Acclaimed former U music prof dies at 78

Geneva Southall’s research on black musicians and composers was nationally recognized.

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

Before she passed away Jan. 2 because of complications from several strokes, former University professor Geneva Southall still found ways to catch her daughter off guard.

Southall, 78, was an avid music lover, said Tisch Jones, Southall’s daughter. Sometimes her mother’s preferences surprised Jones.

“She loved white country gospel music. For someone who teaches black music, I was taken aback,” Jones recalled. “She said, ‘People are racist. Music is not racist.’ “

Music played a central role in Southall’s life. Since 1970, she was a University professor in the School of Music. She also taught in the University’s African-American and African studies department before becoming department chairwoman in 1974. She held the position until the mid-1980s and retired from the University in 1992.

Born in New Orleans, Southall was the first black woman in the United States to earn a doctoral degree in piano performance and music literature.

Throughout her career, she accrued numerous teaching and service awards and was inducted into the Black Musicians Hall of Fame in 1988.

John Wright, a professor in the African-American and African studies department, worked with Southall and met her as a graduate student.

He said Southall’s research on black musicians and composers was extensive and nationally recognized.

Southall published three groundbreaking volumes on Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a famed slave pianist and composer of the 1800s. Southall was also the first to record his music.

Wright said Southall took pride in scholarly rigor and in helping students develop intellectual and personal self-discipline.

“At the same time, she was very much concerned with reaching out to students who may not have had the most advantaged educational backgrounds,” Wright said.

Aside from her literary publications, Southall played classical piano and was active within the Music School.

“University professors have to publish,” Jones said. “My mother performed, and that was also her publication.”

Southall also helped found the now-defunct Black Music Educators of the Twin Cities, an outreach program that helped young black musicians network and perform, said Margaret LaFleur, another of the group’s co-founders.

Jones’ mother could be very strict and stern at times, but it came from concern and dedication to her students.

“She would be hard on them, but she did it in a loving way,” Jones said.

As Southall’s health deteriorated in the past year, Jones moved her mother to a rehabilitation center near her home. In the waning days of Southall’s life, she was moved to her daughter’s home.

“I surrounded her with nonstop music,” Jones said of her mother’s last two days. “Her little right fingers were going to the music. I made sure it was nonstop.”

Jones played Southall’s own music performances in her last hours.

“When she finally took that last breath, the tape finished, and the audience was clapping on the tape,” Jones said. “She died listening to her own music being played, followed by the claps of her audience.”