Joni (Johnnie) Mae Robinson Pierre-Louis
1927 - 2009
Joni Mae Robinson Pierre-Louis, a talented singer and choral conductor, taught music at two Seventh-day Adventist Colleges. She played a major role in the development of what would become today's internationally famous Aeolian Choir at Oakwood College, now University.
Joni was born in Watertown, Tennessee, near Nashville, on December 20, 1927, one of three children and the older of two daughters of John and Annie Mae Hill Robinson. She was raised in a musical family, her mother being a noted singer. While Joni Mae was still young, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she attended public school. During the last two years of high school, she studied piano with Leota Palmer-Apple and voice with Gretchen Garnet, both associated with the Cleveland Institute of Music and Western Reserve University.
Joni enrolled in Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1946, the year the Aeolians, a select choir consisting of 16 voices, was started. For the next two years she sang in that group, under the direction of Eva Beatrice Dykes, and was featured as a soloist with it and the Male Chorus under the direction of Calvin E. Mosley. She transferred to Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, in 1948, where she could complete an accredited degree. Although OC had started a four-year program in 1943, it would not be accredited until 1958.
She sang in EMC's choirs, directed by Earl M. High and Melvin Davis, and completed a B.A. in music and French in 1950. While at the college she met Sam Briand Pierre-Louis, an older student who had been born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on December 10, 1920. He had received a Bachelor of Science degree in math and chemistry in 1941 and a master's degree in 1947 from the University of Haiti and taught briefly at the SDA Seminary in Haiti before coming to EMC.
They married on July 3, 1953, and two years later accepted teaching positions at Oakwood College, Joni to teach music and Sam to chair the Romance Languages department. She would do continued study at Northwestern University, and they would both do additional work at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. She completed an M.A. in music at AU in 1964. They would have four children Philip, Colleen, Desmond, and Alesia.
Pierre-Louis followed Eva Dykes as conductor of the Aeolians. She expanded the size of the group to forty and used it to aggressively promote the college with extensive touring. During the next nine years she traveled widely with the choir, which took an historic tour to the West Coast in 1963, performing on the way in the Southwest, before giving concerts in Southern and Central California. In Los Angeles they performed at the Pacific Union Youth Congress, sang in Bay Area churches, and ended with an outstanding concert at Pacific Union College.
The success of this tour led to invitations from across the nation for numerous concerts in the Midwest and on the East Coast. On December 13, 1964, the choir was taped by CBS affiliate WHNT in Huntsville doing excerpts from the Messiah for broadcast during the Christmas season, sponsored by the United Negro College Fund. In her last year as director, the group sang at the 1965 New York World's Fair. While there, they appeared on the Strike It Rich television program, where they made a successful appeal for assistance in obtaining new choir robes.
In 1965 the Pierre-Louis family moved to California, where he would eventually serve as the first black chair of the modern languages department at PUC. She taught music in the Oakland School System, at Lynwood Academy, and also assisted in the PUC music department. They were living in Huntsville, Alabama, when Sam died on July 21, 1986, at age 65. Joni's final years were spent in Huntsville, with her daughter Colleen in southern California, and finally in an assisted living facility in Maryland, where she died on May10, 2009, at age 81. She is buried in Oakwood Memorial Gardens in Huntsville.
Sources: 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Census and Colleen Pierre-Louis Family Tree, Johnnie Mae Robinson, Ancestry.com; Roy E. Malcolm, editor, The Aeolians. . ., Directors Recall Precious Memories, (Huntsville, Alabama, Oakwood College Publishing Association, Printed at the College Press Collegedale, TN, 1999) "About the Director, Joni Mae Pierre-Louis," 11, 12, "Aeolian Renaissance," 19-21; Minneola Dixon, "One Hundred Brief Facts about Oakwood College," Adventist Heritage, April 1996, 51, 52; Sam Pierre-Louis, Alabama, Naturalization Records, 1988-1991, Ancestry.com; "New President and Six Teachers Join Faculty," The North American Informant, January-February 1955, 6; Mylas W. Martin, Jr., "News Notes from Oakwood College," Southern Tidings, August 31, 1955, 3; Alumni Directory 2003 Andrews University, (Purchase, New York, Bernard C. Harris Publishing Company, Inc. 2003), 354; A.V. Pinkney, "Capsule News from Oakwood College," Review and Herald, February 18, 1965, 22; Juliaette W. Phillips, "Both Oakwood Choirs Perform at World’s Fair," Southern Tidings, February 1983, 25; Pierre-Louis, Sam Briand, obituary, Adventist Review, April 16, 1987; Pierre-Louis, Joni Mae Robinson, obituary, Southern Tidings, June 2009.