Eva Jessye was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 20, 1895. She attended Western University and Langston University, receiving her BA in 1919. After a number of teaching positions in Baltimore (Morgan College, 1919) and Tulahassee (1920-1925), Oklahoma, Jessye worked for the Baltimore newspaper The Afro-American.
Moving to New York, she formed a small singing group that came to the attention of African American composer Will Marion Cook. Cook became her mentor, tutoring her in music theory and music management. In 1926 Jessye organized the Original Dixie Jubilee Singers, which performed regularly on radio shows such as "The Major Bowes Family Radio Hour" and "The General Motors Hour." In 1929 Jessye and the Original Dixie Jubilee Singers went to Hollywood and appeared in King Vidor's all-Black film Hallelujah. Because the name "Dixie Jubilee Singers" was being appropriated by many other choirs, her choir's name was changed to the Eva Jessye Choir.
In 1934 Jessye became the choir director of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's work Four Saints in Three Acts. In 1935, Jessye became the choral director for the premiere production of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. Jessye toured the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union and New Zealand performing Porgy and Bess and was associated with countless other productions worldwide. Jessye acted as an adviser for the BBC's For the Children: Huckleberry Finn and Down in the Valley (1952) and performed in the 1959 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Kiss Me Kate. In 1963, her choir was designated the official chorus of the civil rights march on Washington, DC, organized by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout Jessye's career she appeared in several motion pictures including Hallelujah (1929) (where she was also the Musical Director), Black Like Me (1964) and Slaves (1969) with Stephen Boyd and Ossie Davis.
Jessye came to the University of Michigan in 1974. With the encouragement of Dean Willis Patterson, she established the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection which is the basis for the present collection. From 1977 to 1981 she was an Artist-in-Residence at Pittsburg State University in Kansas where she created a similar Eva Jessye Collection. Jessye was honored by many universities, states and cities for her life achievements and received honorary doctorates from the University of Michigan School of Music, Eastern Michigan University and Glassboro State College.
Dr. Eva Jessye died on February 21, 1992, at the age of 97 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.