Jessye was born January 20, 1895 in Coffeyville, Kansas. She studied choral music and music theory at Western University, a now defunct historically Black college, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Langston University in 1919. In 1926, she formed her own group, the Eva Jessye Choir. Jessye was the choral director for the 1929 film “Hallelujah.”
In 1933, she was the music director for the opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” on Broadway and in 1935 she was the music director for the opera “Porgy and Bess.” In 1928, Jessye published “My Spirituals,” a collection of arrangements of spirituals. She also composed her own choral works, including “The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals” (1931), “Paradise Lost and Regained” (1934), and “The Chronicle of Job” (1936).
An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Jessye directed the official choir at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Before her death, Jessye established the Eva Jessye African-American Music Collection at the University of Michigan.