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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Access Restrictions
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Processing Information
  • Biography / Administrative History
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Arrangement
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Memry Midgett papers
    Dates: circa 1860s-2013
    Bulk Dates: circa 1860s-1945
    Collection number: MS 163
    Collector: Midgett, Memry, 1920-2013
    Collection Size: 2.75 linear feet (10 boxes + 1 oversized box)
    Repository: African American Museum & Library at Oakland (Oakland, Calif.)
    Oakland, CA 94612
    Abstract: The Memry Midgett papers consists of photographs, correspondence, musical programs, and artifacts documenting the musical career and family history of Memry Midgett.
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English


    No access restrictions. Collection is open to the public.

    Access Restrictions

    Materials are for use in-library only, non-circulating.

    Publication Rights

    Permission to publish from the Memry Midgett Papers must be obtained from the African American Museum & Library at Oakland.

    Preferred Citation

    Memry Midgett papers, MS 163, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California.

    Acquisition Information

    The Memry Midgett Papers were donated to the African American Museum & Library at Oakland by Nancy Rakela on October 8, 2013.

    Processing Information

    Processed by Sean Heyliger, Archivist, December 9, 2016.

    Biography / Administrative History

    Jazz pianist and social worker Memry Florence Midgett (1920-2013) was born on December 10, 1920 in Chicago, Illinois the only child of Julia Ross and Thomas Jefferson Midgett, a bar tender and iron worker. Her parents both emigrated to Chicago, Illinois from the American South, her mother from Tuscumbia, Alabama and her father from Hickman, Tennessee. After graduating from Englewood High School in Chicago in 1939, she was awarded a music scholarship at the American Conservatory of Music where she studied piano. She worked as the assistant director of music at St. Elizabeth’s High School before going on to perform as a concert and jazz pianist and vocalist for many years. She started her career as a professional musician in the 1950s performing as an opening act for legendary bands such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie at Downbeat and Black Hawk night clubs in San Francisco, California. In 1954 she was discovered by Billie Holiday who asked her to play piano with her on tour. She performed with Billie Holiday under contract for 18 months, performing with her throughout 1954-1955 including a performance with Holliday at Carnegie Hall in September 1954.
    She continued performing throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s playing the lead in the San Francisco premiere of Archie and Mehitabel and singing and playing piano as a regular performer at El Cid, Station J, and the Sampan Room night clubs. In 1965 her musical career was tragically cut short by a near fatal automobile accident that left her bound to a wheelchair. Following the accident, Midgett decided to change careers and returned to school earning a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology from the University of San Francisco and master of public health in social services administration and planning from the University of California Berkeley. She worked as the recreation education director (1966) for the Economic Opportunity Act Summer Youth Program in the Western Addition Target Area, area director (1967-1968) of early childhood development centers for the Eastern Addition Head Start Program in San Francisco, a site administrator (1977-1979) at the Farragut Child Development Center, San Francisco Unified School District, and a resource specialist in special education for Skyline High School in Oakland, California. She was also the founder of NEMATOS (Negro Male Teachers Only), a social program providing African American youth with African American male role models and mentors.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Memry Midgett papers consists of photographs, correspondence, musical programs, and artifacts documenting the musical career and family history of Memry Midgett. The papers are organized into five series: Series I. Biographical material, Series II. Music, Series III. Photographs, Series IV. Family artifacts, Series V. Assorted printed material. Biographical material includes Memry Midgett’s resumes and funeral program, her correspondence during World War II with friends, family, suitors, her husband, Howard Cooley, and the American Red Cross, and assorted newspaper clippings documenting her career and marriages.
    The music series includes Memry Midgett’s publicity sketches, her correspondence with other jazz musicians and promoters, and a vinyl record, “Whisper Baby Blues,” she recorded with Johnnie Ingram and His Rhythm Czars. The papers include a small collection of musical programs featuring her performances mostly in Chicago, Illinois in the 1930s-1940s and sheet music possibly composed by Midgett as an for opening act for other performers. Also included are sheet music with endorsements and personal notes from band members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras.
    A bulk of the collection are photographs documenting Memry Midgett’s musical career and her family’s history in Alabama and Illinois. The photographs are organized into three subseries: Memry Midgett, family photographs, and publicity stills. Family photographs consists of 611 photographs of family members and friends of the Ross, Talbot, and Midgett families. A majority of the family photographs are of Memry Midgett’s grandmother, Wass Ross, her mother, Julia Ross, and her four sisters – Carrie Ross, Etta Ross, Mattie Ross, and Helen Ross. Many of the photographs are late 19th century and early 20th century portraits of friends of the Ross family, consisting mostly of African Americans in Northern Alabama in and around Tuscumbia and Florence, Alabama. There are also photographs documenting the family’s migration to Chicago, Illinois and Hot Springs, Arkansas in the 1900s-1920s. The Memry Midgett photograph subseries includes her childhood portraits, publicity photos related to her musical career, and her vacation and family photographs. The publicity stills subseries consists of inscribed publicity stills to Memry Midgett by jazz musicians she worked with at night clubs. The photographs are organized into subseries and numerically by photograph identification number thereafter.
    The assorted printed material series includes musical programs of other performers in Chicago, Illinois including Florence B. Price, Anna de Rasmus, Oland Gaston, and Geraldine Overstreet, and assorted business cards, pages from an address book, and a subdivision plat map.


    Series I. Biographical material Series II. Music Series III. Photographs Series IV. Family artifacts Series V. Assorted printed material

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    Midgett, Memry, 1920-2013
    Price, Florence, 1887-1953
    Young, Marl
    African American jazz musicians--Biography.
    African Americans--Illinois--Chicago--History--Pictorial works.
    African Americans--Alabama--Social life and customs.
    Tuscumbia Region (Ala.)--Social life and customs.
    World War, 1939-1945--African Americans.