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History Minute: William Grant Still

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

William Grant Still was a noted composer of popular and classical music. Though facing a difficult childhood, the Arkansan overcame his early setbacks and found the way to let his artistic spirit soar.
Still was born in May 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi, in the southwestern corner of that state. His father died shortly after he was born, leaving him and his mother penniless. She soon moved with him to Little Rock to live with her mother. Eventually, his mother found work as a school teacher and remarried. Still’s stepfather, a railway postal clerk named Charles Shepperson, was an amateur musician who kindled Still’s passion for music. As a teenager, Still began taking formal violin lessons, showing immense promise along the way.
In 1911, he graduated M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock as the valedictorian. He briefly attended Wilberforce University in Ohio initially to study medicine before dropping out in favor of a musical career. He began playing in various bands and orchestras across the Midwest. He enrolled at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio in 1917 to pursue a formal study of music but dropped out again when the United States entered World War I and he enlisted in the navy.
Shortly after World War I, he traveled to Harlem, New York, where dozens of black writers, musicians, and artists were gathering and forming one of the most vibrant and talented artistic communities of the twentieth century. Still was swept up in the Harlem Renaissance, as it was called, working with a variety of musicians and performing across the city. He studied music with many more established artists and began composing his own works as well.