Maynor, Dorothy 1910(?)–1996
Dorothy Maynor 1910(?)–1996
Opera singer, educator
Although rarely mentioned in the same breath as divas such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, Dorothy Maynor’s influence on classical music is just as impressive. Even more impressive is the influence she’s had on thousands of students who’ve passed through the halls of the Harlem School of the Arts, the school she founded in 1963 in New York’s sometimes-troubled uptown neighborhood. Following a singing career that spanned a quarter century in which Maynor delighted audiences in concert halls around the world with her warm, rich soprano, she then spent another twenty-five years as executive director of the school. Though largely forgotten as a singer, Maynor’s place in history is assured with her greatest artistic achievement, the Harlem School of the Arts.
Born Dorothy Leigh Mainor in Norfolk, Virginia in 1910 (some sources say 1909) to a Baptist minister and his wife, the Mainor house was constantly filled with music. “My sister played the piano,” she reminisced to Noel Straus of the New York Times “It was a rare day when we weren’t singing in the house to her accompaniment. But it was just the sort of thing you might find in almost any home anywhere.” Maynor also sang in her father’s church, but a career in music had never been her intention. At the age of 14, she enrolled in the nearby Hampton Institute where she studied home economics and thought of a career in teaching. Her love for singing prompted Maynor to join the school’s choir where for years she was just another voice in the soprano section. On a 1929 tour of Europe, however, she had developed into such an accomplished soloist that Dr. Robert Nathaniel Dett, the choir director and head of Hampton’s music department, sought to further her potential.
“While we were on tour Dr. Dett cabled my father from Europe and told him to change my plans from studying home economics and dress design to music,” Maynor recalled to Maurice Peterson of Essence. I wasn’t consulted at all. But it didn’t matter. I was happy.” Maynor soon won a scholarship to study choral conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, from which she graduated in 1935. The following year, with the financial help of benefactress Harriet Curtis, the dean of women at Hampton during Maynor’s years there, Maynor moved to New York to study singing with Wilfred Klamroth and later, John Alan Haughton.
Born Dorothy Leigh Mainor September 3, c. 1910 in Norfolk, Virginia, to Reverend John J. Mainor and Alice Jeffries Mainor; died February 19, 1996, West Chester, Pennsylvania; married Reverend Shelby Rooks, June 24, 1942. Education: Hampton Institute, B.A., 1933; Westminster Choir School, B.A., 1935; studied singing with Wilfred Klamroth and John Alan Haughton, New York City, beginning 1936.
Career: Began singing in her father’s church; sang in the Hampton Institute Choir, 1924-33; toured Europe with the Hampton Choir, 1929; moved to New York to study singing, 1936; impromptu performance for Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky, 1939; made recital debut at New York’s Town Hall, November 19, 1939; toured the world as recital singer and made many radio appearances, 1939-63; recorded for RCA, 1953-63; performed at President Harry S. Truman’s inauguration, 1949; first black artist to perform at Constitution Hall, Washington, DC, 1952; performed at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration, 1953; retired from singing and founded the Harlem School of the Arts, 1963; became first black member of the Metropolitan Opera board in New York, 1975; raised $3.5 million to build a new building for the Harlem School of the Arts, 1977; retired as executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts, 1979.
For three years she studied diligently and also at this time, changed the spelling of her name from Mainor to Maynor.
In the summer of 1939 Maynor was invited to attend the Berkshire Symphonic Festival—now called Tangle-wood—which was the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Maynor’s patrons arranged a private audition with conductor Serge Koussevitzky who was so impressed with the clarity of her voice and command of material, he arranged for her to perform the next day at a private picnic he was giving for his musicians and some guests. Again, Maynor overwhelmed her audience to such an extent that an article appeared about her performance the next day in the New York Times, and an interview with Maynor was published a few days later in which she explained her motivation to sing. “I hope to represent the art of song as well as I can,” she told Noel Straus. “That’s about all I can say. To accomplish that, to be a worthy representative of the best music, one feels so very small when one thinks of it.… I would like to master all colors of tone and give each type of work what it demands. I am working hard for that.”
As word spread of Maynor’s success at the festival, expectations ran high for her recital debut, scheduled for November at New York’s Town Hall. Once more, Maynor shone in the solo spotlight. “Miss Maynor’s voice is phenomenal for its range, character, and varied expressive resources,” Olin Downes declared in the New York Times “She proved that she had virtually everything needed by a great artist—the superb voice, one of the finest that the public can hear today; exceptional musicianship and accuracy of intonation; emotional intensity, communicative power.… She should be able to reach almost any height as one of the leading concert singers of her generation.” Similar words of praise were echoed in other sources and Newsweek reported that following Maynor’s final encore, “Depuis le jour” from Charpentier’s Louise, the house stood and cheered for twenty minutes as tears rolled down the singer’s cheeks.
