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Remembering Justin Holland, guitarist and crusader

July 26 is the birthday of Justin Holland (1819-1887), entrepreneur, civil rights activist, classical guitarist, and exemplar of African-American aspiration in 19th-century America. Born to free black parents in Virginia, Holland relocated to Massachusetts when he was 14, a move both ambitious and pragmatic. He wanted a music career, and Boston was a music center; at the same time, the atmosphere for even free blacks in Virginia was rapidly deteriorating.

Holland settled in Chelsea. (Historian Barbara Clemenson, who sourced most of Holland's fragmentary biographical data, noted that he was one of only 11 blacks living there.) He studied with two Boston teachers, Simon Knaebel and William Schubert. But to further his education, Holland was again compelled to move, enrolling at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute in Ohio. He also spent two years in Mexico mastering the Spanish language, the better to understand the literature of guitar pedagogy at its source. By 1845, he was in Cleveland, teaching guitar, publishing arrangements of popular and operatic airs, along with a handful of original compositions. He worked hard and, eventually, prospered.


But Holland exercised considerable discretion to attain and maintain that success. Largely forgoing performing in favor of teaching, Holland adopted (as he put it) “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils' attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” His music-making showed similar decorum; Holland's “Comprehensive Method for the Guitar,” which became a standard text, traced conservative European lines.

James Monroe Trotter, in his 1878 book “Music and Some Highly Musical People,” told of how Holland once went into a Cleveland music shop and was denied service on account of his race; the same firm unwittingly published several of his works. Holland pushed back at such discrimination with industrious propriety, serving as delegate and secretary to national conventions dedicated to African-American advancement. He was a faithful freemason, soliciting foreign recognition of his all-black lodge after American societies refused — but resigned after his allegations of embezzlement by fellow members fell on deaf ears.


The fiercely disciplined Holland saw the line between approbation and condemnation as perilously thin. He kept his balance: At his death, tributes came from whites and blacks alike. But he died in New Orleans; Holland's family had left an increasingly hostile post-Reconstruction Ohio, just as he, years before, had left Virginia. Trotter characterized Holland as one of those who (in Alexander Pope's phrase) “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.” It was a compliment, but also a necessity.MATTHEW GUERRIERI

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at