ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
In 1924, Jessie Covington graduated from Oberlin with a B.A. degree in music. Oberlin honored her
by allowing her to play a recital and at commencement with its symphony. Jessie played at both programs
Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto, Op. 22.
Jessie C. Dent Albert Dent
Books by Tom Dent
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Jessie Covington Dent
Concert Artist & Humanist
By Rudolph Lewis
On Afro-American college campuses in the 1920s and 1930s, Jessie Covington Dent won acclaim as a concert pianist. A reporter for the Nashville Tennesseean analyzed her style as follows: “The most striking thing about her playing is her lovely tone. Technique she has in abundance, but the listener does not think so much of that as the poetry of her playing. She plays with freedom and repose of style and never seeks to excite her hearers by a shadowy bravura of needless forcing of tone.” In an autobiographical sketch, Mrs. Dent suggests that it might have been a “prenatal influence,” for “I showed signs of . . . musical talent at the age of two years.”
In their Ennis Street home in Houston, Dr. Benjamin Covington, a graduate of Meharry College, and his wife Jennie Murphy Covington, a graduate of a Texas Baptist College, created a musical environment for their daughter Jessie. After her marriage to Benjamin, Jennie began piano lessons under Madame Corilla Rochon, former native of Honduras and a life long friend. Jessie’s father sang in a quartet, played piano, violin, cornet, and the guitar. At age four, Jessie also began to take piano lessons with Madame Rochon and continued them until she went to Oberlin.
One of Jessie Dent’s “fondest musical recollections is of the innumerable afternoons and evenings” that she and her father would play together. “I at the piano and he with his instruments, changing from one to the other, attracted the attention of neighbors and passersby–even the streetcar motormen would stop their cars long enough to hear a few strains of music.”
Learning the Semi-Classics
In 1915 when Jessie was eleven, Jennie, along with Madame Rochon and a German music teacher, organized a women’s orchestra. So that Jessie could be a part of the orchestra, Dr. Covington arranged for her to take violin lessons with a young man who was a mail clerk on a train that ran between New Orleans and Houston, named Willie Nickerson, brother of the famous Camille Nickerson, writer of Creole songs. The orchestra played at various concerts and affairs, Mrs. Dent possesses a photo of the 14-member Ladies Orchestra, which pictures her at twelve years old sitting in the first row with a violin.
Willie Nickerson, the violin teacher, suggested to the Covingtons that they send Jessie to Oberlin, a college with “a reputation for being perhaps the greatest of the music conservatories, with fine teachers and a fine curriculum, with high ideals and standards.” Camille, Willie’s sister, graduated from Oberlin in 1916 with a B.A. degree in music. Jessie’s mother, who was “very civic minded,” organized a recital to present Camille to Houston. Camille’s recital and her regard for her alma mater convinced the Covingtons to send Jessie to Oberlin, once an underground station for slaves and the “first college in our country to admit women.” The Covingtons applied two years before Jessie completed her high school studies.
In Houston, Jessie was a member of Bethel Baptist Church. She played for its Sunday school, which granted her two dollars a month for her services. After her graduation in 1920 from Houston Colored High School as class valedictorian,, Jessie received from the church’s Sunday School “a diamond ring as an expression of their appreciation.” Her father added other diamonds; Mrs. Dent. still has the ring, which is now a cluster.
Before Jessie entered Oberlin she took a correspondence course to learn the scales, keys, chords, and chord changes. Her father helped her to “learn the solmization syllables in order to meet a solmization examination on the first day.” In her first semester at Oberlin, Jessie caught on rapidly and was allowed to go into an advanced class in ear training. Jessie’s course followed the formal conservatory requirements. She had a major in piano and a minor in violin.
“During the first year, I appeared on the public student recital,” Mrs. Dent recalled, “which was considered quite an attainment for a first-year student.” In 1924, Jessie Covington graduated from Oberlin with a B.A. degree in music. Oberlin honored her by allowing her to play a recital and at commencement with its symphony. Jessie played at both programs Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto, Op. 22.
Juilliard & Classical Piano
Dr. Jesse Moorland of the National YMCA sent Jessie Covington an announcement of the establishment of the Juilliard Musical Foundation, out of which came Juilliard School of Music. The Foundation was to give scholarships of $1,000. The young Miss Jessie Covington arranged a trip to New York. She played for the judges. She waited for the judges to determine her fitness for the program. She won her first of four competitive fellowships. Jessie studied with Madame Olga Samaroff for two years and with James Friskin the final two years. “I must say that those four years of my training,” Mrs. Dent recalled, “were filled to the brim with the finest in training class work, private lessons, and advanced theory; wonderful contacts through privileges and experiences for hearing and seeing great personalities and performances on the concert and operatic stage and exposures to the finest musical culture–the broadening effects of which could only be reaped with maturity.”
