NEW YORK — Frances Walker-Slocum, who overcame childhood burns that left her arm impaired to become a pioneering classical pianist and the first black female tenured professor at Oberlin College and Conservatory, died June 9 in Oberlin, Ohio. She was 94.
Her death was announced by Oberlin, where she had taught from 1976 until she retired in 1991 and was named a professor emerita.
“Miss Walker’s playing has sweep and impetuosity,” John Briggs wrote in The New York Times in a review of her debut concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in Manhattan in 1959, which included works by Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Chopin. She was known professionally as Frances Walker at the time.
“She proved well able to do justice to the big virtuoso pieces on her program,” Briggs added. “It was an impressive first appearance by a young pianist of considerable talent.”
Her performance at a bicentennial concert at Oberlin in 1976 was so impressive that she was immediately hired to teach there. She became an outspoken champion of black composers, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Scott Joplin and William Grant Still, and waged a continuing campaign for gender pay equality among the faculty.
Peter Takacs, a music professor at Oberlin, said in a statement that Mrs. Walker-Slocum’s “deep, noble, unhurried” interpretations of all music, but especially Brahms and Liszt, imbued the works she played with even deeper profundity.
The younger sister of George Walker, who in 1996 became the first black classical composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, Mrs. Walker-Slocum was not only an accomplished pianist but also a popular teacher, at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, the Third Street Settlement School in Manhattan, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Rutgers University in New Jersey and Oberlin, where she rose to chairwoman of the piano department.
“Ms. Walker was a tough teacher, but one who knew how to tap into every student’s motivation,” said Lee Koonce, a senior adviser to the dean of the Eastman School of Music and a former student. “She could take those with raw talent, and perhaps insufficient early training, and miraculously develop them into fine pianists.”
Frances Walker was born in Washington, the granddaughter of a slave and the daughter of Dr. George Walker, an immigrant from Jamaica, and Rosa (King) Walker, who worked for the Government Printing Office. George Walker had studied at Temple University, and when the couple moved to Washington, their first major purchase was a piano.
When Frances was 5, about the time she grudgingly began piano lessons, her dress caught fire as she was playing with matches. She was rushed to the emergency room of Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington’s only hospital for blacks at the time. She was in a coma and her right arm was severely burned. She was hospitalized for a year and underwent several operations, but her right arm remained shorter and weaker than her left, its movement impaired — which meant, she said, that she struggled to perform more challenging works.
“I felt sorry for myself and at the same time guilty for all the trouble I had caused,” Mrs. Walker-Slocum wrote in her memoir, “A Miraculous Journey” (2006). “I was constantly in fear of dying.”
But while attending Dunbar High School, she began private piano lessons and also studied piano at the junior division of Howard University’s music department. “The arts build moral strength and all kinds of inner strength,” she said later.
She enrolled in Oberlin, which she described as “a vanguard in those days” as the only institution where a black woman could earn an undergraduate degree in music. She graduated in 1945.
She met Henry Chester Slocum Jr., a white Oberlin alumnus, in Mississippi. They got married in New York City because interracial marriage was banned in Mississippi — but even living in Queens, she said, they were subjected to bigotry.
Henry Slocum died in 1980. Mrs. Walker-Slocum leaves their son, Jeffrey Slocum; her brother; a granddaughter; and two great-granddaughters.
She received a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professional diploma for completing the credits for a doctorate but not her dissertation.
Her career soared after she expanded her classical repertoire in 1975 with a performance at Carnegie Recital Hall, “Bicentennial Program: The Music of Black American Composers.” “I did it in ’75 because all these people were coming out with firsts,” Mrs. Walker-Slocum recalled in a 1992 interview at Oberlin. “I didn’t want anybody to come out with music of black composers for piano and do it before I did.”
She was subsequently invited to play at Oberlin, where, after her concert, she was recruited on the spot to teach the next semester. She later performed at Lincoln Center, Town Hall and the Brooklyn Museum in New York; at the National Gallery and the Kennedy Center in Washington; in radio recitals on WNYC and WQXR in New York; and on tours of Europe.
Mrs. Walker-Slocum stopped playing about 20 years ago, her son said, after she developed rheumatoid arthritis in her hands.