Nothing pleases a writer, reporter or historian more than recognition by his or her peers. And you can understand how overwhelming it was for me to learn that three of my comrades—John Williams, Trust Graham and Ahmed Abdullah—follow this classroom column, two of them avid collectors.
To that end, and hoping they add this one to their growing collection, this week we feature pianist/composer Frances Walker-Slocum. When I taught at Oberlin Conservatory in the early ’70s, there was some mention of the African-American women who graced the school’s corridors such as Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper, but it was a time of turbulence and turmoil, particularly for students and instructors more concerned with securing Black studies in the academy.
Francis Walker, who attended Oberlin as a student in the 1940s, returned again in 1976 where she was hired after an impressive performance. Ultimately, she became the first Black woman to be granted tenure at the college, thereby paving the way for other African-American men and women at the school.
She was born March 6, 1924, in Washington, to Dr. George Walker, an immigrant from Jamaica, and her mother, a singer who worked for the Government Printing Office. She had only begun to take piano lessons at five years of age when she was playing with matches and her dress caught fire.
For several days she was in a coma and her right arm was severely burned. She was hospitalized for a year and underwent several operations, particularly on her injured arm. In her memoir, “A Miraculous Journey” (2006), she wrote how “sorry I felt for myself and at the same time guilty for the trouble I had caused. I was constantly in fear of dying.”
That self-pity and guilt soon passed and while attending Dunbar High School, she began private piano lessons, which put her on the path to a possible career as a concert pianist. Her studies continued when she enrolled in Howard University’s music department. But Oberlin was the only institution where a Black woman could earn an undergraduate degree in music, which she did by 1945.
From her prestigious platform at Oberlin—and later she would chair the piano department—Walker not only solidified her position but made sure such notable but often ignored African-American classical musicians as William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Scott Joplin were included in the curriculum. She was also relentless in her campaign for gender equality and equal pay among the faculty.
Margaret Bonds was the only Black woman featured in her programs, and she chose not to include white female classical composers as she was often excluded. In her memoir she touched on this issue, noting, “I tried to get the women together to protest the inequality of salaries [at Oberlin]—it was my idea, yet they called a meeting and made their decision without even inviting me or informing me of the meeting.”
In 1959, she had her debut concert at the Carnegie Recital Hall where she performed the works of Rachmaninoff, Chopin and, her favorite, Liszt. “Miss Walker’s playing has sweep and impetuosity,” said Times reporter John Briggs. She received a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professional diploma for completing the credits for a doctorate.
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.