To more than a generation of Fiskites, she was the keeper of the Fisk flame. To me, she was an inspiration, a cheerleader, a believer, a sometimes-taskmaster and always, always, always, a friend.
And when Beth Madison Howse ’65 died in September 2012, after a four decade-long career in the John Hope and Aurelia Franklin Library at Fisk University that helped countless researchers chronicle the black past, it seemed to me, like the end of the Fisk Camelot.
In the spirit of our mantra, “Stories live forever, storytellers don’t,” we honor Beth M. Howse as the Storyteller of the Year Legacy Award.
Having grown up in the home of her maternal grandmother in shadow of the historic Fisk Jubilee Hall, she enjoyed a wonderful childhood in the environs of the Fisk campus at the height of its golden years surrounded by now-famous luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance period. Their children were her childhood friends. Poet and librarian Arna Bontemps lived a few streets over while artist Aaron Douglas lived just two doors down, and the famous musicologist John W. Work III was her family’s next door neighbor.
Beth graduated from Nashville’s renown Pearl High School in 1961 and she entered Fisk University that fall amid the burgeoning modern Civil Rights Movement. Her choice to attend Fisk was unsurprising. Beth’s familial relationship to Fisk, had, even by that time, stretched almost a century. Her maternal great-grandmother Ella Sheppard Moore entered Fisk as a student in 1868, and was one of nine singers that formed the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers troupe that departed on October 6, 1871 to raise money to save the school. As pianist and assistant director for the singers, Sheppard Moore was the most-recognizable and longest-serving member of the group which introduced spirituals to the world, and erected Jubilee Hall as the first permanent structure for the education of blacks in the South.
Even as a teenager, Beth had dutifully represented her family every year at Jubilee Day, a tradition that she continued throughout her life. A fourth generation Fiskite, she excelled at Fisk, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1965 before later attending Peabody College, from which she was awarded a master’s degree.
In 1970, Beth returned to work at her alma mater Fisk University; and five years later, began her career as a Special Collections Librarian in the John and Aurelia Hope Franklin Library under the tutelage of Ann Allen Shockley ’48, whom she succeeded. Beth thrived in her role as the caretaker of priceless Fiskiana and African-American archival materials. She took special pride in painstakingly processing a number of Fisk’s more than one hundred processed collections including the Fisk Jubilee Singers Collection.
She was never too busy to help researchers whether student, novice or expert, reach their highest heights, undergirding them with her mastery of more than four decades of archival knowledge, and encouraging them with the sweetness of her spirit and smile. In recognition of her tireless work, countless local, national and international authors have recognized the debt they owe to her as both a professional and as an enthusiast in their book’s acknowledgements.
During her summers, Beth nurtured scores of children over her more than three decade-long tenure as director of Fisk Mini-College. Just this summer, more than fifty children were the beneficiaries of her unfailing commitment to the program. Their young voices could be heard gleefully squealing her name as they competed to be the center of her attention.
For more than thirty years, Beth also served as archivist for Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated (Boulé). She also enjoyed helping members of the wider community including the Girl Scouts, with whom she helped to create the curricula for a Jubilee Singers patch. For several decades, she was also a faithful member of the Howard Congregational Church where her great-grandfather the Reverend George W. Moore (Class of 1881) had once been a minister.
Above all, Beth was a loving family person and a faithful friend. She was my friend and HBCUSTORY will always be my gift to her life and love.
Watch Beth’s family receive the award in her honor: http://ustre.am/:2argZ
A 2003 graduate of Fisk University, Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder and executive editor of HBCUstory, Inc. an advocacy center presenting inspiring stories of the HBCUs past and present, for our future. She teaches in Tennessee State University’s department of history, political science, geography and Africana studies department. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian.
Hopefully this can get to Beth’s family. In 1996, in preparing for my CD, “The Balm of Gilead,” a collection of Negro Spirituals with historical narration, I called Beth about Sarah Hannah Sheppard. She was so gracious and sent me a rare copy of “Folk Song of the America Negro,” with a note saying, “The book is yours to keep!” That was my first contact with her. One of the songs I included on the CD was “Swing Low” and told the story of Sarah Hannah Sheppard and her daughter Ella. When I completed the CD, I sent one to Beth, and she sent me back, again the most gracious and complimentary letter, saying that she was going to share the CD with her family.
Beth Howse is a fragrance and she will be missed.
I’ll be sure to pass your message on to Beth’s family. I entwred Fisk a few years later but she did indeed treasure your CD. It always sat on the self behind her desk so as to be readily accessible to her and to library patrons. Sarah, Ella and Beth’s stories live on in our hearts and minds.