Dvořák saw in Harry T. Burleigh, his African-American assistant at the conservatory, a reflection of himself as a student and befriended the youth: "If in my own career I have achieved a measure of success and reward, it is to some extent due to the fact that I was the son of poor parents and was reared in an atmosphere of struggle and endeavor."
When Burleigh had first arrived in New York, he joined the men and boys choir at the Free African Church of St. Philip's, New York City's first African-American congregation of Protestant Episcopalians which traces its origin to 1809, when attendance at Wall Street's Trinity Church's Sunday afternoon African service had become so large, and the African-American parishioners so dissatisfied with having to worship separately, that they reached a decision to set up their own congregation. St. Philip's was then located in the "tenderloin district" at 161 West 25th Street, less than a mile from Dvořák's house on East 17th Street. Burleigh became part of the large African-American community that had established itself around Saint Philip's, many of them in apartment houses built and managed by the church.
There were at least two other musicians from St. Philip's enrolled at the National Conservatory: Edward B. Kinney, the church's organist and choirmaster, who was a member of Dvořák's composition class; and Charles Bolin, who studied piano, perhaps organ as well. They were among the first of what, under Dvořák's prodding, would soon become well over one hundred fifty African Americans among the 600-plus students enrolled at the conservatory. This explains why the St. Philip's men and boys choir performed under Dvořák (and Kinney) at a historic concert held in Madison Square Garden in 1894 that featured the conservatory's African-American students. Eighteen years later the St. Philip's men and boys choir participated in another historic concert, James Reese Europe's Clef Club Concert at Carnegie Hall, this time under the direction of their new organist and choirmaster Charles Bohlen. Bolin had taken a Germanic spelling for his name.
Dvořák led the conservatory orchestra, which met twice a week. Burleigh served as the orchestra librarian and copyist, and filled in on double bass and tympani. The conductor's lot is a lonely one. Among the few orchestral musicians they get to talk with off the podium, and the one they depend upon for a myriad of editorial details and drudge jobs, is their librarian. Dvořák and Burleigh apparently worked out well together. During his second year at the conservatory, Dvořák wrote to his family back in Prague that his son Otakar, age nine, "sat on Burleigh's lap during the orchestra's rehearsals and played the tympani." Victor Herbert, a lifelong friend of Burleigh's, described the Dvořák-Burleigh relationship in a letter sent in 1922 to Carl Engel, chief of the music division of the Library of Congress: "Dr. Dvořák was most kind and unaffected and took great interest in his pupils, one of which, Harry Burleigh, had the privilege of giving the Dr. some of the thematic material for his Symphony. ... I have seen this denied - but it is true."
Burleigh had learned many of the old plantation songs from the singing of his blind maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who in 1832 bought his freedom from slavery on a Maryland plantation. Waters became the town crier and lamplighter for Erie, Pennsylvania, and as a young boy Burleigh helped guide him along his route. The family was Episcopalian and young Harry sang in the men and boys choir. Burleigh also "remembered his Mother's singing after chores and how he and his [step] father and grandfather all harmonized while helping her." At various times in his long life — he died in 1949 at age 81 — Burleigh described his student days with Dvořák. Taken together, Burleigh's writings provide insight into Dvořák's ongoing Negro music education while he was composing what would become the Symphony "From the New World": "Dvořák used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper ... I gave him what I knew of Negro songs – no one called them spirituals then – and he wrote some of my tunes (my people's music) into the New World Symphony."
Dvořák began working on various "American" themes in mid-December 1892, filling eleven pages of a sketchbook. Burleigh wrote: "Part of this old 'spiritual' ['Swing Low Sweet Chariot'] will be found in the second theme of the first movement ... given out by the flute. Dvořák saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes. There is a subsidiary theme in G minor in the first movement with a flatted seventh [a characteristic passed on to jazz, known as a "blue note"] and I feel sure the composer caught this peculiarity of most of the slave songs from some that I sang to him; for he used to stop me and ask if that was the way the slaves sang."
In January 1893, Dvořák began a continuous sketch for the "New World" Symphony.Wrote Burleigh, "When Dvořák heard me sing 'Go Down Moses,' he said, 'Burleigh, that is as great as a Beethoven theme.'" This, for Dvořák, was the ultimate compliment. He made his students compose dozens of themes before accepting one as appropriate for "development." He would then have them wrap the theme around the skeleton of an existing Beethoven sonata, imitating, measure by measure, the modulations and key relationships.
Dvořák began working on the full score in mid-February 1893. "Dvořák of course used 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' note for note," continued Burleigh. "It was not an accident. He did it quite consciously ... He tried to combine Negro and Indian themes. The Largo movement he wrote after he had read the famine scene in Longfellow's 'Hiawatha.' It had a great effect on him and he wanted to interpret it musically". [That Burleigh's grandmother was part Native American may help to explain why Dvořák often equated or confused Indian with African American music.]
Within one week, May 21-28, 1893, a spate of articles about Dvořák's views on Negro music and the completion of his new symphony appeared in the New York Herald and, by means of the newspaper's new "exclusive" Atlantic Cable, its sister paper, the English-language Paris Herald.