Jessye fought the racial divide on her own, too, at times in personal ways. In 1944, she headed for New York to adapt the Porgy and Bess score for a new company. The train was just pulling out of Florence, South Carolina, when she overheard a pregnant white woman tell her husband, a soldier, that she was hungry. Very hungry. “Can you get me anything at the next station? A candy bar even?” But the train didn’t stop long enough for him to make it to a vending machine, and as it pulled out again, she renewed her plea. The last call for dinner came, but how could the young couple afford inflated dining car prices? It was impossible, the husband said.
“I knew what it meant to be hungry,” Jessye recalled in her notes. She leaned over and offered to lend them money. The husband refused. She insisted, reminding him of how important food was to a pregnant woman. “They finally said they would eat, but only if I joined them in the dining car.” What pleased Jessye most was that when a steward looked at the interracial group with confusion, the husband said, “We are together.” When he asked for Jessye’s address to repay the loan when he could, she refused to give it to him.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the Eva Jessye Choir to become the official chorus of the March on Washington. Standing near the Lincoln Memorial, hearing speeches by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, and then leading her choir were incredible experiences, but they weren’t the high point. That came when she was close by as Dr. King spoke about a dream that she would hold close forever.
In January 1983, Coretta Scott King invited Jessye to a celebration commemorating Dr. King’s birthday. “I had a wonderful time in Atlanta, witnessing the Martin Luther King event,” Jessye wrote to a friend. “There were hundreds of celebrities, 48 nations represented, and thousands of black folks…I stood on the sidelines and drank it all in.”
“Sidelines” may be a misnomer, since Jessye had led the combined choruses of Atlanta University Center for the event. “Your beautiful, timeless music has been an inspiration to the thousands who have heard it,” Coretta Scott King wrote when thanking her.