – mostly in Negley, a small town that hugs the Pennsylvania border – since their marriage on 31 March 1925. They had no children of their own, but John Bartram (originally from Pennsylvania) had three daughters by his first marriage, all born in Columbiana County. The newspaper entry announcing Florence’s marriage to John identifies her as Florence I. Smith, and the Marriage License Application in the Columbiana County Marriage Records identifies her as a dressmaker born in Indiana, daughter of William Gulliver and Mary McCoy. The application states that she had one previous marriage.

The 1930 Federal Census confirms these essentials. It also notes that Florence Bartram was a wage-working dressmaker who worked from home.


And it identifies both John and Florence Bartram as White. So does the 1940 Federal Census (the last conducted during the couple’s lifetimes).


Most readers of this post have by now figured out that Florence Bartram, formerly Florence I. Smith, was the African American widow – classified as “mulatto” in the nomenclature of the day – of Dr. James H. Smith, an African American dentist (likewise classified as “mulatto”) who was originally from Camden, Delaware (1843 – 1910).


And James H. and Florence I. Smith were the parents of African American composer, organist, and pianist Florence B. Price (1887-1953) – one of the greatest of all twentieth-century U.S. composers.


Florence B. Price is consistently identified as “Black,” “Negro,” or “Colored” in all known records pertaining to her life, from her birth certificate to her death certificate. I cannot show you her headstone, because as of this writing[1] (March 25, 2023) she doesn’t have one. She rests in an unmarked grave in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Cook County, Illinois:


Readers of this post know well the tragedy – inspiring, as is so often the case with tragedies – of this tale: Florence B. Price, the greatest and most consequential African American woman composer of her generation and the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major U.S. orchestra, not only refused to deny that (as she put it in her oft-quoted letter of 5 July 1943 to Serge Koussevitsky) she had “some Negro blood in [her] veins,” but also embraced and celebrated that heritage in her life and art.

But her mother, Florence Irene Gulliver Smith Bartram, denied that heritage – a denial that, compelled as it was by the resolute systemic racism of her world, meant abandoning her only surviving child after Dr. Smith’s death, never knowing her grandchildren, and living the last three decades of her life passing as White. It was a denial that irrevocably altered the family history, and one that inevitably inflicted great pain and suffering on Florence Price – given poignant and impassioned voice in Price’s song Brown Arms (To Mother).


And still Florence B. Price succeeded. She succeeded refusing to dignify the White societal norms that, then as now, prescribed classical music as “White” music, not Black. She succeeded by embracing her heritage and using her art to change the path of twentieth-century music in ways that are only now beginning to be widely understood.


Because of her embrace of her Blackness, and despite her courage in divorcing an abusive husband and her strength in raising two daughters to embrace their own heritage, Florence Price rests still in an unmarked grave. Because of her societally compelled denial of her Blackness, Florence Price’s mother gained entry into White society. And because of that, she is today able to rest in dignity in a grave with a tombstone.


Every tombstone has its tale. Florence Irene Gulliver Smith Bartram’s marker speaks of a woman, descended from Black grandmothers and White grandfathers, who spent her first fifty-one years of my life as a Black woman and the last thirty-eight as a White one; a woman whom the barriers erected by racist White society compelled to renounce her Blackness and, with it, her family -- just in order to gain the dignity of a granite marker on her grave. It tells, too, of a woman who bore a daughter, Florence B. Price, whom she would introduce to the musical art, whom she would enroll in the distinguished New England Conservatory of Music. And through Florence Irene Gulliver Smith Bartram, the tombstone tells of that daughter herself -- a daughter who would never deny her race and would transcend countless obstacles imposed on her because of it — a daughter whose art and life inspire millions around the world today.


As of this writing, Florence B. Price still has no tombstone – but perhaps someday soon she will. What a tale it will have to tell!


Deepest thanks to veteran Florence Price champion Dr. Karen Walwyn (Berklee College of Music) for her helpful feedback on an early version of this post.

 

[1] FindAGrave reported in August 2021 that “[a]lthough Mrs. Price currently has a no marker, a granite marker is in the works of being donated by the cemetery and an anonymous donor. It is set to be installed in 2022.” I have not heard that one exists and just last month received two inquiries about the existence of a marker or gravestone. A telephone inquiry to the cemetery has not been answered. Because I would expect to have heard the news if a marker had been installed, I assume the installation has been delayed. When I hear that the installation is complete, I’ll of course update this post.

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