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George Garner Rediscovered

March 7, 2009 |  6:00 am


The Garner Concert Jubilee Company, in a photo from a promotional brochure.

1934_0701_george_garner I've been able to gather some more information about George Robert Garner, a Pasadena choral director and singer who was the first African American to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Frank Villella, archivist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, says:

Tenor George Garner appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on one occasion, on a Popular Concert at Orchestra Hall on March 25, 1926.  He sang "On away! Awake Beloved" from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (Frederick Stock, our music director, was the conductor). Unfortunately, there was no biography or photograph of Garner included in the program book for that concert. 

According to an article in The Chicago Defender (from April 3, 1926; see attached), Garner was "the first soloist of our Race to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra."  Also according to the article, Garner sang the "Lament" (presumably "Vesti la giubba") from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci as an encore.

Regular Daily Mirror reader Dick Morris drew upon his vast knowledge of online databases and offers these facts about George Robert Garner and his father, George Sr.:

1926_0403_garnerIn 1900, (the older) George is listed as living with his brother Fred in Chicago. No spouse or children were living with him. In this one, George is shown as being born in Canada and his parents born in England and a immigration date of 1888 is listed and he had been in the U.S. for 12 years. Occupation was clerk. This may be a different person, but there are a number of similarities.

In 1910 George Sr. was listed as born in N. Carolina as were his parents. He was a butler for a private family. At 18, George, Jr. was identified as a musician, concert. he had been out of work for 10 weeks during the year. The address looks like 209 E. 32nd.

On an LDS site I found a record saying that George R. Garner, Jr. was married to Pauline H. Bell on 1 Sep 1915 in Chicago. This is a transcription of marriage license and they have the image available to view.

The WWI draft registration for George R. Garner Jr. gives his birth date as April 16, 1892, and his address as 5229 Wabash Ave., Chicago. It's hard to read, but I think his occupation is professional concert artist singer. He was married.

For the 1920 Chicago census, George Jr. lived in Chicago and his spouse's name was Pauline. The address was 4405 Champlain Ave., and he owned his house outright. He and his wife were both 27. She was born in Illinois as was her father. Her mother was born in Oregon. He was a vocalist, opera, she was a pianist, opera. It appears that they had two boarders with the last name of Harrison. Both were his cousins and both were tailors.

In the 1920 census his father was identified as mulatto and a butler for a private family.

A George R. Garner, 30 years old, married, born in Chicago, Ill., Apr 16, 1899, of 6408 Laurence Ave., Chicago, Ill. arrived on the Leviathan from Southampton to New York on Apr 26, 1929. This is obviously the same person as in the 1930 census. The birth date matches the WWI draft registration, but the year doesn't.


George Garner and his wife, Pauline (or Paullyn) in an undated photo.

There was a George R. Garner in Chicago for the 1930 Census. He was 60, Negro, born in Virginia and his parents were born in England. Occupation was butler for a private family. Wife was Rosa, Negro, 48 years old. She and her parents were born in Virginia. Son was George R. Jr., 30 years old, born in Illinois. He had attended school since September 1, 1919 and had no occupation. Their address was 6408 St. Laurence Ave.

The one from the California Death Index -- George R Garner 8 Jan 1971 Los Angeles  16 Apr 1892 Illinois  -- is obviously the same person as the one in WWI draft registration.

There are a lot of inconsistencies, but it appears these are all the same person.

I did a Google news archive search and it appears that the Chicago Tribune mentioned him a number of times in the 1920s and early 30s. However, I don't have a subscription to the Chicago Tribune archives.

Dick also notes that Garner performed an aria from Verdi's "Aida" at the 1919 Chicago premiere of an African American film described as "Oscar Micheaux's Mammoth Photoplay."

--Let's hope more information turns up--lrh