Joseph Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass, was the first nationally-known black concert violinist. His interest in music stemmed from his father and grandfather, both of which played the violin.
Douglass was also the first black violinist to tour the world as a performer. When he was 22 years old, Joseph Douglass performed at the Chicago World’s Fair, which was a day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. He shared the lineup that day with poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was the beginning of his career that spanned over three decades.
Joseph Douglass was born in the Anacostia area of Washington D.C. in 1869 to Charles and Mary Elizabeth Douglass. He was the only child of the couple that would live to be an adult. He received his formal musical training from conservatories in New England and Boston.
Joseph Douglass was the first violinist of any race to record music for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1914. He performed for several U.S. presidents, including William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Howard Taft. By 1910, he was performing at Carnegie Hall. Douglass also appeared at the Grand Military Concert sponsored by the U.S. Marine Band in Washington to commemorate the presidential inauguration of Grover Cleveland.
Unfortunately, his recordings with the Victor Talking Machine Company were never released.
Aside from his work in music, Douglass was a conductor at Howard University. He often played slave spirituals that he learned as a child for family members.
Douglass’ widow, Fannie Douglass, donated his violin (which was a copy of the German Stradivarius) to the U.S. Dept of Interior after his death in 1935.