91 Years Old and Still Teaching

After a lifetime of "firsts," Charlotte Holloman shares her musical gifts at Howard University.

Dorothy Holloman (Ivy Ashe)

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Vineyard Gazette (www.mvgazette.com) and is reprinted here with permission.

When Charlotte Holloman was a little girl, only 8 years old, she and her parents visited the summer home of Harry T. Burleigh on Martha's Vineyard. Mr. Burleigh, best known for his instrumental role in arranging and publishing African-American spirituals and bringing the songs to a wider audience, had long vacationed on the Island. During the visit, he brought Mrs. Holloman to a church in West Tisbury where there was an organ, thinking that Charlotte, a budding pianist, might like to play.

"My feet would not go all the way down to the pedals," Mrs. Holloman, now 91, recalled some 80 years later, seated in a wicker chair at a friend's home on Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs, her eyes radiant beneath her white hat. So Mr. Burleigh worked the pedals while Mrs. Holloman played.

In 1962 Mrs. Holloman and her family bought a summer home of their own on Martha's Vineyard, situated where the Lagoon Pond Bridge is in Tisbury. The house was recently taken by the state of Massachusetts via easement in order to complete the final phase of bridge construction. Mrs. Holloman now stays with friends when she visits the Vineyard, traveling up from her Washington, D.C., home with her daughter, also named Charlotte.

But Martha's Vineyard is a tiny blip in the vast world Mrs. Holloman has explored in her 91 years.

"When somebody asks me something about myself, then I have a lot to talk about," she said.

Mrs. Holloman was born in Washington in 1922, the daughter of Charles and Louise Wesley. Charles, the third black student to earn a doctorate from Harvard, was head of the history department at Howard University. Mrs. Holloman attended Howard once she was old enough, enrolling in the junior music program to study piano. Prior to that, she had been a student at Dunbar, the first public high school for black students.

She sang backup for Harry Belafonte -- although the version of "Day-O" that made it on the record is not the one with her vocals -- and somewhere in the caverns of music history there is a lost James Brown recording she also did backup work on with her friend Gloria. She traveled the country as an understudy in the road company of Carmen Jones, and acted in The Barrier, a play based on the Langston Hughes story The Mulatto. Langston Hughes himself called her to ask if she could be in his play, Street Scene, but she was a new mother at the time, and her own mother, Louise, would have none of it.

Mrs. Holloman is first and foremost an opera singer, but this career happened almost by chance.

Just before she entered her final semester at Howard, Mrs. Holloman realized she would need one more credit to graduate. She and the school secretary went through the course catalog class by class. Having already taken nearly all of the one-credit classes offered except violin -- and "that would require me buying a violin" -- she signed up for voice. But there was a catch. Voice lessons involved an audition with music instructor Todd Duncan, the man who originated the role of Porgy in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.