In the 1890s, Omaha’s African American community began growing. The Union Pacific paid higher salaries for Pullman porters who moved to the city; the first Black professionals including lawyers and doctors became established; Black politicians were elected to office; and more people were moving to Omaha from the South. They brought culture with them, and some names jump out from history. This is a biography of a prodigal African American pianist and teacher called George T. McPherson, but actually named George Franklin McPherson (1864-c1916).
…the wonder of the musical age–The Monitor, July 17, 1915
Born in Marietta, Ohio, on July 4, 1864, McPherson’s parents were slaves. Sent to an orphanage at age 9, in 1881 he went to the Oberlin Academy of Music in Ohio, where he was the student of Edward Baxter Perry. Apparently he may have gone to the Boston Conservatory of Music, too.
Acknowledged as an expert two years later, when he was 19 years old McPherson joined the Original Nashville Students, a professional touring singing group. He was the pianist for the group from 1885 to 1888. After traveling Europe, in 1889 he moved to Omaha to become the city’s leading musical prodigy and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist performer and teacher.
Later declared “the leading pianist of the [African-American] race” by The Enterprise, a Black newspaper in Omaha, McPherson ran a music studio for the young students from the wealthiest white families in Omaha, as well as African American students. Performing regularly for formal African American events, newspaper reports regularly talked about him playing to crowds of 400 and 500 season after season for years. In 1900, a newspaper reported that on piano, “he could play by the hour almost anything called for – operas, popular music, classical music or dance music.”
Addressed as “Professor McPherson” in the media, McPherson was the first prominent black musician in Omaha. He lived in Florence in an era when it was restricted to whites only.
That year, he left Omaha and went to Chicago to perform at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Apparently while he was there he won several awards in competitions. It was after that he was revealed to have fallen in love with a white woman in Omaha who wouldn’t become romantically involved with him.
Briefly committed to a mental asylum in Chicago, McPherson was moved back to Nebraska to be confined to the State Hospital for the Insane. Spending more than a decade in Ingleside, he was frequently cited for performances at the institution.
By 1915, McPherson was committed to the Ingleside Hospital for the Insane in Hastings, Nebraska, where he continued performing. Surely aware of the opportunity they had, starting in 1915, the Nebraska State Medical Association had McPherson perform more than once for their annual sessions held at Ingleside.
“This man plays nothing but high grade classical music, which he does every day of his life in the large reception room of the hospital. He plays the most difficult pieces from the old masters by memory, yet so perfectly does he handle the keys that no criticism of his work has ever been made during his several years residence at the state institution by the many well-known musicians who have visited him, and for whom he always willingly entertains. In appearance he is neat and uses good language when discussing music. At other times he mumblings about nothing.”Said of George McPherson Omaha World-Herald, July 11, 1916
Presumably he was there until his death. In 1916, the institution’s main psychiatrist reported that McPherson would never recover, and after that he was never mentioned in the media again. I presume he was dead.
Today there is no monument or memory of Professor McPherson in Omaha. His grave’s location is unknown. Instead, this once-bright beacon of culture and sophistication is almost entirely forgotten, denied his place in the city’s history.