In Houston, with Madame Rochon and the Ladies Orchestra, Jessie Covington did not study “the real classics, except maybe in one or two instances when they appeared in a book called Popular Classics.” At Juilliard, Mrs. Dent recalled in an interview with Anne Lundy (The Black Perspective in Music, Fall 1984), “some of those students were artists.” Jessie had not had the musical background of many of the students. “Now I had only seen one opera when I got to New York, and that was Il Travatore. We were way up in the ‘peanut gallery’ and felt fortunate to be able to see it even there. But, you see, I didn’t have the experience of knowing operas and the stories behind them and knowing the Beethoven sonatas and symphonies and other symphonies. That was not a part of my culture.”
The Juilliard Musical Foundation was at 49 E. 52nd Street, a magnificent mansion once occupied by the Rockefellers. To the twenty-year old Jessie Covington of Houston, the place was “just a dream.” “There were the business offices on one floor, and on the other floors they turned the rooms into teaching rooms. Each room had a new grand piano. Some of them very elaborate with oriental rugs that were made to fit a curved room and tapestries on the walls. In that house I think there were marble bathrooms, one of every color. It was beautiful beyond description and beyond imagination.”
After her four years of study at Juilliard, Jessie Covington returned to Houston and announced the opening of her “Studio for the Instruction of Pianoforte and Theory of Music” at 2219 Dowling Street on Monday, September 24, 1928. Jessie Covington closed the studio after a year. She exhausted herself. She became thin and “had a deficiency in iron.” In 1929, she accepted the position of Head of the Piano Department at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas.. “During those two years,” Mrs. Dent recalled, “I became engaged and married Albert Dent. After that I didn’t teach anymore, but I did give recitals.”
Marriage & Continuing Education
Albert Dent was anxious for Jessie to continue her recitals. After their first son Tom, Albert also encouraged Jessie to return to Oberlin. “Her husband,” Mrs. Borders, Senior Archivist at Amistad Research center, pointed out, “wanted his wife to have some security if anything were to happen.” In 1933, Jessie began her studies at Oberlin with a Rosenwald Fund grant. In 1934, she received her M.A. degree in music. Her thesis was on Franz Liszt. Oberlin again honored her with a recital with Oberlin’s symphony. On this occasion, Jessie Covington Dent played Schumann’s piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54.
In her interview with Anne Lundy, Mrs. Dent explained why she did not continue as a concert pianist. “I didn’t consider myself a top-flight concert artist. I think I had some degree of talent and a feeling for piano and, certainly, a love for it. And I had a certain facility; but I never was note perfect.” Mrs. Dent also believed her having three sons discouraged her from going on with a career. She explained at length.
“Well, when you do solo work there’s a lot of tension, and the people who do the best are the ones who don’t have any encumbrances. So it’s like being wedded to it. You have to ‘give your all’–your thoughts, your time, your energy. If you want to have a home, I think you can do some work, but I think something will suffer.
“During that time, too, my husband became president of Dillard University, and he was working awfully hard to build the school. Places were not integrated then, and when people came to Dillard, we had to entertain them in our home. My children were growing; they needed attention. I decided that I needed to do that and I preferred that.”
Jessie Covington Dent gave recitals at Afro-American schools throughout the South, including Fisk, Spelman, and Southern University.
The Toast of Dillard University
The Dents moved to New Orleans from Atlanta after Albert accepted a job offer as superintendent of Flint-Goodridge Hospital, owned by Dillard University. In 1935, Albert Dent became Business Manager for Dillard, and in 1941 its president. Jessie Dent, according to Mrs. Borders, “found a natural outlet in promoting the work of the hospital through the Auxiliary.” On a Ways and Means committee, Jessie Dent contacted John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony magazine, about promoting a fashion extravaganza. “Details were finalized,” Mrs. Borders explained, “and Ebony Fashion Fair was born. It had its very first showing at the Booker T. Washington Auditorium. It featured the exotic Dorothea Towles, a black high fashion model. The Fair became an annual Auxiliary presentation until the hospital was sold.”
Jessie Dent’s achievements as a concert pianist, Mrs. Borders concluded, were matched by her humanitarian work in New Orleans. Her work in raising money allowed Flint-Goodridge “to highlight pre-natal, parturient, and post-natal care.” “During the early Depression years,” Mrs. Borders pointed out, “black mothers were not receiving proper medical care during pregnancy and after. The number of black women who used the hospital’s services for themselves and their children grew dramatically.” Tom, Benjamin, and Walter–the Dent boys–were also born in Flint-Goodridge during Albert’s administration of the hospital (1932-1939).
