Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mabel Ritchardson: The Singer Committed to her Craft

Mabel Ritchardson in front of her house on Pine Street in San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood, ca. 1930s

A couple of years ago my mother handed me an old photo album. "This was your Great Grandmother's," she said, "I thought you might be interested in it." Before that, I didn't know much about Great Grandma Mabel except her name and where she had lived. I opened the photo album to find that Mabel had been a very dedicated vocalist, and she had meticulously documented her singing career: every program, every telegram, every announcement and review she received was in this album. The story it tells has fascinated me to no end.

A headline from a recital review published in a San Francisco newspaper
 Mabel was a contralto singer who performed regularly around San Francisco. Her repertoire was noted for being unique, as she performed a combination of classical pieces and negro spirituals. The clipping from the article pictured above reads:
 Mrs. Ritchardson's repertoire consisted of selections from such great composers as Handel, Dvorak, Schumann, and Brahms which are very difficult with a number of new and unheard of spirituals that were greatly appreciated. 
  Mabel studied under vocal instructor Madame Maria Verda (and she saved a great many clippings and brochures that sang her teacher's praises) and participated in many of Verda's recitals. One clipping, dated 1935 reviews a performance given at the Fairmont Hotel in the Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco:
 Madame Maria Verda presented a group of artists and students at the fashionable Nob Hill hotel...Mme. Verda introduced Mrs. Ritchardson as a cultural leader of the race. 
  The audience was held spellbound while Mrs. Ritchardson sang "Come Let Us All This Day" by Bach. For an encore she sang "Victoria Mio Core" by Carissimi in Italian. Mrs. Ritchardson appeared later on the program in a group of Negro Spirituals which were also very enthusiastically received.
  In addition to being an active performer and student of her craft, Mabel was the mother of six children, my grandmother Franzy being the youngest. Sometimes as I read through her papers and look at all this woman was involved in, I ask myself, "How did she do it? When did she sleep!?" One clue about how she kept herself motivated: Mabel saved a lot of articles about women pursuing their life's dreams and passions. Stories of mothers graduating college, 80 year old opera singers, and articles about the importance of education for adults and singing being beneficial to one's health. Mabel gathered inspiration from many different sources.

Mabel with her husband Franzy at the beach

 Mabel was also very active in her church, 1st A.M.E. Zion at 1667 Geary Street in San Francisco. She directed the choir and participated in many organizations and events within the church. She also served as the California State Supervisor for the National Association of Colored Girls.

A page out of Mabel's very full scrapbook

 As a working artist myself, Mabel's story has provided me with endless inspiration. Not only was she talented and dedicated to her craft, she also took great care in documenting her life's work. Mabel was her own archivist, and it shows how much her art meant to her. Mabel is a beautiful example of what women artists of African descent must do to preserve a legacy that is too often overlooked and buried with time.