Nora Holt: A Black Flapper With Music in Her Bones
Updated: Dec 25, 2021
When people think of Nora Holt, they think of the first black woman to get a master's in the United States. That does not paint the full picture of Holt's life. Holt was also a composer, singer, as well as music critic. Nora Holt was born Lena, or Lora Douglas, in either 1884 or 85. in Kansas City, Kansas. Her father, Calvin Douglas, was an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her mother, Gracie Douglas, was the first matron of the girl's building at Western University. When Lena was a child, her mother nourished her passion for music, encouraging her to take piano lessons at age four, which led to her learning the organ. In 1907, her father penned the lyrics to the Western University school song "O Western U." for the dedication of Grant Hall, and Holt composed the music but destroyed the score in a dispute for authorship between her and her music professor, who assisted in a limited capacity. In 1917 Holt graduated from Western University with a Bachelor's degree in music. In 1918, she earned a Master's degree from the Chicago Musical College. Her thesis composition was an orchestral piece titled Rhapsody on Negro Themes. At 15, Holt married a musician called Sky James, but the marriage was short-lived, thankfully. Two years later, she married politician Philip Scroggins, and soon after, she married again, this time to a barber named Bruce Jones. In 1916, she married her fourth husband, George Holt, a wealthy hotelier in Chicago. After their marriage, she took her husband's surname and changed her first name to "Nora."
From 1917 to 1921 was a very busy time in Holt's life. She was a contributing writer to the Chicago Defender, a black daily newspaper. She created and published an editorial journal, Music and Poetry. After pinning an article "The chronological history of the NANM," she co-founded the Chicago Music Association and the National Association of Negro Musicians. In 1921 George passed away. The death of George Holt's lack of financial backing made Nora end the run of Music and Poetry. She also stepped down from her post at the NANM and ceased writing her column for The Chicago Defender. Nora inherited a considerable inheritance. In 1923she married again, this time to Joseph Ray, a wealthy African American employed by steel magnate Charles Schwab. The couple wedded in extravagant style, but the guest saw emptiness and sadness on Holt's face throughout the event. The pair moved to Pennsylvania and were divorced within 19 months of marriage. Holt moved to New York City following her divorce. She became close friends with the novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten and many other well-to-do people from the Harlem Renaissance. For most of the 1920s, Holt was a "wild socialite." Holt's reputation made her a bigger-than-life character and kept her name in the news. She was known for hosting extravagant parties where she would sing and dance nude. Her signature song was "My Dad Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)." In 1926, Holt moved all music possessions to a storage unit and left for Europe and Asia, where she spent 12 years singing at nightclubs and private parties. By this time, Holt had composed more than 200 works of orchestral music and chamber songs. Upon reaching France, Holt dyed her hair blonde and drove the French crowd mad with her sumptuous looks and beautiful voice that was sadly never recorded. Holt was a mainstay of nightlife in Shanghai off and on from 1932 to 1937, when the Japanese invaded China.
After returning from abroad, she discovered that her storage unit had been robbed, and only one published piece survived titled Negro Dance, a ragtime-like piano piece. She never attempted to reconstruct any of the lost compositions or any new compositions. Holt reinvented herself once more. She reclaimed her original surname, Douglas, attended USC, and earned a certification as a schoolteacher in Los Angeles. She was actively involved in the Los Angeles school board.in 1939 she opened the first Black-owned business in the historic Vermont-Jefferson district, "The Nora Holt Beauty Salon, where she promised to bring 'Hollywood service to West Side society matrons.'
In 1942 she moved back to Harlem, where she became an editor and a music critic for the Amsterdam News, a well-known Black newspaper. She spent most of her time condemning Black New Yorkers for their lack of support of concerts by Black musicians. She promoted the careers of a new generation of performers, including Martina Arroyo, Leontyne Price, and William Warfield. In 1945, she began the annual "American Negro Artists" festival on radio station WNYC, and she became the first African-American member of the Music Critics Circle of New York. In 1950 she served as the NANM, president of the New York City branch. From 1953 through 1964, she was the producer and musical director of a weekly program, "Nora Holt's Concert Showcase," on Harlem's WLIB radio station. In 1966, she took part in the First World Fiesta of Negro Arts in Senegal, where she sang and danced. On January 25, 1974, Nora Holt died a free spirit and an artist like no other.