Document 1: Bicentennial Program Review   |     Document 2: Oakwood College Concert Program
      Document 3: African-American Music Festival Concert Program   (includes audio)  |     Document 4: Oberlin Faculty Recital Concert Program
 Document 5: Tenure Recommendation      |     Document 6: Letter from Oberlin President Starr
Document 7: Interview      |      Bibliography      |     Notable Figures

Frances Walker-Slocum’s Brilliance and Advocacy: Bringing Black Classical Composers to the Forefront of Oberlin Conservatory

Project Group: Eve Kummer-Landau, Jenny Sledge, Kasey Ulery

Frances Walker-Slocum
Frances Walker-Slocum (1983), O. C. A.

Student Editor: Natalia Shevin


Frances Walker was born on 6 March 1924 in Washington D. C. to George Theophilus Walker and Rosa King. Walker attended Dunbar High School, a Black institution known for its prominent alumni. She earned her Bachelor of Music at Oberlin Conservatory in 1945,  the only school to grant an undergraduate degree of music to a Black woman. Walker-Slocum recalled, “every black musician I knew in Washington studied in Oberlin. Oberlin was a vanguard in those days as far as blacks were concerned.”[1] She then taught for one year at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college, where she met Henry Chester Slocum, who would become her husband.[2] Slocum also attended Oberlin, but they never met there. In 1950 they married in New York City because Mississippi then prohibited intermarriage. In 1952, their son George Jeffrey, was born. Walker-Slocum earned an M. A. from Teachers College of Columbia University in 1952, and a professional diploma in 1972.[3]

Her nationally acclaimed career began in 1975 after her performance “Bicentennial Program: The Music of Black American Composers” at Carnegie Recital Hall. As seen in Document 1, Donal Henahan praised her in The New York Times, and sparked widespread interest in her career. This concert prompted her invitation to perform at Oberlin, where she would subsequently be offered a teaching position.

At Oberlin, Walker-Slocum continued to front Black classical composers in her programs, including Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. She emphasized that Black composers have always been a part of the classical canon, but their contributions were constantly overlooked due to prejudice. As a traditionalist, she also performed works by white European composers like J. S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Claude Debussy, embracing an even broader range of work than most of her contemporaries.

The only female composer Walker-Slocum featured on her programs was African American Margaret Bonds. She chose not to include white female classical composers such as Amy Beach or Clara Schumann. In her experience, white women professors at Oberlin excluded her from explicitly Second Wave feminist work. She wrote in her memoir, A Miraculous Journey, “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.”[4]

Walker-Slocum was the first Black woman granted tenure at Oberlin College and Conservatory, which positioned her as a “first” in the histories of both women and Black professors. She was caught in between the confines of symbolic significance to Oberlin and her own ambition to achieve “first” status. She reflected in an interview, “I remember the Bicentennial, for 1976, people were coming out with the first of this, the first of that, and I thought, when can I get something first?”[5] At the same time, the treatment of Black women’s achievements as “special cases” (or in Walker-Slocum’s case, “firsts”) can be used to marginalize the experience and significance of women of color, separating them from white feminists. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim writes, “[Anglo-European-American] Feminists claim the universal ground, failing to recognize the limits or particularities of their own stories; once again, they place minority women on the side with their work reduced to special cases that may or may not augment thinking at the capital “F” center.”[6] Lim distinguishes between an inclusive feminism, and white-centric “U.S. Feminism with a capital ‘F,’ [which] contains a narrative that is not at all [hers].”

William Grant Still, an extraordinary Black composer who attended the Oberlin Conservatory whose pieces Walker-Slocum frequently performed, wrote for The Oberlin Alumni Magazine in 1950 about the centrality of his race to his classical music career writing, “my music may serve a purpose larger than mere music. If it will help in some way to bring about better interracial understanding in America and in other countries, then I will feel that the work is justified. It is not that a race of people should be glorified, but rather that all people should accept all other people on the basis of their individual merit and accomplishment.”[7] However, he acknowledged that even exceptionally talented musicians like Walker-Slocum were disadvantaged: “No matter how hard [Negro instrumentalists] studied or what success they won, they did not manage to gain top fame.”[8]

Walker-Slocum’s impressive performance career is a testament to her continuous dedication and overwhelming love for classical piano and Black composition. She named her own life as “miraculous,” and any frame to contextualize her achievements must be grounded in this reality. Her legacy is a gift to the classical world, and one to be particularly praised at Oberlin College.

For this mini-edition, because Walker-Slocum favored a group of composers that are mentioned throughout the following documents, we have composed a Notable Figures list for purposes of reference, who will be linked throughout the documents.


[1] Walker-Slocum’s quotation is taken from an undated manuscript, but is likely from 1983. George Walker received an honorary degree from Oberlin College that year, and since Walker-Slocum was a professor then, she would have been included in the address honoring him (“Some Welcome Remarks, With Attention to Our Special Guest, Dr. George Theophilus Walker,” George Theophilus Walker Former Student File, RG 28/2, Box 1075, O. C. A.).

[2] Chester Slocum participated in Walker-Slocum’s passion by presiding over The Theophilus-Rosa Foundation for Blacks in Fine Arts, an organization founded in 1978, which financed Walker-Slocum’s recordings of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still. Walker-Slocum likely founded the organization, as it shares the names of her parents (The Theophilus-Rosa Foundation for Blacks in Fine Arts, New York Explore, Source, accessed 15 July 2016).

[3] Frances Walker-Slocum Finding Guide, Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin College, Source, accessed 15 July 2016.

[4] Frances Walker-Slocum, A Miraculous Journey (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2006), 157.

[5] Walker-Slocum was not the only child in her family of “firsts”: her brother George Walker, was the first Black composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1996. He graduated from Oberlin Conservatory in 1941, and received an honorary degree in 1983. He shared interests with Walker-Slocum, as seen in his New York Times opinion piece in 1993, “Make Room for Black Classical Music” (Transcription of interview conducted by Mary Lynne Allen on September 24th, 1992,  granted by Frances Walker-Slocum, George Theophilus Walker Former Student File, Record Group 28/2, Box 1075, O. C. A.).

[6] Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, “Ain’t I A Feminist?: Re-Forming the Circle,” in The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitnow (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 453-454.

[7] William Grant Still, “A Vital Factor in America’s Racial Problem,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, March 1950, in The William Grant Still Reader: Essays on American Music, ed. Jon Michael Spencer, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Durham: Duke University Press, Fall 1992), 172.

[8] William Grant Still, “The Negro Musician in America,” Music Educators Journal 56 (January 1970), in The William Grant Still Reader: Essays on American Music, ed. Jon Michael Spencer, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Durham: Duke University Press, Fall 1992), 210.