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Manuscript Collection MC 1125
Information about William Grant Still
Information about Verna Arvey
Information about the Collection
Additional Sources of Information
Contents of Collection (126 Boxes, 101 Volumes)


Access to the collection is in accordance with the policies of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Special Collections Department.

Copyright: All publication and performance rights are retained by the Estate of William Grant Still and Verna Arvey. Permission to reproduce any materials and photographs in the collection must be obtained from the Estate of William Grant Still and Verna Arvey. All permissions must be in writing. The Estate can be contacted at:

William Grant Still Music
809 W. Riordan Road, Suite 100, Box 109
Flagstaff, AZ 86001-0810
Phone: (928) 526-9355
Fax: (928) 526-0321

For further information, contact the Head of the Special Collections Department.

Scrapbooks, Volumes 1-84, are restricted due to their fragility. Microfilm is available to researchers. Volumes 85-101 are not microfilmed and may be handled by researchers.

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William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi, to William Grant Still, Sr. and Carrie Lena Fambro. Before he was a year old, Still's father died, and his widowed mother arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, with "Babe Will" to be with her mother, Anne Fambro. Carrie Still taught English in the Little Rock schools, and she did eventually remarry; Charles B. Shepperson, a railway postal clerk, became Still's stepfather. Still's early years were influenced by his mother's discipline and love of learning, his maternal grandmother's singing of Negro spirituals, and his stepfather's collection of Red Seal phonographs.

After graduating as valedictorian in his high school class, Still enrolled in Wilberforce University in 1911 in the Bachelor of Science degree program. Although his grades were above average, Still spent much of his time playing and directing the band, performing with the Wilberforce string quartet, and perusing Carl Fischer catalogues. Leaving Wilberforce before graduation, William Grant Still received a broad musical education that included arranging for Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw, performing in the bands of W.C. Handy and the "Shuffle Along" band of Eubie Blake, and working in the Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company, as well as studying composition at Oberlin College, at the New England Conservatory with George Whitefield Chadwick, and with Edgar Varese.

Known as the "Dean of Afro-American Composers" during the latter part of his career, Still led a full and productive life as arranger, conductor, lecturer, writer, and composer. It is as composer, however, that he is remembered best. Still's works include nine operas, five symphonies, four ballets, and numerous compositions for voice, keyboard, chamber ensembles, and even two pieces for accordion.

During the 1930s and 1940s Still's compositions were performed by major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, and the Tokyo Philharmonic. His Afro-American Symphony was performed in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the first symphony by an African-American to be played by a leading orchestra. Other "firsts" for William Grant Still were the following: he was the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the United States (Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl), the first to have a full-length opera performed by a major company (Troubled Island in 1949 by the New York City Opera at City Center), the first to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South (New Orleans Philharmonic in 1955), and one of the first to write for radio and film.

Among his many honors and awards are a Harmon Award (1927), two Guggenheim fellowships (1934, 1935), two Rosenwald fellowships (1939, 1940), a Freedom Foundation Award (1953), an Honorary Master of Music from Wilberforce University (1936), an Honorary Doctor of Music from Howard University (1941), an Honorary Doctor of Music from Oberlin College (1947), an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Bates College (1954), an Honorary Doctor of Law from the University of Arkansas (1971), an Honorary Doctor of Law from Pepperdine University (1973), and an Honorary Doctor of Law from the University of Southern California (1975). William Grant Still died on December 3, 1978, in Los Angeles.


Verna Arvey was born in Los Angeles, California, on February 16, 1910. Her parents, both Russian Jewish emigrants, were David Arvey and Bessie Tark. Arvey graduated from Manual Arts High School where she studied journalism and music. During the 1920s, she gave lecture-recitals, accompanied dancers, and was involved in some avant-garde multi-media "happenings." She performed in both North and South America, and her programs always included the compositions of Latin American composers as well as noted black composers, such as R. Nathaniel Dett, Harry Burleigh, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and William Grant Still.

Verna Arvey's relationship with Still began in 1934 when he arrived in Los Angeles under the auspices of a Guggenheim award. Arvey was a pianist and journalist at the time. Their professional collaboration grew to personal devotion and they married in 1939. Among her many musical collaborations with Still are A Bayou Legend, Costaso, Minette Fontaine, Song For The Lonely, We Sang Our Songs, The Pillar, Mota, and revisions for Troubled Island, an opera originally written by Langston Hughes and Still. Arvey is also the author of Choreographic Music (E.P. Dutton, 1941) and In One Lifetime (University of Arkansas Press, 1984), which is her personal story of Still. Verna Arvey died in Los Angeles in 1987.


William Grant Still and Verna Arvey of Los Angeles, California, bequeathed their papers to Special Collections on July 3, 1973.

Arrangement and description of the papers was undertaken on July 1, 1991, and financed in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Scope and Contents Note

The careers of William Grant Still and Verna Arvey were far-reaching as they related to not only the emerging status of African-Americans in classical music, but also as they related to United States social history, race relations and politics. The William Grant Still and Verna Arvey collection contains materials that span the 20th century, and it serves as a rare testament to a period of time in which little documentation exists for African-Americans in American history.

The papers consist of professional and personal correspondence of William Grant Still and Verna Arvey as well as biographical documents, including certificates, diaries, dreambooks, scrapbooks, and predictions. In addition, research files, literary manuscripts, and photographs further document the lives of Still and Arvey. Audio tapes and the musical scores of Still, many in collaboration with Arvey, librettist and lyricist, form another important component of these papers. The literary and musical manuscripts of other writers and composers found in the papers further enhance the collection.

The collection is very extensive, but not all-inclusive. Other materials from the Estate are available through William Grant Still Music (see contact information above.)

The material in the William Grant Still and Verna Arvey Papers has been divided into four groups, each of which has been divided into its own series and subseries. Box numbers are consecutive throughout the collection, but series and subseries are numbered within each group.

Processed by Norma Ortiz-Karp, June 1992. Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Scrapbooks volumes 85-101 processed by Todd E. Lewis and Jim Kelton, July 2006.

Additional information:
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