Maynor, Dorothy (1910–1996)

views updated

Maynor, Dorothy (1910–1996)

Acclaimed concert soprano and founder of the Harlem School for the Arts . Name variations: Dorothy Leigh Mainor; Dorothy L. Maynor; Dorothy Maynor-Rooks. Born on September 2 (some sources cite September 3), 1910, in Norfolk, Virginia; died on February 19, 1996, in West Chester, Pennsylvania; daughter of John Mainor (a minister) and Alice (Jeffries) Mainor; Hampton Institute, B.S., 1933; Westminster Choir College, B.Mus., 1935; married Shelby Albright Rooks (a Presbyterian minister), on June 27, 1942.

Became soloist with Westminster Choir (1935); moved to New York City (1935); made professional debut (1939); debuted at Carnegie Hall (1941); toured Europe (1949); retired from the stage (1963); founded Harlem School for the Arts (1964).

Called "one of the supreme communicative artists" of her time, Dorothy Maynor was a concert singer and an African-American at a time when discrimination—both official and implicit—was common in the world of American classical music. Although there were some venues to which she was denied entry because of her skin color, she won great acclaim for both her classical repertoire and her renderings of African-American spirituals, and after her retirement from performing founded the Harlem School for the Arts.

Dorothy Maynor was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1910. The daughter of a minister, she sang in her father's Methodist church choir and enjoyed accompanying him while he hunted and fished. At the age of 14, with plans to become a teacher, she enrolled in high school classes at the Hampton Institute, where she quickly distinguished herself as a member of the school's choir and toured Europe with it in 1929. The choir director saw her talent and encouraged her to switch to music education. After graduating with a B.S. in home economics in 1933, Maynor won a three-year scholarship for vocal training at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, where she earned a bachelor of music degree. As a soloist with the school's choir, she acquired a number of supporters who were willing to serve as private benefactors. In 1935, she moved to New York City for further study under Wilfried Klamroth, and worked as a choir director in Brooklyn to make ends meet.

In 1939, Maynor's friends arranged for Serge Koussevitzky, founder of the Tanglewood Music Festival and conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), to hear her sing at a picnic at Tanglewood. He was impressed (reportedly exclaiming "The whole world must hear her!"), and she received national press for her performance as well as a record contract to work with the BSO. Both helped to increase momentum for her professional debut in November of that year at New York City's Town Hall, and the debut itself inspired accolades. Maynor quickly became a well-regarded and critically acclaimed singer, and also recorded oratorio and opera for the Victor music label. She became the first African-American to perform in the concert hall of the Library of Congress when she was invited to sing at a special ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States.

Maynor made her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1941, and in 1942 married Shelby Albright Rooks, a Presbyterian minister who would later serve for many years as pastor of New York City's St. James Presbyterian Church. During World War II, she often sang for armed forces on board military ships, and in these years also soloed with the Philadelphia Symphony, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the BSO, and the Chicago Symphony. In 1948 she performed at Harry Truman's presidential inauguration, and the following year toured Europe. In 1951, she was granted special permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall (owned by the DAR) in Washington, D.C. The conservative group had in 1939 caused a national furor when they denied this permission to Maynor's contemporary and fellow African-American Marian Anderson , and Maynor was the first African-American to perform there since that time. In the 1950s, she also toured in Australia, Europe, and Central and South America. Still, other singers of her caliber would have been offered a contract with a leading opera house—Maynor was known for agility in the German lieder repertoire—but she was not. Not until 1955 would a major opera company sign an African-American woman to a contract, when Anderson broke the color barrier by signing with the Metropolitan Opera.

Maynor retired from the concert stage in 1963. The following year, she founded the Harlem School for the Arts, which offered music, painting, drama, and dance instruction to children in Harlem, and of which she would serve as director until 1979. The school initially had but 20 students, and Maynor herself was the only staff member; she eventually built up a faculty roster that mined the graduate student bodies of the renowned Juilliard School and the Mannes School of Music (now the Mannes College of Music, co-founded by Clara Damrosch Mannes ) and taught 500 children. In 1977, Maynor led a fund-raising effort to construct a new facility that yielded $2 million.

The recipient of honorary degrees from Bennett College, Howard University, Duquesne University, Oberlin College, and Carnegie Mellon University, Dorothy Maynor was in 1975 invited to join the board of the Metropolitan Opera, becoming the first African-American so honored. She died of pneumonia in February 1996, at the age of 85.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1951.

The Day [New London, CT]. February 24, 1996.

Ewan, David, comp. and ed. Living Musicians. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

People Weekly. March 11, 1996, p. 84.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan