Maynor was born Dorothy Leigh Mainor in 1910 to Reverend J. Mainor, a local African-American Methodist minister in the town of Norfolk, Virginia. She attended the Hampton Institute where she studied under R. Nathaniel Dett. After her graduation from the Institute in 1933 she received a four year scholarship to the Westminster Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey.
In 1939, she performed at the Berkshire Festival where she was noticed by Sergei Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Impressed by her singing, he arranged her debut at The Town Hall in New York City on 9 December 1939. She received the Town Hall Endowment Series Award for 1940 as a result of this performance. In New York, she was taught by voice instructors William Clamroth and John Alan Haughton. Despite the fact that racism precluded her from performing in opera houses, Maynor toured extensively throughout the USA, Europe, and Latin America, performing in concert halls and frequently on the radio. In 1964, she founded the Harlem School of the Arts which was designed to give music education at a reduced rate to the children of Harlem. Under Maynor’s directorship the school grew from 20 students to 1,000 by the time of her retirement in 1979. She received honorary degrees from several universities including Westminster Choir College, Oberlin College, The Hartt School of Music (University of Hartford), and two degrees from Howard University. In 1975, she became the first African-American on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera. She died on 19 February 1996 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Dorothy Maynor retired from the concert stage in 1963 and quickly began extending her activities at her husband’s church in Harlem. At her husband’s urging, she decided to use St. James’ community center to create a music school for the youth of the area. Harlem School of the Arts started with 20 students and support not only of the church’s membership, but the wives of some of the most famous musicians of the era. Maynor discussed her reason for starting the school:
What I dream of is changing the image held by the children… We’ve made them believe that everything beautiful is outside the community. We would like them to make beauty in our community.
She not only taught and served as head administrator for the school, she used her connections in the music world to raise funds for needed expansion. Maynor was so successful that by 1977, she was able to oversee the building a $2 million, 37,000 square foot facility for more than 1,000 performing and visual arts students.
Although Maynor would never be presented on the professional operatic stage, she became the first African American to be named to the Metropolitan Opera board of directors in 1975.
Maynor retired as executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts in 1979 due to her husband’s declining health and her own illnesses. The couple retired to a residence in Kendall-at-Longwood, Kennett Schare, Pennsylvania. Maynor died of pneumonia on February 19, 1996, at Chester County Hospital, West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The Voice and the Legacy
The soprano’s vocal ability was described as:
The voice itself was rare and special enough for history to have been more generous. It was marked by warmth and soul-stirring richness, with bell-like clarity in the upper range, and enhanced by a rare ability to float out a weightless mezza voce. Maynor exploited the device so well, especially in “Depuis le jour” from Louise, that her renderings of the aria still set the standard by which others are judged.
Her diminutive size and lack of significant management have been suggested as two reasons why Dorothy Maynor did not enjoy the same sustained notoriety as her contemporary, contralto Marian Anderson. However, author Rosalyn Story noted:
But one must look to Maynor herself, her belief and resolve, for the final answers. Friends who recall the Maynor of the 1940s say she was domestic at heart, lacking the drive that propels great careers–more interested in husband, home, church and children than in international fame. [Todd] Duncan remembers her as strong-willed yet introverted, devoid of single-minded career obsession. “There was not the deep, climb-any-mountain kind of commitment that Anderson had,” he says. “Marian Anderson needed to sing the way most people need to drink water.”
In 1942, she married Reverend Shelby Rooks, the pastor of Harlem’s St. James Presbyterian Church where the Harlem School of the Arts was originally located. After her retirement from the School, Maynor moved to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania with her husband. (Wikipedia)