Nora Holt is best known as the first Black woman to earn a master’s in the United States, but that distinction alone does little to capture her full life. Holt was also highly influential as a composer, singer and music critic.
Holt was born Lena Doulas in either 1895 or 1890 in Kansas City, Kansas. She attended the now-defunct HBCU Western University in 1917 with a bachelor’s degree in music. The following year, Holt earned her history-making degree from the Chicago Musical College. According to accounts, Holt was married three times before she earned her master’s.
The start of Holt’s writing career came in 1917 when the Chicago Defender hired her for a four-year stint. During her time at the paper, Holt penned an article focused on advocating for Black musicians and in 1919, she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians.
Holt’s reputation as a socialite made her a larger than life character and kept her name alive in the gossip columns. After marrying wealthy Chicago hotel owner George Holt, Holt changed her named to Nora. After Mr. Holt died, she inherited his fortune and traveled the world, while reportedly taking on various lovers and composing some 200 original works.
After her fifth marriage dissolved, Holt resettled in Los Angeles as a music teacher, then returned to New York to work as the Amsterdam News’ first music critic. In 1945, she became the first Black member of the Music Critics Circle of New York and worked as a producer and director for the “Concert Showcase” radio show on WLIB.
Holt passed in 1945.