Throughout history, our lives have been genuinely enriched by legions of music teachers who have perpetuated the love of music in our young people. One such music teacher was Hortense Parker Gilliam, an elementary school music teacher who is the first known African American graduate of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.
Hortense Parker was born in Ripley, Ohio, in 1859, the fourth of six children born to John Parker and Miranda (Boulden) Parker, a free black couple. Her mother was born free in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was born into slavery, but in 1845 he was able to buy his freedom. John Parker became a noted abolitionist, inventor, and industrialist. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, John guided hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In fact, the Parker home has been renovated and is now designated a National Historic Landmark.
Hortense’s parents were determined that all of their children should get an education. As children, Hortense and her two younger sisters received a standard education in traditional subjects, and they also studied music. After her high school graduation in 1878, Hortense enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now known as Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Her expenses were paid by a wealthy patron. The institution did not know she was a woman of color until she arrived on campus, but they did not cast her out. On the contrary, Hortense lived on campus in a dormitory along with 250 other students. Unlike many institutions of her day, Mt. Holyoke did not require its black students to live off campus. Hortense was remembered by her classmates as “a quiet ladylike girl, noted especially for her musical ability.” Because of her exceptional musical abilities, faculty and fellow students alike often asked her to play the piano in the seminary in the evenings after classes were done. She had aspirations to continue her music education in Europe upon her graduation, but unfortunately her patron passed away during her senior year. She graduated in 1883, the first known African American student to graduate from that institution.
After graduating from college in 1883, Hortense taught music and piano at Lincoln Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1906-1913. That same year she married James Marcus Gilliam, a graduate of Cornell University, and moved with him to St. Louis, where she taught music. During her long career, she also taught music at schools in New York and Indiana.
As the first African-American graduate of Mt. Holyoke, Hortense was featured in Our Path: Students of Color at Mt. Holyoke at the 2007 Alumnae Student Conference there. This chalkboard champion passed away on December 9, 1938, near St. Louis, Missouri.