by Felicia D. Render
Dr. Loretta Cessor Manggrum, a rare African American female classical composer, was a 20th-century pianist who broke the color barrier at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1951. For this blog post, we are pleased to highlight a remarkable woman’s contributions to classical music.
Loretta Manggrum (née Cessor) was born in 1896 in Gallipolis, Ohio. Her mother was a pianist and guitar player. Cessor learned to play the piano by the age of six and frequently performed in her church. At 15, she joined an orchestra near Huntington, West Virginia, earning $25 to $35 per week. Cessor’s mother fell ill, creating financial hardship for the Cessor family, inevitably forcing Loretta to drop out of high school to support her mother. Six years later, in 1918, Loretta married William Langston Manggrum; they moved first to Milwaukee, then to Pittsburgh. Her husband attended pharmacy school at the University of Pittsburgh while she taught piano lessons. After William’s graduation, the family returned to Huntington, then settled in Cincinnati, Ohio to open their family drugstore.
After many years of working to support the family’s pharmacy business and raising their children, Loretta Manggrum was determined to follow her musical passions and pursue her own interests. In 1945 she finally earned her high school diploma at the age of 49. She earned her bachelor’s degree in music in 1951, and in 1953 Manggrum became the first African American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She composed numerous works for church, including her cantatas Christ Our Lord (1953) and Watch (1958); taught music full-time at Garfield School; served as organist and music director of the Gaines United Methodist Church in Madisonville, Ohio; and at the age of 88 received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Cincinnati.
Loretta Cessor Manggrum died in 1992.
The personal papers of Loretta Cessor Manggrum housed at the Amistad Research Center document her career as a composer, arranger and pianist. The collection includes musical scores, news clippings and audiocassette recordings of Manggrum’s performances. Items of note within the collection are audiocassettes of a 1980 interview with Manggrum and a recording of the program, “‘Can’t You See,’ a Cantata Composed by Loretta C. Manggrum, a Sermon in Song.”
The project to preserve and open the Loretta Cessor Manggrum papers is funded in part by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.
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