Occramer Marycoo became America’s first black professional musician in 1764, but not by choice. For more than 60 years Marycoo wanted nothing more than to leave America and, in his final days, he got his wish.
Marycoo left Africa in 1760. His mother, probably recognizing his exceptional intelligence, dispatched him with a ship captain. The captain promised to get the 14-year-old an education in America. He got that, alright, but not the one his mother had in mind.
The ship captain sold Marycoo into slavery to Rhode Island sea captain Caleb Gardner. Gardner would be a very successful Rhode Island merchant, eventually serving as bank president.
Gardner changed Marycoo’s name to Newport Gardner. Soon he discovered Marycoo’s intellect. The youngster learned to read and write with little teaching. He also displayed a talent for music, which Gardner’s wife encouraged.
Marycoo, when not working for Gardner, started a music school and composed songs that filled the churches of Newport and Boston. Most of his work disappeared, though the lyrics to one of his popular songs, Anthem, are still remembered.
“Hear the words of the Lord
O ye African Race
Hear the words of Promise
But it is not meet to take
The children’s bread and cast
It to the dogs.
Truth, Lord, yet the dogs
Eat of the crumbs that fall
From their master’s table.
0 , African trust in the Lord
Praise the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord Hallelujah.
Marycoo joined the First Congregational Church of Newport where he became a friend of the minister, Rev. Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins was an early an outspoken critic of slavery. He encouraged Marycoo in his hopes to return one day to his native land. He also helped him start a formal school for educating black children.
Marycoo helped found the Colored Union Church in Newport. He also succeeded in obtaining his freedom from Gardner.
Boston and Africa
In 1825, Marycoo moved to Boston. There he worked with the American Colonization Society, a group that assisted freed slaves in returning to Africa. Marycoo helped found a church in Boston and organized a successful campaign to raise money and donations of equipment to fund a return to Africa.
In 1826, at the age of 80, Marycoo sailed for his home continent with 31 others on the brig Vine. He undertook the voyage even at his advanced age, he said, to give hope to others wanting to escape America. The return to Africa was bittersweet. Landing in Liberia, Marycoo and most of the returning slaves fell victim to a fever to which they had no immunity.
Half the passengers on the Vine died within six months, but Marycoo was buried, as he always wished, in the soil of Africa.
This story was updated in 2021.