Dr. Mildred Denby Green, Trailblazing Historian of Black Music in Memphis Dies

Dr. Mildred Denby Green

MEMPHIS, TN — Dr. Mildred Denby Green died on January 8, 2019, she was a college professor, choir director, composer, music scholar. One of Memphis foremost historians of Black music, she taught at two of the city’s historically Black colleges for forty years.  

The daughter of Howard C. Denby, a painting contractor, and his wife, Wanetah  Benn  Denby, she was born on August 25, 1938, in Portsmouth, Virginia, where she attended Truxton Elementary School and graduated from I. C. Norcom High School.  She attributes her interest in music to early experiences and to studies with noted musicians such as Noah F. Ryder, Undine Moore and Altona Johns.  

After two years at Oberlin, she transferred to Ohio State University, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1959.  A few months after graduation, on August 15, 1959, she married Reuben Green, an ordained minister who later became a college professor, and they had two sons, Reuben II and Howard.  In 1962, she received a master’s in music education, and thirteen years later, she completed a doctorate in music education from the University of Oklahoma.

Dr. Mildred D. Green has made significant contributions to the Memphis community through her work as a college professor and music historian.  She and her husband moved to Memphis in 1963, when they joined the faculty of Owen College, a private Baptist college, where she directed the choir and taught music appreciation and humanities.  When Owen merged with LeMoyne College in 1968 to form LeMoyne-Owen College, Dr. Green became a professor of music and director of the choir.  In addition to traditional music courses, she introduced a seminar on Black women composers and one on  Black Memphis musicians.  The seminar was based on research for her doctoral dissertation, which led to publication of a book, Black Women Composers:  A Genesis (1983), that traces the lives and works of composers Julia Perry, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Evelyn Pittman, and Lena McLin.  The course on Black Memphis musicians developed from a grant that she received from the United Negro College Fund to document the accomplishments of more than 300 musicians, including singer Carla Thomas, saxophonist Herman Green, classical pianist Thomas Flagg, and music educator Wendell P. Whalum.  She explains, “I teach about these musicians in class because I believe it helps students research and learn heritage.”

Dr. Green’s articles on African American musicians have appeared in the Historical Anthology of Music by Women (1987); her essay, “A Matter of Fact:  Selected Black Memphis Musicians, 1950-1980,” was published in Homespun Images:  An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers and Artists (1989); and her articles on Marian Anderson, women composers, and women in concert music were published in the revised edition of Black Women in America (2005), edited by Darlene Clark-Hine.  She has also arranged spirituals and composed songs-”O Clap

Your Hands,” based on Psalm 47, for example -which have been performed by the LeMoyne-Owen Choir, but her best known composition is “I Have a Dream, “ based on the 1963 speech of Dr.   Martin Luther King, Jr.   “I wrote it the night King was killed,” she explained.  “There was something pressing that night.  I

I don’t know why it took the shape of a song.  I was obsessed with it.”

In recognition of her scholarship and service in the field of music education, Dr. Mildred D. Green was honored on February 8, 1987, when she received the Florence Cole Talbert McCleave Award from  Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Dr. Mildred Green’s Services: Visitation, Friday January 18, 2019, 4-7 pm; Services: Saturday January 19, 2019 11 am, Central Baptist Church  at 320 Joubert Ave, Memphis, TN

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