The Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression, founded in 1903 by concert pianist and educator Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868-1941), was one of the city's earliest institutions promoting the arts for children and adults. Marshall worked to inspire and train African American musicians and to encourage them to create and embrace their own heritage of concert music.
The Washington Conservatory of Music opened with studios in the True Reformer Hall (1200 U Street, NW) and seven teachers. By 1906 nearly 300 students studied piano, voice, vocal expression, chorus training, pipe organ, string and wind instruments, ear training theory, the general history of music, Negro music, and public school music. Instructors included Marshall, Georgia Fraser Goins, and Margaret Just (Howard University professor Ernest Everett Just's daughter). The School of Expression was founded by Coralie Franklin Cook, who was known for her gifts in elocution. In 1904 Marshall's father Judge M.W. Gibbs donated the majestic corner house at 902 T Street for the school's use. The school attracted students and faculty from around the United States and produced leaders in many disciplines.
Harriet Gibbs Marshall was born in Canada to a Philadelphia native. A year later the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio. In 1889 she became the first African American to graduate from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After founding a music school in Kentucky, she came to Washington and in 1900 was named director of music for the Colored Schools. Three years earlier she helped to found the Treble Clef Club with Mamie F. Hilyer (wife of Andrew Hilyer) and others to study, promote, and perform European classical musical. In 1902 these same women formed the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, in honor of the noted African British composer.
Mary P. Burrill (ca. 1884-1946), a native Washingtonian and 1901 graduate of the M Street School, directed the school from 1907 until 1911, and taught elocution, public speaking, and dramatics. Burrill, an artist in her own right, is credited with writing the first feminist play by a black woman, They That Sit in Darkness. Burrill, who taught primarily at Dunbar High School, counted among her students Willis Richardson, the first black dramatist on Broadway, and May Miller, the most published black playwright in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Conservatory began to decline after Marshall's death in 1941, and it closed in 1960. In 2010 the building reopened as condominiums.