Josephine White Hall was a beloved mezzo soprano who was featured artist in the Noonday Concert series at the Unitarian Church from 1981 through 1995. Born in Orange, Virginia, in 1918, she began singing in public as a child but did not begin formal voice training until she was twenty-eight years old. In the interim, she sang spirituals that she learned from her grandmother and her contemporaries.
At age eighteen, she moved to Philadelphia, continued to take part in musical events there, and eventually found her first two teachers. From Philadelphia, she moved on to New York and eventually to Germany for a further year of training. In the 1950s and 1960s she toured Western Europe taking part in concerts sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Despite her success in the concert world, White Hall supported herself by working as a domestic. In 1952 she traveled to Nantucket with her employers. On her first evening on the island, she joined the crowd that gathered regularly on Main Street for “sings” and was invited to contribute one of the traditional spirituals. From that moment on, she was in demand for singing in Nantucket’s churches and in private gatherings.
In the early 1990s, just before restoration of Nantucket’s African Meeting House began, White Hall ducked through the low opening into the building and, standing alone inside, sang “Bless This House.”
In 1996 she gave her last performance at the Unitarian Church, a benefit concert for Bosnian refugees in Hungary. Accompanied by Marcia Hempel on the organ, White Hall sang a program of spirituals, songs in French Creole, and requests.
After the benefit concert, White Hall returned to Virginia with the mission to encourage young singers and to arrange musical activities for elders. Upon her death in 1999, The Unitarian Church in Nantucket held a musical tribute to White Hall that included Elizabeth “Libby” Oldham, one of the charter members of the Friends of the African Meeting House, singing in memory of her friend, Josephine White Hall.
To learn more about Josephine White Hall, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.