Trailblazing Piano Professor Frances Walker ’45 dies at 94

June 13, 2018

By Erich Burnett

Frances Walker works with a piano student
Frances Walker works with student Kevin Sharpe '81 in her Bibbins Hall studio, ca. 1980. Sharpe is now a member of the piano faculty at the University of Florida.
Photo credit: Oberlin College Archives

Accomplished performer returned to teach at her alma mater, became the first tenured black female professor.

In January 1976, pianist and educator Frances Walker ’45 returned to her alma mater to play a bicentennial concert celebrating the music of black composers. Her Oberlin performance so moved administrators that she was hired on the spot to teach that fall. Three years later, she became the first black woman to be granted tenure at Oberlin, where she taught until her retirement in 1991.

Outspoken throughout her life, Walker showcased the music of black composers such as Scott Joplin, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and former Oberlin student William Grant Still; battled for gender equity in salary; and strode confidently into an interracial marriage amid a torrent of condemnation. Through the years, she was also beloved by her students, many of whom went on to standout careers of their own.

Frances Walker playing the piano
Frances Walker in 1983. Photo credit: Oberlin College Archives

Born in Washington, D.C., Walker was raised alongside her brother, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker ’41, hon. DM ’83. She sustained severe burns in a fire at age 5 and suffered a long and painful recovery that included a yearlong stint in the hospital and numerous surgeries, especially to her right arm. Walker followed her brother to Oberlin, primarily because it was the only college at the time willing to confer undergraduate degrees to blacks. (“Every black musician I knew in Washington studied in Oberlin,” she once said. “Oberlin was a vanguard in those days as far as blacks were concerned.”)

Walker began teaching at Barber-Scotia College in North Carolina in 1947, then joined the faculty of Tougaloo College in Mississippi a year later. There, she met history professor Henry Chester Slocum ’48, a white man with whom she relocated to New York City to marry, in defiance of Mississippi laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

In New York, Walker earned an MA from Columbia University Teachers’ College in 1952 and a professional diploma in 1971. She taught piano for seven years at the Third Street Music School Settlement before taking up a four-year residency at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. By 1972, she was appointed assistant professor of piano at Rutgers University, where she remained even through her first years of teaching at Oberlin, relocating only after the death of her husband in 1980.

An avid performer for many years, Walker debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1959 and for decades played engagements at major venues across the U.S. and beyond. Despite the lingering impairment from her childhood injury, she was widely celebrated throughout her career for the great strength of her playing.

At Oberlin, Walker served as chair of the piano department, president of Pi Kappa Lambda, and chair of the Special Educational Opportunities Program, which supported minority groups. In 1979 and again in 1985, she was honored by the National Association of Negro Musicians. In 2004 she was awarded the Alumni Medal from Oberlin College.

“I remember Frances Walker’s sound—deep, noble, unhurried—which made all music, especially Brahms and Liszt, sound profound,” says Professor of Piano Peter Takács.

“She was an important resource and role model for African American pianists, providing support and encouragement whenever it was needed, and she was an important member of our department. She will be missed.”

In retirement, Walker wrote the autobiography A Miraculous Journey, and she remained generous to Oberlin, informally funding scholarships for conservatory students.

Her far-reaching impact could be felt even in her final months: In March 2018, scores of adoring friends, faculty, and former students gathered to pay tribute in honor of her 94th birthday. The celebration included a screening at the Apollo Theatre of Still Dreaming, a documentary about Walker by filmmaker Charles Kaufmann. It was followed by a reception at the Hotel at Oberlin, presided over by Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar.

Walker died June 9 at her home in Oberlin. She is survived by her son Jeffrey Slocum, a granddaughter, and her brother.

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