Nora Douglas Holt

Nora Douglas Holt
Douglas Holt (Photo Credit: International Center of Photography, Gift of Daniel Cowin, 1990, [1544.1990])


Renowned composer, singer, pianist, and music critic Nora Holt broke the boundaries of what was expected of her race and gender.

Born Lena Douglas in 1885 in Kansas City, Kansas, she began playing piano at age 4 and became the organist for her father’s AME church. In 1917, she graduated with a degree in music from Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, the first Black college west of the Mississippi. Lena was valedictorian of her class. A year later, she completed a master’s degree in music from Chicago Musical College—the first Black women to do so— and composed an orchestral piece, “Rhapsody on Negro Themes,” as her thesis.

Previously married and divorced three times, Lena married George Holt, a successful Chicago hotelier, in 1916 and began using the name Nora. She started working two years later as a music critic at The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most respected Black newspapers. The following year, she published an opinion piece arguing for the creation of an organization of Black musicians. With pianist Henry Grant, Lena founded the National Association of Negro Musicians, which is still in operation today. During this time, she briefly published her own magazine, Music and Poetry.

Two years after they married, George Holt died, leaving Lena independently wealthy. She moved to New York and joined in the thriving Harlem Renaissance. While there, she married Joseph L. Ray, an assistant to steel magnate Charles M. Schwab. Following their lavish wedding and European honeymoon, Ray expected his new wife to settle down with him in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Instead, Nora returned to Harlem. Their highly politicized divorce became the talk of the town.

After the divorce, Holt traveled the world, performing in London, Paris, and Shanghai. When she returned to the U.S., she discovered that the storage unit containing her original manuscripts had been robbed, leaving future generations with only a handful of her original creations.

Holt settled in Los Angeles in the 1930s, still headlining for long periods in Asia. She came back to New York in the following decade, writing for the Amsterdam News, and New York Courier and becoming the first Black person to join the Music Critics Circle there in 1945. She took to the airways in the 1950s and ’60s as host of an annual “American Negro Artists” show on radio station WNYC and “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase” on Harlem's WLIB.

Holt died in a nursing home in Los Angeles on January 25, 1974. While few copies of her compositions remain, her legacy as a trailblazer in music and Black culture endures.