Rachel M. Washington was the first African-American to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music in the year 1876. She served as organist and choir director at Twelfth Baptist Church in the latter half of the 19th century and was a leading music teacher in Boston’s Black community.
There is not much published information about Washington, so included below is an extended biography of her from 1881.
Miss Rachel M. Washington a lady of fine artistic qualities, thoroughly educated in music, performing in finished, classical style on the piano-forte and organ, and who is a most accomplished teacher of those instruments and of harmony. In the last-mentioned department of music she a few years ago graduated, receiving the valuable diploma of the New-England Conservatory at Boston. Many of the most pleasing amateurs of Boston and vicinity received their first instructions in music from Miss Washington. Hers is a musical family, as her two sisters and brother are each possessed of nice musical taste and education. The subject of this notice early awakened their interest, and directed their studies. It is gratefully acknowledged, too, that to Miss Washington’s earnest efforts, more than to those of any other person in Boston, is due that love for and proficiency in musical art so noticeable in certain circles of that city. From what I have learned of this artist’s history from my own observation and otherwise, I am convinced that its full recital here would add much to the interest and value of this book. But I am prevented from doing this by her own earnest request, conveyed in language which, although, as I think, a trifle too gloomy, yet shows that she is animated by the most elevated ideas concerning the beautiful art of which she is so noble an exponent. I cannot forbear quoting a part of her excellent letter, in which she says, —
“Now a word about my own musical life… Perhaps I have had much success, and, like many others, many failures. My life has been one of persevering struggle to attain to a high degree of musical knowledge, and, through this, to assist in the elevation of my race. If I have been successful in any degree in helping to lay the foundation of future or present success, in awakening a love for the beautiful in musical art, or in kindling an ardent desire and aspiration for that which elevates and ennobles, removes the harshness of and dignifies our natures, then I am glad that I have not sown in vain, though another shall reap the harvest.”
“A part of the reward for all these years of arduous toil has been the recognition of talent by those of the more favored race, as well as the appreciation and kindness shown me by those with whom I am identified…”
“As I read the lives of the great composers, and think of their sacred devotion to the art dearer to them than their own lives, I feel anxious for the time to come in our history when a child like Mozart shall be born with soul full of bright melodies; or a Beethoven, with his depth and tenderness of feeling; or a Handel, lifting us above this earth until we shall hear the multitude of voices joining in one vast son, — ‘Alleluia! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.’ Nor is this impossible. Our history, it seems to me, has but just begun. All the past is but sorrow and gloom, with here and there a bright ray to bid us hope… I hope they ([the colored youth of the country]) will early develop a love and taste for the beautiful in musical art; that soon we shall be proud to mention those whose names through their works shall be immortal.”
Miss Washington has long been the organist of the Twelfth Baptist Church, Boston, as well as the directress of its choir. She is a lady of fine general culture and Christian character, and has many times been the recipient of public testimonials, and of complimentary notices from the New-England press.”
–Music and Some Highly Musical People: Containing Brief Chapters on I. A Description of Music. II. The Music of Nature. III. A Glance at the History of Music. IV. The Power, Beauty, and Uses of Music. Following which are Given Sketches of the Lives of Remarkable Musicians of the Colored Race. With Portraits, and an Appendix Containing Copies of Music Composed by Colored Men (p.288-290) by James M. Trotter. Published by Lee and Shepard, 1881.