Alma Montgomery Blackmon
1921 - 2009
Alma Montgomery Blackmon conducted the famed Oakwood College, now University, Aeolians for twelve years, the longest tenure in leadership of that group since its founding. While the reputation the choir enjoys today is the result of the efforts of its several directors, Blackmon was largely responsible for the group's becoming an acclaimed, highly visible, internationally known choir.
During her leadership, the choir sang in 32 of the 50 states and in Canada, England, Romania, Scotland, Wales, The Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands. They performed on two occasions for United Negro College Fund conventions, and enjoyed a reputation as one of the premier choirs among its member schools.
In her years as conductor, the Aeolians sang at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982 and later that year gave an impromptu performance from the choir loft of the Mormon Tabernacle while on a guided tour of that historic church. They sang at the 1980 and 1985 General Conference Sessions and in their travel in Britain sang in the famous Canterbury, St. Giles, and St. Paul's cathedrals. They made five recordings from 1974 to 1983, with the first selling over 10,000 copies. Later compilation and reunion recordings of the Aeolians have been well received.
Born on July 25, 1921, in Washington, D.C., Blackmon was the younger of two daughters. A precocious child, she was able to read music at age five and at age ten gave her first piano recital in New York City and began serving as organist for the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, D.C. When her parents transferred their membership to the Ephesus Church, she became involved in the music program of that church and eventually became director of its choir.
Although both Blackmon's undergraduate and master's degrees are in Early Childhood Education, with minors in English, during her study and a thirty-year teaching career in the Washington, D.C., public school system, she was active in the area's music scene. Her work with the Ephesus Church choir led to opportunities to assist Robert Shaw and Howard Mitchell in National Symphony Orchestra presentations. She also accompanied the Washington Community Chorus and assisted Warner Lawson, Dean of the Howard University School of Music, in his conducting of that group.
Blackmon studied with keyboard and voice teachers in the Washington area, taking piano lessons at HUSM with Cecil Cohen and Thomas Kerr and voice lessons with Paul Hume, noted music critic for the Washington Post, and Frederick Wilkerson.
In 1973 she accepted an invitation from Oakwood College to teach in the English department. On her second day on campus, Harold Anthony, chair of the music department, approached her with an invitation to revive the Aeolians, which had not been active since a previous director, Joni Mae Pierre-Louis, had left. Although hesitant to do so, because of the lingering effects of a radical cancer surgery she had undergone in the previous year, she consented.
After registration was completed that fall, she had a choir consisting mostly of freshmen. In spite of the youthfulness of the group, by the end of the year they had established a following and were proving their worth in promoting the school and recruiting students. Blackmon was reassigned at that time from the English department to music, where she had full-time status and would conduct the Aeolians and the College Choir, teach classes in diction and music theory, and give lessons in voice and piano.
During the OC years, she served a five-year appointment to the General Conference Music Committee, directed choirs at the 1980 and 1985 General Conference sessions, and served on the committee which produced the 1985 church hymnal. These activities and her years of service in Adventist church music were acknowledged in 1988, when she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree by Andrews University.
During Blackmon's twelve years of leadership, the Aeolians gave more than 230 concerts. As a result of the trip to Romania in 1981, she was invited to travel to Russia that year as part of a group to talk with Russian officials about the concert exchange program. The success of her contributions in furthering better relations with foreign countries led to her receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters from Atlantic Union College in 1990.
Blackmon wrote a book chronicling her life and testimony entitled This is My Story, referencing a phrase from her favorite hymn Blessed Assurance. She was honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the United Christian Artists Association and the Adventist Church Musicians Guild.
Following her retirement in 1985, an Aeolian Alumni Chapter was formed which sponsored several reunion concerts. The most recent of these was to have been a tribute concert in her honor on June 13, 2009. It instead became a funeral service when she died two days earlier, on June 11.
An earlier reunion concert, held in Atlanta, Georgia, in February 2006 at the Cathedral at Chapel Hill, was billed as Blackmon's farewell concert. It was an evening filled with music sung by 110 former Aeolian members and guest artists. On that occasion, Blackmon received numerous moving tributes for her work with the Aeolians and for the important role she had played in her students' lives.
Blackmon had a long struggle with illness, twice dealing with cancer. She was living with her daughter, Brenda Wood, in Atlanta, Georgia, when she died at age 87.
Sources: Brenda Wood, "Alma Blackmon's Farewell Concert," Southern Tidings, April 2006, pg. 7; Interview, Alma Blackmon with Dan Shultz, October 26, 2006; Roy E. Malcolm, editor, The Aeolians, Directors Recall Precious Memories, 1999, Oakwood College Publishing Association, pgs. 59-87; Wayne H. Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, 1988, Review and Herald Publishing Association, pgs.117-18; Obituary, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 13 June 2009; Social Security Death Index, Ancestry.com..