Department Chair

Andrew D. Nicholls, Ph.D., Professor of History

Date of Award


Access Control

Open Access

Degree Name

History, M.A.


History and Social Studies Education Department


Felix L. Armfield, Ph. D., Professor of History

Department Home page

First Reader

Felix L. Armfield, Ph.D., Professor of History

Second Reader

Carolyn Guzski, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Music


While the contributions of writers and poets to the period of American cultural history known as the Harlem Renaissance are relatively well defined and understood, assessing the contributions of musicians has been more problematic. The topic has been covered indirectly through works of American music history and African American history, but there have been comparatively few works linking music directly to the goals of the movement. Much of the insight into music’s place during this period derives from contemporary writers such as Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson, both of whom featured discussions of music in their writings. Relatively unknown today, Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was one of a group of composers whose work reflects the goals of Locke and other Renaissance writers. This thesis will explore the work of Robert Nathaniel Dett as a composer and educator in the larger context of the Harlem Renaissance. With in-depth biographies of Dett’s life already available, this thesis will focus on the period of his greatest activity during the 1910s and the 1920s while concurrently attempting to establish a larger context for his work by situating it within the course of American music history of the period. Specific topics will include: Dett’s education at Oberlin College and subsequent employment as Music Director at Hampton Institute; how characteristics of Dett’s music aligned with the goals of the Harlem Renaissance; and, Dett’s response to criticism that he was neglecting the authentic heritage of African American music.