2020 Classical Roots Honoree Chacona Baugh: A fierce advocate of African American classical musicians

Chacona Baugh

Baugh was in her mid-20s when she began gaining an appreciation for — which later became a love of — classical music. That’s when she began accompanying her then-boyfriend Arthur Johnson, a fierce lover of classical music, to Detroit Symphony Orchestra performances.

In 1978 Johnson took Baugh to the inaugural Classical Roots concert, a festive affair at Detroit’s Bethel A.M.E. church. Johnson, along with DSO assistant general manager Wayne Brown, chorus leader Brazeal Dennard, and several other African-American arts and cultural leaders imagined a new type of orchestra event: one that feted African-American conductors and the work of African-American composers.

“Bethel was packed. It was standing room only,” Baugh remembers. So Classical Roots became an annual affair, first at Bethel A.M.E. and later at the much larger Orchestra Hall. “I looked forward to it every year,” Baugh says. “You would see a range of conductors, and it was a great celebration of contributions of African-Americans.”

Baugh later married Johnson, who served on the DSO board for more than 30 years and made Classical Roots his biggest priority. He wanted to do more than just hold performances he wanted to raise money that supports the work of African-American musicians and composers, evolving Classical Roots from a concert to a mission. Johnson passed away in 2011, but Baugh is continuing her late husband’s legacy as an avid DSO supporter and Classical Roots champion. She was thrilled when the annual event was renamed the Arthur L. JohnsonHonorable Damon Jerome Keith Classical Roots Celebration in 2019 (thanks to Honoree Dr. William F. Pickard, who doubled his support and asked that it be named in honor of two of his greatest mentors).

Baugh works closely with the Classical Roots Steering Committee and chaired it in 2011 and 2012. She also served on the DSO’s Board of Directors. Something she’s especially proud of is the work she’s done to expand the Classical Roots mission beyond the confines of Orchestra Hall by developing initiatives that take artists to area schools and churches. She has also worked to encourage younger people to take an interest in Classical Roots and the world of orchestral music.

“It’s exciting to see how the committee has grown and how future generations are learning about classical music and working to sustain the work of classical musicians who happen to be African American,” Baugh says. “It’s important that our young people are exposed to the arts. I didn’t have that growing up.”

She also points to the DSO’s honoree African-American Orchestra Fellowship as a meaningful initiative supported by Classical Roots. “Getting into a major orchestra is difficult,” she says, and young African-American musicians don’t always have the resources necessary to pursue music as a career. The Fellowship aims to address the underrepresentation of African-American musicians in orchestras by selecting young musicians to perform with the DSO and receive audition and career mentorship. “It gives them an opportunity to play classical music with our world-renowned symphony,” Baugh explains – and that opportunity can be a gamechanger.

Classical music isn’t Baugh’s only passion, though it did connect her with violinist Harold Baugh, whom she married in 2016. She loves the arts in general. Baugh has also served on the boards of the Detroit Institute of Arts, CultureSource, the Arts League of Michigan, and the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. “The arts are important to me, and they make a difference to our well-being and to our community,” she says.

Baugh is also enthusiastic about higher education. As a longtime fundraising lead at the University of Michigan, she worked with every department and school. “I always liked being on campus where learning was going on,” she says. “I wasn’t an expert in any of the areas, but I got to see people who were passionate, and I got to learn about the extraordinary work going on. It was almost magical — whether dealing with people or a corporation or a foundation — to see their money doing good, whether it was a providing a scholarship or funding groundbreaking research to help a medical condition.”

She loved the work so much that after retiring from the University of Michigan in 2009 she helped kick off and then run the Detroit Public Schools Foundation.

Then, in 2014, Wayne State University named Baugh president of its foundation and vice president for Development and Alumni Affairs, where she led a successful fundraising campaign before her retirement in 2016.

(This story was originally published by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.)

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