University of Michigan celebrates 90th birthday of Black professor

When Willis Patterson returned home to Ann Arbor in 1968 for a teaching job at the University of Michigan, he made history by becoming the first African American faculty member at the renowned School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
For some artists, that might have been enough.
“He could have rested on his laurels just by getting the job at Michigan and being a faculty member,” says Louise Toppin, a current U-M voice professor who was mentored by Patterson as a student. “But he chose to do and be so much more.”
Patterson made inclusion his goal during his three decades on campus as an accomplished bass singer, educator
and activist.
The professor emeritus, who’s still going strong, will be celebrated Friday through Sunday at the African American Music Conference, which is doubling as a party of sorts for Patterson’s upcoming 90th birthday.
The virtual event, hosted by the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is free and open to the public.
Patterson had a stellar career as a vocalist, performing with orchestras and touring the United States and Europe. A Fulbright scholar and winner of the Marian Anderson Award for young singers, he also made his mark in education, first at HBCUs (historically Black colleges or universities) and then at U-M.
After getting his undergraduate and master’s degrees
from U-M, Patterson taught at Southern University in Louisiana. He came back to Ann Arbor for a doctoral program, but left a year later to become a professor at Virginia State University.
When U-M approached him in 1968 with a job offer, it was during a period when student protests were calling for more Black teachers and students on campus. Patterson, as a professor and, for 20 years, an associate dean, became a champion for diversity.
Toppin says Patterson was insistent about increasing the number of Black faculty members. He also worked tirelessly to obtain fellowships for minority graduate students. “That was going against the grain, to push to have African American students. I came (to U-M) in the ’80s and he was very much part of making sure we were here,” she says.
Besides working for more representation on campus, Patterson expanded the university’s mostly white music curriculum. A course he launched on African American art songs is still taught by Toppin.
In 1977, Patterson’s “Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers” was published.
A few years later, he made a companion recording of it. The anthology remains relevant today and played an important role then in chronicling Black composers in the vocal canon of art songs, which are usually written in the classical music style.
Not content to work only on changing the college, Patterson also was an advocate in his hometown. He helped create the
African American Endowment Fund of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to enriching the quality of life in Washtenaw County. Patterson was a trustee of the foundation.
And years before he reached U-M, Patterson was speaking out against discrimination. In 1963, after he wrote NBC to protest the racist custom of using a white bass singer in blackface to perform the role of Balthazar in “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” the network invited him to New York to audition for a new version of the production. He won the part in the Christmas special, which aired for the next three years.
Toppin has organized a virtual reunion Saturday for Patterson and most of the original 1963 cast of “Amahl,” who’ll have a live conversation online as part of the conference.
“To take on NBC, a big entity like that, and to have the gumption to write them a letter and say, ‘You need to stop this racist practice … I’m still amazed by that,” says Toppin. “That’s like me telling Bill Gates what he should do.”
On Friday, the African American Music Conference will hold a virtual chat to mark the addition of Patterson’s archives to the Bentley Historical Library’s collection. Patterson will appear online with Bentley director Terrence McDonald, U-M President Mark Schlissel and Vice Provost Robert Sellers and Toppin.
Toppin says she is following in …