Following her debut, Maynor toured the United States and the rest of the world and performed with the leading orchestras of the day. In 1942 she married the Reverend Shelby Rooks, who became the minister of St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. Additionally, Maynor embarked upon a recording career in which she sang arias, spirituals, and operas. Her interpretations of the latter, however, were limited to the recording studio because no opera company of the time would allow a black person to perform in their productions. Although her singing earned Maynor extremely favorable reviews from critics around the world, she wasn’t allowed to audition for the Metropolitan Opera. In an ironic twist, she would become the first black member of the Met’s board of directors in 1975. “I learned 23 roles and never got to sing them,” Maynor lamented to Peterson of Essence. In 1952 Maynor became the first black artist to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, the venue where the Daughters of the American Revolution had barred black contralto Marian Anderson from performing in 1939. In 1955, Anderson broke the Metropolitan Opera’s color barrier.
The constant touring of the 1940s and 1950s left Maynor little time to spend with her husband, who was devoted to his Harlem parish. In 1963, after Reverend Rooks suffered a heart attack and required a lengthy convalescence, Maynor decided she would retire from singing and help her husband with his church. Rooks, acknowledging his wife’s passion for music and the arts, suggested she start an arts education program in the church’s community center. When Maynor found she could not get funding for a school that did not yet exist, she decided to do it on her own. With twenty students and Maynor acting as teacher, fundraiser, secretary, and janitor, the Harlem School of the Arts was born.
Maynor set out to provide the kind of uplifting environment she received at the Hampton Institute to the children of Harlem. “I had such an exciting childhood,” she remarked to Peterson. “Hampton gave us an awareness and an appreciation for discipline and achievement; it was the proper soil for young people and my spirit was nurtured. From my experience at Hampton came the concept for this school.”
Maynor was also driven by the fact that she wanted to see African Americans reap the rewards for their work. In the 1940s she recalled watching white bandleaders writing down music played by blacks on the bandstand of the Savoy Ballroom. “It occurred to me then that if we would only take the time and discipline ourselves to be literate in our work, whatever our gifts, then we would be reaping the rewards.”
After about a year of operation, the school began to get funding from foundations and was able to offer courses in a variety of instruments as well as painting, drama, and dance. One of the early ballet teachers, Arthur Mitchell, whom Maynor had to persuade to teach, went on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem, itself an important and world renowned cultural institution. As more funds came in so did more teachers and students, most of whom came from low-income families. A sliding tuition scale was established so every child had a chance to learn. Piano lessons for ten cents weren’t uncommon. “With our boys and girls in Harlem, life affords them no vista, no ample view of themselves,” Maynor explained to Doris Black of Sepia. “That is what I want them to have, and I firmly believe the arts are a splendid means of providing this. What I dream of is changing the image held by the children. We have made them believe that everything is beautiful outside this community. I want them to make beauty in this community.”
By the late 1970s the school boasted more than 40 instructors and over 1,000 students. Having far outgrown the community center of St. James Church, Maynor took it upon herself to raise about $3.5 million dollars to erect a new 37,000 square foot building on a lot adjacent to the St. James parish. “There is no government money in this building,” Maynor enthused to C. Gerald Fraser of the New York Times, adding that the school exists because of “foundations, devoted and loyal friends, a hardworking dedicated board and cooperation from the parents and the children.” Indeed, with a list of impressive friends and past boardmembers such as Leonard Bernstein, Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Agnes de Mille, and Vladimir Horowitz, funding for the new building came easily from private donors as well as the Marion Ascoli Fund and the Ford, Kresge, and Mellon foundations.
With the opening of the new building in 1979, Maynor retired as executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts. Her husband also retired from his parish and the couple moved to Pennsylvania. The couple enjoyed a quiet retirement until Maynor’s death in 1996. Although most people are unaware of the gifts she gave while she was alive and the impact she had on so many people, Maynor was never one to seek glory for her efforts. “Anyone is privileged to deal in the arts because it adds a spiritual dimension to life that isn’t possible in any other field that I know of,” she told Peterson of Essence in 1977. “If you succeed in proving your intelligence and your gifts, then you have helped the next person.”
Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie, eds., New Grove Dictionary of Music, Vol. 3, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986.
Slominsky, Nicolas, ed., Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1997.
Story, Rosalyn M., And So ISing, Amistad Press, 1990.
Rogers, Jr., William F., Dorothy Maynor and the Harlem School of the Arts: The Diva and the Dream, Mellen Press, 1993.
Turner, Patricia, Dictionary of Afro-American Performers, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.
American Record Guide, March-April, 1996, p. 260.
Amsterdam News, March 2, 1996, p. 8; March 16, 1996, p.23.
Ebony, May 1966, p. 80.
Essence, December 1977, p.56.
Jet, March 25, 1996, p. 52
New York Times, August 10, 1939; August 13, 1939, p. D-5; November 20, 1939, p. 15; May 20, 1979, p.55; February 24, 1996, p. A-12.
New Yorker, November 18, 1939, p. 18.
Newsweek, August 21, 1939, p. 26; November 27, 1939, p. 25.
Opera News, August 1992, p.45; February 27, 1993, p. 16; June 1996, p. 52.
Sepia, October 1971, p. 21.
Time, August 21, 1939, p. 45; November 27, 1939, p. 58.
Village Voice, February 21, 1977, p. 73.
Washington Post, December 22, 1991, p. G-5; February 26, 1996, p. D-4.
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