Nora Holt

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Portrait of Nora Holt, 1955, by Carl Van Vechten

Nora Douglas Holt (November 8, 1884 – 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 master's degree in the United States. She composed more than 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 or Lora Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1884[1][2] to Calvin Douglas, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister, and Gracie Brown Douglas. She graduated from 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.[3]

Douglas was married five times. At the age of 15 she married a musician called Sky James, then two years later married politician Philip Scroggins, followed not long afterwards by a marriage to a barber named Bruce Jones.[4] In 1916, she married her fourth husband, hotel owner George Holt, taking his name and changing her first name to "Nora".[3]

From 1917 to 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 12 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 more than 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.[5]

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 this marriage 19 months later, Holt moved to Harlem in the early 1920s, where she became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. She became good friends with novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten.[6]

While studying music at the University of Southern California in the 1930s, she also taught music in Los Angeles for several years, and also ran a beauty shop, and became involved with the Los Angeles school board.[4] In 1943 she took a position as an editor and music critic with a black-oriented publication Amsterdam News.[7]

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.

Further reading[edit]

  • Reed, Bill (February 1, 1998). Hot from Harlem: Profiles in Classic African-American Entertainment. Cellar Door Books. p. 302. ISBN 0-9661449-0-2.
  • Southern, Eileen (February 1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 678. ISBN 0-393-97141-4.


  1. ^ California, Death Index, 1940-1997
  2. ^ U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014
  3. ^ a b "Nora Douglas Holt, A Musical Pioneer". African American Registry.
  4. ^ a b James M. Manheim, "Holt, Nora 1885(?)–1974", Contemporary Black Biography, 2003.
  5. ^ This can be found online sampled here.
  6. ^ "Nora Holt — Singer & Music Critic". Extravagant Crowd: Carl Van Vechten's Portraits of Women. 1934.
  7. ^ "Nora Holt — Singer & Music Critic". Extravagant Crowd: Carl Van Vechten's Portraits of Women. 1932. Retrieved July 28, 2007.

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