Walter F. Anderson, Catalyst for the Support of Music, National Endowment for the Arts, 19152003


Walter F. Anderson was considered the perfect person for the post when he was named director of music programs at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1968. Classical pianist, church organist, jazz musician, composer, college professor, concert presenter, community activist, civil rights champion and outgoing personality, he had the skills, experience and ingenuity to develop concepts for the fledgling federal agency’s support of music. During his 17 years with the NEA, he created model funding guidelines and pioneered the concept of the challenge grant.

“With his name known so widely in the music world in both America and Europe, he was the ideal person to provide a bridge, to connect people and venues, to bring together funding for people who needed a hand at a critical time in their developing careers and to introduce people from one part of the country to another, one ethnic group to another,” wrote Joan Horn in her affectionate biography, Playing on All the Keys: The Life of Walter F. Anderson.

Born in Zanesville, Ohio, on May 12, 1915, “Andy” (as he was known throughout his life) was the sixth of nine children in a low-income family and the grandson of freed slaves. He started piano lessons at age seven, began playing the organ at 12 and won a full scholarship to the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he completed a double major in piano and organ. He studied composition with 1961 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Herbert Elwell at Oberlin and with Paul Hindemith at the Berkshire Music Center.

The Cleveland Orchestra performed Anderson’s Variations on the Negro Spiritual, “Lord, Lord, Lord,” and premiered a concerto he was commissioned to write by harmonica virtuoso John Sebastian. The text for Anderson’s D-Day Prayer, a cantata based on the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was suggested by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

During his student years, Anderson spent his summers working as a counselor at a camp run by Karamu House, the Cleveland settlement house known for its commitment to interracial theater and the arts. He subsequently joined the Karamu staff full-time and learned the value of music as an instrument of social change. In Cleveland, he also directed music programs at the Mount Zion Congregational and Antioch Baptist churches, and he played the organ for the House of Wills and Boyd funeral homes.

Anderson began his academic career teaching briefly at Wilberforce University and the Kentucky State College for Negroes. In 1946, he became the first African American to head a music department in a non-black college, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. There, he built a program that encompassed community music as well as residencies by distinguished visiting artists. Despite his heavy responsibilities on campus, Anderson continued to tour as a concert pianist. When traveling through the South during the Jim Crow era, he had found resourceful ways to deal with racism. In Yellow Springs, he continued his quiet battle for equality by integrating the First Presbyterian Church with his wife, Dorothy Ross, leading a Civil Rights march and bringing the community together with apple butter festivals, popular fund-raising events that combined his talents as an organizer with his passion for cooking.

Among the many students whose lives were influenced by Anderson was soprano and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King. After Anderson’s death from cancer on November 24, 2003, she lauded him in an Antioch College reunion address as “not only a superb musician and a brilliant educator, but also one of the kindest and most caring human beings I have had the privilege of knowing. A man of extraordinary compassion and generosity, he was one of those rare people who enriched the lives of everyone who had the privilege to know him.”

—Wilma Salisbury,


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