Women’s History Month: Harlem School of the Arts Founder Dorothy Maynor Is Peak #BlackGirlMagic

Women's History Month: Harlem School of the Arts Founder Dorothy Maynor
Dorothy Leigh Maynor, the founder of the Harlem School of the Arts. Image: courtesy of Harlem School of the Arts.

There’s nothing more powerful than the showcasing of Black exellence and joy. With our history of struggle and strife, there has also been rich moments of beauty; however, so often in our country’s collective history, Black people, especially Black women, have been left out of the narratives of progress. Black women have often led the charge and innovated opportunities in spaces that lacked them without their just credit, especially in the fields of education and the arts or the women’s movement. Therefore, it is incumbent upon newer generations of Black Americans to uplift the names and stories of those whom history often leaves out. This is particularly true for the internationally recognized concert soprano Dorothy Leigh Maynor. A dynamic woman of many firsts, Maynor was also the first woman to conduct at the United Nations, the first African American to join the board of directors of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the first African American to sing at an American president’s inauguration. Of her numerous and significant achievements, her founding of the acclaimed Harlem School of the Arts in 1964 is one of her most notable accomplishments.

The Harlem School of the Arts is a cultural and artistic institution that has built a community through interdisciplinary programming and curriculum rooted in music, dance, theater, visual arts and design. For more than five decades, the school has operated and served young students in the Harlem and Upper Manhattan area. Of the nearly 5,000 students who attend, over 85% are African American or Latino and approximately 50% of the students receive financial assistance. Lenny Kravitz, Giancarlo Esposito, Caleb McLaughlin, Yaya Dacosta and Zazie Beetz are some of the school’s impressive alumni..

“It is important to remember that not so long ago Black women had little rights. Despite prejudice in performance spaces like Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, Dorothy Maynor created a name for herself singing in Europe and Asia. In the height of that moment, Ms Maynor started an organization that would reach out to the Harlem Community and expose young people to the arts and excellence in the arts,” said Yolanda Wyns, music chair at Harlem School of the Arts reflecting on Dorothy Maynor’s visionary legacy. “Ms. Maynor called her elite friends in the business to mentor, and educate young people folks like Arthur Mitchell who would later found the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She mortgaged her home in Upstate New York to have money for the down payment to purchase the property to be built from the ground up. ‘Bringing Beauty to the Community’ is the vision which remains at HSA.”

In its May 1966 issue, EBONY featured a profile on Maynor’s school. Two years later, in 1968, Maynor wrote “Arts in the Ghetto,”an op-Ed for the Music Education Journal, which is still timely today. The piece speaks to the importance of preserving Black cultural integrity in the face of forces who promote erasure such as gentrification and appeasement. A snippet from the piece can be viewed below:

A copy of Ms. Maynor's op-ed "Arts in the Ghetto" Image: courtesy of Sam Mattingly.
A copy of Ms. Maynor’s op-ed “Arts in the Ghetto” Image: courtesy of Sam Mattingly.

This Women’s History Month, we must uphold the bold legacy of Black women like Dorothy Maynor and continue to create spaces that promote genuine equity for all.

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