Honoring great African-American women of Oberlin

Herb Boyd | 4/11/2019, 10:51 a.m.

According to several of her former students, including Peter Takacs, a professor at Oberlin, she was a tough teacher who expressed an enduring interest in the music of Brahms and Liszt. He told The New York Times that she possessed a “deep, noble and unhurried” interpretation of all music, especially the classics.

Besides her prominence at the keyboard, Frances was a profound and engaging teacher with stints at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, the Third Street Settlement School in New York City, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Rutgers University in New Jersey.

It was at Oberlin that she met Henry Chester Slocum Jr., a white alumnus of Oberlin in Mississippi. To marry they had to leave the Jim Crow state that prohibited interracial marriage and get it done in New York City, though their encounters with bigotry and prejudice did not end. Her husband died in 1980.

She continued teaching at Oberlin and retired in 1991. Soon, the arthritis in her hands was too painful and she ceased performing, though her appearances at Lincoln Center, Town Hall, the Brooklyn Museum and the Kennedy Center in Washington as well as tours of Europe and on radio were noteworthy.

It should be noted that her older brother, Dr. George Walker Jr., was an outstanding pianist and composer and earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1996—the first for an African-American in the category—for his composition “Lilacs,” commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and which set to music a portion of Walt Whitman’s elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” And like his sister, he also attended Oberlin, beginning there when he was 14. He died last year and we will feature him in a future column.

Frances was 94 when she died in Oberlin on June 9, 2018.