Dorothy Leigh Maynor was an international concert soprano, founder of the Harlem School of the Arts, the first African American to sing at an American president’s inauguration (Harry S. Truman’s, on January 20, 1949), the first African-American artist to perform at Constitution Hall, the first woman to conduct at the United Nations, and the first African American to join the board of directors of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia on September 3, 1910 to the Reverend John J. Mainor and Alice Jeffries Mainor, Dorothy and her older siblings were exposed to music, most notably spirituals, from an early age. Maynor sang at St. John’s Methodist Church in Norfolk, where her father was pastor.
At age 14 Maynor was enrolled in the preparatory program at the Hampton Institute in nearly Hampton, Virginia, where she flourished. Although she had planned to be a schoolteacher, Robert Nathaniel Dett, the director of the Hampton Institute Choir, persuaded her to pursue singing. She joined the Choir on its 1929 40-city tour of Europe. Later, Dett chose Maynor as soloist for the choir’s first concert at Carnegie Hall. Dett left Hampton before Maynor graduated, but they kept in touch until his death in 1943. Dett composed six spirituals especially for Maynor.
In 1933 Maynor graduated with a B.S. from Hampton and immediately accepted a scholarship to study at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, where she received a second bachelor’s degree in music and choral conducting in 1935. In 1936 Maynor moved to New York City to lead a church choir in Brooklyn. For three years, Maynor also took private music lessons from William Kamroth and John Alan Haughton, and it was during this time that she modified the spelling of her family name from Mainor to Maynor.
At the 1939 Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, Maynor attracted the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky called Maynor’s voice “a miracle,” and “a musical revelation that