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Nora Holt

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Nora Holt

Nora Douglas Holt (1885 or 1890 – January 25, 1974) was an American singer, composer and music critic, who was born in Kansas and was the first African American to receive a masters degree in the United States. She composed over 200 works of music and was associated with the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and the co-founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She died in 1974 in Los Angeles.


She was born Lena Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas in either 1885 or 1890 to Calvin Douglas, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and Gracie Brown Douglas. She graduated Western University at Quindaro, Kansas in 1917 with a bachelor's degree in music. In 1918 she earned her master's degree in music at Chicago Musical College, becoming the first African American woman to earn a master's in the United States. In the late 1930s, Douglas also studied music education at the University of Southern California. At the Chicago Musical College, her thesis composition was an orchestral work called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.[1]

She was married five times. In 1916 Douglas married her fourth husband, hotel owner George Holt, taking his name and changing her first name to "Nora".[1]

From 1917-1921 Holt contributed music criticism to the Chicago Defender, a black daily newspaper. In 1919 she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians.

Holt then spent twelve years abroad in Europe and Asia, where she sang at night clubs and private parties. By 1926, when she left for Europe, she had composed over 200 works of orchestral music and chamber songs, which she placed in storage before departure. Upon returning, she discovered that all her works had been stolen. Only one piece survived, as it had already been published. It was called Negro Dance, a ragtime-like piano piece.[2]

During the 1920s, Holt was known as a wild socialite. She was wealthy due to her inheritance from her late husband George Holt. In 1923 she married Joseph Ray, assistant to tycoon Charles Schwab, in her fifth marriage. They moved to Pennsylvania.

After the break-up of the marriage, Holt moved to Harlem, where she became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. She became good friends with novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten.

While studying music at the University of Southern California in the 1930s, she also taught music in Los Angeles for several years. In 1943 she took a position as an editor and music critic with a black-oriented publication Amsterdam News.[3]

During the early 1950s to early 1960s, Holt began hosting a radio concert series called "Nora Holt's Concert Showcase". It ran to 1964. In 1966 she was a member of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.

Nora Holt died January 25, 1974 in Los Angeles.

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