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Life and Legacy of Mattiwilda Dobbs: The Power of Song

February 25, 2016
Mattiwilda in a gown and crown

As an Atlanta native, Mattiwilda Dobbs traveled the world using her musical abilities to touch millions of people and promote equality. Throughout her career, she gained many “firsts” for black female musicians: The first African American to sing at La Scala in Italy. The first black woman to have a long-term contract by the Metropolitan Opera Company (the Met) in New York. One of the first to sing to a desegregated audience at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium. The first black artist on faculty at the University of Texas. The list goes on and on.

Mattiwilda’s parents played a big role in the Auburn Avenue community (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s childhood home). You may have seen her father’s name, John Wesley Dobbs, around Atlanta. He was known as the “unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue” as he worked endlessly to have racial equality in Atlanta. This drive for equality spilled over to Mattiwilda and shows throughout her career.

She officially started her voice studies at Spelman College, but she’d sung in church and community choirs for years. After winning the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, she got to study in Europe. In 1951, she won the International Music Competition in Switzerland and then performed in Milan, Italy at La Scala in 1953. From there she bounced around to New York and sang 29 performances in 6 roles during 8 seasons at the Met -- the first long-term contract for a black female in the Met’s history.

Partly due to racial tensions in the American South, Mattiwilda lived in Spain and Sweden for many years. She was unable to perform to desegregated audiences in the South, and she refused to sing to a segregated audience. But then in 1962, the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium became desegregated, finally allowing Mattiwilda to perform in her hometown. Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. even presented her with a key to the city at this ceremony. She also sang in 1974 for the inauguration of Atlanta mayor (and her nephew) Maynard Jackson, the first African American to serve as mayor of a major Southern city.

Mattiwilda finished her career by teaching at universities around the country, even becoming the first black artist on faculty at the University of Texas. She now lives in Arlington, Va. To learn more about the life and legacy of Mattiwilda Dobbs, check in with the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Photo Courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia  

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Editorial Director for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, Ga., with degrees in Visual Communication and History.