Posted on 01/29/2008

Photo taken on January  1, 1930

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First black woman to earn a master's degree in music
Music Critic
Nora Douglas Holt
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African American Woman
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Nora Douglas Holt

Nora Douglas Holt
[b.1885 - d.1974]

Nora Douglas Holt was born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1885, and died in Los Angeles in 1974. During her long and productive life she was well known as a musician, journalist, and music critic. She was the first African-American to earn a master’s degree in music (1918), and was one of the founding members of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (1919).

She was the daughter of Grace Brown Douglas and Reverend Calvin N. Douglas, a presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1916 she graduated as valedictorian from Western University, an A. M. E. Church school in Quindaro, Kansas. While at Chicago Musical College, she studied composition under Dr. Felix Borowsky, who also tutored her in musicology and music criticism. Her master’s thesis was a symphonic rhapsody for string orchestra based on the Negro spiritual, “You May Bury Me in the East.” She began her tenure as music critic for the Chicago Defender in 1917 under the name Lena James Douglas but changed it to Nora Douglas Holt after marrying wealthy hotel owner George W. Holt, forty years her senior. She wrote an article advocating a national organization for Negro musicians which generated a great deal of positive response. Soon after, she held a meeting of musicians at her home and founded the National Association of Negro Musicians. At its first national convention in Chicago in July 1919, she was elected president.

She composed some 200 works including orchestral music, chamber music and art songs, several of which were performed by tenor Roland Hayes. Unfortunately, all her manuscripts were lost in the theft of her stored possessions during the 1930s while she was abroad. Only two pieces were preserved due to their publication in her short-lived (January-December 1921) magazine, Music and Poetry. In the late 20s and early 30s Holt traveled in Europe and the Far East, entertaining and singing at exclusive nightclubs and parties. During the summer of 1931 she studied at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau France. She returned to the United States in 1938, settling in Los Angeles, where she taught in the California school system for several years. In 1944 she moved to New York, becoming the senior music critic for the New York Amsterdam News. Beginning in 1945, she staged an annual festival, “American Negro Artists,” on radio station WNYC, and from 1953 to 1964 she was the producer and director of radio station WLIB’s “Concert Showcase.” She was a pioneer in black music criticism and is credited with promoting an awareness of black culture and the arts among several generations of readers and with inspiring and encouraging numerous African American musicians.

Bio: Five Interludes for Solo Piano • Music by African-American Women Series
By Nora Holt • Edited by Helen Walker-Hill

Image:African American Vernacular Photography; Selections from the Daniel Cowin Collection