In 1934 he composed his only symphony, the "Negro Folk Symphony," about which he wrote: "The themes are taken from what are popularly known as Negro Spirituals. In this composition, the composer has employed three themes taken from typical melodies over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother's knee" and that he wanted those who heard the music to know that it was "unmistakably not the work of a white man."
Leopold Stokowski premiered the Symphony with The Philadelphia Orchestra over four performances in November 1934 with one of them broadcast live on radio and was an empowering experience for the African American radio audience. The symphony was hailed by audiences and critics alike.
After 1936 the work fell off the radar for various reasons and Dawson spent the rest of his career focusing mostly on music education, choral performance and arranging. After a trip to West Africa in 1952, Dawson revised the Symphony with added African rhythms to convey a more authentic "rhythmic foundation strongly inspired by African influences.” The “Negro Folk Symphony” by William Dawson is today’s Midday Masterpiece at 2:00 pm.