It was a golden age in Lincoln University's history when Dr. Oscar Anderson Fuller joined the faculty to chair the school's music department in 1942. He was joining the ranks of the university's impressive faculty of elite Black scholars.
The employment opportunities for Black professors in those days were limited to Black schools. Beginning in the early 1920s, Lincoln's President Nathan B. Young actively recruited accomplished Black scholars from around the country. He reshaped and advanced the reputation of Lincoln as the "Black Harvard of the Midwest."
Like many of the distinguished professors at Lincoln in that era, Fuller was not a Missouri native. He was born in 1904 in Roanoke, Virginia, into a family of educators. The family moved to Marshall, Texas, when he was young. His father, a graduate of Harvard, was a teacher and dean at Bishop College in Marshall, a Black men's college. Fuller Sr. was one of six siblings with doctoral degrees and one sister with a master's degree. This was at a time when educational opportunities for Black people were limited and attained against many odds.
Fuller had demonstrated an affinity for music early on. At the age of 6, he learned to play the piano by ear. He would eventually become proficient with the flute, piccolo, organ, violin, brass and saxophone. Yet, when he began his higher education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he enrolled in medical school. He soon switched majors and schools, first to the New England Conservancy in Boston to study music composition and then to the University of Iowa. It was there in the early 1940s that Fuller became the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. in music.
It was one of Nathan Young's successors, Dr. Sherman Scruggs, who recruited Fuller. The music program at Lincoln was essentially nonexistent in 1942. In an interview with journalist Bill Nunn in 1983, Fuller reported when he accepted the position with Lincoln's music program, Fuller told his wife, Edith, "Let's see what we can do here." He sensed a need and a challenge.
Within eight years, the music department blossomed under Fuller's leadership. Instructors were hired, and enrollment went up. By 1950, there were three degree programs: bachelor of arts in music, music education and music therapy.
In 1950, he led the music program to a certification from the Missouri Department of Education and from the National Association of Schools of Music, only the second Black university to earn this recognition.
The highlight of Lincoln's music program under Fuller was the university choir. The choir toured widely through the Midwest and beyond, including the New York World's Fair in 1964 and the U.S. Senate. He also helped organize music festivals at high schools and colleges.
Several of Fuller's students went on to professional singing careers: opera singer Felicia ("Frankie") Weathers and two singers in the popular 1970s group The Fifth Dimension, Billy Davis Jr., and Ron Townsend.
Fuller composed several choir pieces. Unfortunately, the only copies of these were destroyed when his basement flooded in 1964.
Lincoln provided vital educational opportunities for Black students they could not get at white schools. This all changed in 1954. The Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation and opened opportunities for Black students. Lincoln University was no longer a Black student's only choice. Enrollment dropped. In his doctoral dissertation on Fuller in 1982, Stephen Houser noted as he welcomed this inclusion for Black people it eliminated the positions of many Black educators who then had to compete with white educators: "Role Models of Black music teachers disappeared in the years immediately after 1954. This was a depressing time for Fuller. His music education undergraduates were being prepared for greatly diminished career field opportunities."
On the positive side, more white students began enrolling at Lincoln, and the department's music therapy program found new attention. But financial troubles in the late 1960s caused Lincoln to cancel the summer music camps it hosted, a great recruiting tool for the program. Finally, in 2017, more budget cuts eliminated the entire music degree program.
Fuller retired in 1974 after 32 years. He and wife, Edith, who he affectionately called "Mama," lived on East Dunklin Street across from MLK Hall and remained engaged in school activities. They had one daughter, Patricia Rice, and five grandchildren. Edith died in 1986, and Fuller in 1989.
Houser found Fuller had a good rapport with his students, who spoke highly of him in interviews he conducted for his dissertation. Colleagues remembered him having personal warmth and good humor. He once told an audience he had lived in three different eras, "Negro, Colored and Black." He explained, "Twenty years ago, I'd been in trouble if I said 'Black.' Now, I mustn't say 'Negro.' So I must stop and think what era I'm in."
Jenny Smith is a retired forensic chemist with the Highway Patrol Crime Lab and former editor of the Historic City of Jefferson's "Yesterday and Today" newsletter.