By Johnny C. Johnson

Earl Directing

Earl E. Lawrence was born in Erie on May 14, 1881. He was one of four children born to Emma Gertrude Lawrence and John Lawrence and a member of one of Eries's earliest African American families. He attended Burns School and graduated from Erie Central High School in 1901. His early interest was music and he dedicated himself to a life work in that field.

He studied under some of the most well-known Erie musicians of his day. These were such notables as James D. Cavanaugh, Henry Weisbauer, Anton Kohler, and F.H. Losey. He studied flute, saxophone, percussion, harmony, and instrumentation. He was an accomplished arranger and many of his arrangements were accepted commercially.

Mr. Lawrence spent many years as a performer in bands of various types in dance halls, parks, hotels, and in the homes of prominent Erie citizens. He played many functions for Anne Strong at the Strong Estate, which is now Gannon University's Old Main.

He joined the Strand Theatre Orchestra near the close of the first World War and for ten years played in various other theatre orchestras: Perry Theater (Shea's), The State, The Colonial, and The Old Park Theater. Mr. Lawrence also played tympani drums at the various theaters for silent movies.

Mr. Lawrence operated his own private music studio located on 11th and State Streets from 1916 to 1936. In 1936 he assisted in organizing the musical program for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Erie and Crawford counties. Mr. Lawrence lost the studio after the depression and pursued his musical career as a member of the faculty at the Erie Conservatory of Music and the Markham Music Store, where he taught for more than eight years. Many of his students went on to become accomplished musicians and many played with renowned orchestras and bands. Two or his former students were members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, one a member of the Rudy Valee Band and one a member of the Phil Spitainy All-Girls Orchestra. Mr. Lawrence pointed to the fact that Francis Griswold (General Griswold) was once a pupil of his. Familiar African American Students were Bruce Morton Wright, Conductor of the Erie Chamber Orchestra, and Mary Alice Brown, renowned jazz singer and pianist. Mr. Lawrence taught the Almhagens, who were members of the Erie Symphony Orchestra, and spent one year playing in the Erie Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Fritz Mahler.

Mr. Lawrence taught all band instruments and played the xylophone. He sold his xylophone to Dr. Chaffee. Mr. Lawrence was very active in the musical life of the Erie community. He worked with the B'nai Brith, a Finnish Group, various African American churches, and the Booker T. Washington Center. He played an integral part in allowing music to transcend economic and ethnic boundaries within the Erie community.

Mr. Lawrence saw a need to secure the future of his family and an opportunity to share his musical talents with others. He studied at the University of Pittsburgh, Edinboro State Teachers College, and the Pennsylvania State College. After obtaining his certification from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction he made application and was appointed Musical Director for the Fairview Borough and Township Joint School District. It is important to note that Mr. Lawrence was fifty-nine years old when he obtained his certification. It is also important to note that even though Mr. Lawrence had taught and worked with some of the most prominent Erie musicians of the day he did not find employment in the Erie City School District. Mr. Lawrence was Musical Supervisor in Summit, Girard, and Fairview townships. He also worked in the Wattsburg School District.

As Music Supervisor for the Fairview Borough and Township Joint School District, he had charge of the music programs in all schools of the District in grades 1 through 12. His school work included vocal and instrumental music, a band, an orchestra, mixed chorus, girls drum and bugle corps, and singing groups in grades 7, 8, and 9. In the elementary schools he had five rhythm bands in grades 1, 2, and 3 and unorganized singing groups in grades 4, 5, and 6.

In his tenure, Fairview was host to the PMEA Northwest District Chorus of 250 voices from five counties in Northwest Pennsylvania. Three times Mr. Lawrence had students chosen for the State Choral Festival. Mr. Lawrence a was member of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association.

Mr. Lawrence retired from the teaching profession in 1951. He was honored at a Testimonial Reception in the Fairview High School Auditorium on Tuesday, May 29, 1951. Mr. Lawrence passed away in October 1969.

Harry T. Burleigh was a personal friend of Mr. Lawrence and made the Lawrence home his headquarters when he visited Erie. It was probably the sharing of ideas and feelings about music and Negro Spirituals, in particular, with Mr. Burleigh that prompted and inspired Mr. Lawrence to write the treatise "THE BASIS FOR THE CREATION OF THE SPIRITUALS." It probably takes into account the many conversations these two musical giants had about the medium which they loved and so elevated the African American race. Out of a love for music and an even deeper love for the people that spawned it, Mr. Lawrence eloquently offered irrefutable proof of the authenticity of Negro Spirituals. This treatise is symbolic of the knowledge and the ability of Mr. Lawrence to integrate the history of music with the known research of the day to justify his thesis: "The Legitimacy of Negro Spirituals."


It is ironic that in researching the life of Earl E. Lawrence, an extraordinary teacher and musician in the Erie community, that one of the main local histories of the day, "Tales Of Old Erie" by John G. Carney, copyright 1958, made no mention of Mr. Lawrence. This was done in spite of the fact that Mr. Lawrence was the only African American to play in the Erie Symphony Orchestra, was on the faculty of the Erie Conservatory of Music which was the life blood of the Erie Musical community, and owned his own music studio for twenty years. Mr. Lawrence was also an associate of almost all of the renowned musicians named in Mr. Carney's book. Mr. Carney's statement that "history is the foundation on which progress is built. It is the record of people, time, and events of the past" conceals a myopic view of people, time, and events. His oversight gives credence to the belief that African Americans are faceless, nameless, and non-entities when it comes to recording history.

This material is taken from:

THE JOURNAL ERIE STUDIES - SPRING 1994 - VOL. 23, No. 1 ... Published By ERIE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Erie, Pennsylvania