Jessie Covington Dent, as “First Lady” of Dillard, helped charter or organize several organizations to promote her humanitarian and artistic concerns. She was instrumental in organizing at Dillard an undergraduate chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She was a charter member of its graduate chapter in New Orleans. Mrs. Dent also organized the Dillard Women’s Club and Women Interested in Dillard (WIDs). In 1957 she also became a charter member of LINKS. All of these organizations sought to promote cultural activities and community projects and raise money for the Negro College Fund.
Jessie Dent’s artistic concerns also found expression in the B-Sharp Music Club, which presented her in a recital in 1932. She also served six years on the board of the New Orleans Philharmonic Society. Her interest in horticulture found its outlet in her membership in the Gentilly Dirt Daubers Garden Club and the Louisiana Iris Garden Society, which she co-sponsored. According to Mrs. Borders, Jessie Dent was very fond of begonias.
In the last thirty years, Jessie Dent received many awards for her work. In 1954, the National Association of Negro Musicians presented her a certificate in the field of music at Mt. Zion Methodist Church. In 1968, Dillard Women’s Club hosted a testimonial dinner in her honor. In 1983, Friends of Amistad honored the Dents at the annual membership luncheon. Amistad Research Center honored Jessie Dent September 27, 1985, at its benefit Gala in the Pontchatrain Ballroom at Sheraton Hotel. William Houston & His Orchestra played for this musical tribute, along with their special guests–Marilyn Bernard, soprano, and Moses Hogan, pianist.
On May 19, 1985, Jessie Covington Dent celebrated her 81st birthday. New Laurel Review sent its best regards.
Albert Dent died in 1984. Tom Dent died in 1998. Jessie Covington Dent died in 2001. Research on the Dent family can be done in New Orleans in the Dent Family Collection, housed at Dillard University.
Source: “Jessie Covington Dent: Concert Artist & Humanist,” The New Laurel Review (Spring/Fall 1985). Editor: Lee Meitzen Grue. Journal Address: 828 Lesseps, New Orleans, LA 70112.
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By Daniel Rasmussen
In January 1811, a group of around 500 enslaved men, dressed in military uniforms and armed with guns, cane knives, and axes, rose up from the slave plantations around New Orleans and set out to conquer the city. They decided that they would die before they would work another day of backbreaking labor in the hot Louisiana sun. Ethnically diverse, politically astute, and highly organized, this slave army challenged not only the economic system of plantation agriculture but also American expansion. Their march represented the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in the history of the United Statesand one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and the nation.
American Uprising is the riveting and longneglected story of this elaborate plot, the rebel armys dramatic march on the city and its shocking conclusion. No North American slave revoltnot Gabriel Prosser, not Denmark Vesey, not Nat Turnerhas rivaled the scale of this rebellion either in terms of the number of the slaves involved or in terms of the number who were killed. Over 100 slaves were slaughtered by federal troops and French planters, who then sought to write the event out of history and prevent the spread of the slaves revolutionary philosophy. With the Haitian Revolution a recent memory and the War of 1812 looming on the horizon, the revolt had epic consequences for America. Through groundbreaking original research, Daniel Rasmussen offers a window into the young expansionist country, illuminating the early history of New Orleans and providing new insight into the path to the Civil War, and the slave revolutionaries who fought and died while standing up against injustice. This book represents a significant contribution to African American history and the struggle for civil rights in this country.
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By Tom Dent
A black youth reared in segregated New Orleans, Dent went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, and that experience stuck with him. So in 1991, he decided to work his way south from Greensboro, N.C., to Mississippi, skirting both large cities and important officials, to talk to (mostly) black folk and to assess the movement’s legacy. At times, Dent’s meandering approach lacks depth and is unwieldy, but his personal connection to his inquiry informs his story with commitment. In Greensboro, the unresolved gap between blacks and whites, exemplified in an anniversary celebration of the city’s historic sit-ins, remind Dent “of the strained interracial meetings of the 1950s.”
In Orangeburg, S.C., a black academic tells him ruefully that many social-work students go into “criminal justice” lacking the broader awareness of the politics behind the new programs. In Albany, Ga., Dent discerns signs of material progress but deep divisions not only between the races but also within the black community. In Mississippi, where he sees black political victories as having had a relatively small payoff, he becomes convinced that a new black organization is needed to supplant the NAACP to address national political issues of special concern to blacks (education, unemployment) and to monitor cases of police and official abuse and discrimination. Though not quite a complete plan, it’s a constructive response to Dent’s conclusion that the civil rights movement opened up doors, but “once inside, well, there was hardly anything there.”Publishers Weekly
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.Penguin
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 9 April 2008
Related files: Tom Dent Bio Tom Dent Speaks Southern Journey Tom Dent on Marcus B. Christian The Art of Tom Dent My Father Is Dead Jessie Covington Dent Dent outlines Christian’s Duties for Dillard Project