Open for Research: Leviticus Lyon Papers

July 24, 2017

By Nancy Kuhl

The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters is pleased to welcome scholars and students to consult the Leviticus Lyon Papers (JWJ MSS 173) which have recently been fully organized and described.

Leviticus Lyon (1894-1958) was a singer and choral director born in San Francisco, California on May 29, 1894. As a teenager, Lyon worked as an elevator operator at the United States Customs Service in San Francisco, California. Lyon demonstrated his singing talent to officials in the customs department who in turn used their influence to transfer Lyon to work at the New York Customs office in 1919 to assist him in pursuing his musical education. He eventually received a fellowship to study at the Julliard School in 1925. At the height of his career, he gave singing performances at the Carnegie Hall and St. Marks Methodist Church in Harlem, New York City. Lyon also assisted in the formation of the Negro Symphony Orchestra and was the choral director for the Westchester Negro Choral Union. He lived chiefly in Harlem, New York City until his death in 1958.

The Leviticus Lyon Papers span the years 1905-1948 and document the professional and personal life of Leviticus Lyon. Correspondence, writings, illustrations and photographs are included in this collection. Correspondence details the life of Leviticus Lyon from childhood to adulthood with personal letters from parents, siblings, and friends including the originally titled “world’s fastest human,” African American Olympic track star Howard P. Drew and blues legend W.C. Handy. Also included is a history of Leviticus Lyon’s father, Giraldo Gomez Lyon, a steward who immigrated to California from Senegambia.  Professional Papers illustrates Lyon’s efforts in establishing the Negro Symphony Orchestra, his participation in the Annual Harlem Music Week, and his work as choral director in the Westchester Negro Choral Union. Poems, illustrations, and other writings by Lyon are also included.

A complete description of the collection is available online:


Leviticus Lyon photographed by James Allen

–Afua Ferdnance