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Alyne Dumas Lee (1911-1970)


Jamaican audiences hailed her as a concert soprano of unquestionable artistry. Europeans termed her concerts as events “that brought brotherhood through music.” New York music critics wrote in their newspaper reviews that her voice was singular—one that only comes along every 100 years. Once, while practicing for a concert in Chicago, a group of White teenagers passing the venue gathered to hear her do the numbers she would later perform. As an artist, she won numerous awards and appeared on stages around the United States and abroad, but the place where she felt the most enjoyment was in a classroom at Oakwood University.

Alyne Dumas was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up there with her older brother. As a young adult she moved to Chicago, Illinois, and married John Frank Lee. One of the great disappointments of the marriage was their inability to have children; but she would work around that by adopting two little girls—Angela and Susan.

Lee’s first concert debut was in New York City at Town Hall. The press compared her vocal characteristics to those of operatic great, Marion Anderson. She would later appear on-stage in concert with Ms. Anderson. Lee toured doing concert performances for several years, but returned to Chicago where she was known by the local Seventh-day Adventist churches as an excellent choir director and sought-after vocalist. By the time she drastically reduced touring to care for her family, Lee had performed at the Metropolitan Opera and Grant Park; appeared with renowned gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson; been directed by composer Henry Weber and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Lee thrilled audiences with her programs, which spanned a vast repertoire of music. She sang fluently in French, Italian, German, and English. But her skill was most evident in her vocal interpretation of Negro spirituals. Indeed, she was admired by audiences and musicians for her ability to convey the pathos and passion, fury and gentleness of her music just by using vocal inflection and soul.

In 1967 Lee received a call to teach at Oakwood College in the Music Department and be an artist in residence at the institution. This was an invitation she would not refuse. The opportunity to teach at Oakwood was one that she considered a privilege, so she moved her two daughters to Huntsville, Alabama.

Life in Alabama was a huge change from Chicago—from the relatively liberal North to the segregated South. During the move Angela and Susan, who were young at the time, were exposed to the separate and very unequal facilities that were typical of the South in the 1960s. When confronted with water fountains marked “Coloreds” and “Whites Only”, the girls were confused. Their mother calmly told them to ignore the signs and drink from the one that looked the cleanest and was a real water fountain, not just an open spigot. Of course, that was the one marked “Whites Only.”

Notwithstanding the social milieu, it was life at Oakwood that had drawn Lee to Huntsville. Oakwood was in a burgeoning phase in regard to music education and Lee was challenged. She envisioned, along with the other exceptionally talented music faculty, the rich musical mecca that Oakwood would become.

Unfortunately, Lee would not have many years at Oakwood. On Alumni Homecoming Weekend in 1970, she sustained a massive heart attack and died. Her musical legacy and love for Oakwood University lives on, however. Her daughter, Angela Meriweather, is an accomplished soprano and musician. Her other daughter, Susan, is a faculty member at Oakwood and is married to Dr. Delbert Baker, the current president of Oakwood University. Lee’s dear friend and Music Department colleague Mrs. Inez Booth has opined that Lee would be proud if she had lived to see how that move to Huntsville turned out.

-Susan Baker