Lena Douglas was born in Kansas City to African Methodist Episcopal Church minister Calvin Douglas and his wife, Gracie Douglas. The Reverend Douglas was closely involved with Western University of Quindaro in Wyandotte County, the first all-African American school west of the Mississippi River. Gracie was the first matron of the girl’s building at Western University, and Lena grew up around the campus. When her father wrote the words to the school song in 1907, she wrote the score.
Lena studied music composition, musicology, and music criticism at Western and graduated as class valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in music. She had been married three times before graduating and moving to Chicago.
Douglas became the first African American woman to earn a master’s degree when she graduated from Chicago Musical College. Her thesis composition was an orchestral piece called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.
The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, hired Douglas as its music critic. She wrote an article advocating for an organization solely for African American musicians. In 1919 Douglas co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians. She also continued to compose and perform.
Lena Douglas changed her name to Nora Holt when she married her fourth husband, an elderly Chicago hotel owner named George Holt. Her husband’s wealth and connections opened up opportunities for Nora to travel abroad. For a short time, she published her own magazine, called Music and Poetry. When George Holt died in 1921, Nora inherited his fortune.
Holt moved to New York after George’s death and became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. She was briefly married to her fifth husband, Joseph L. Ray, but their marriage ended in a bitter and highly publicized divorce. Known as a wealthy socialite, composer, and performer, Holt traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. Before leaving the United States, Holt placed her nearly 200 works of orchestral and chamber music in storage. These and her other possessions were stolen during her travels. Only two compositions, The Sandman and Negro Dances, were preserved because of their publication in Music and Poetry.
Holt returned to the United States in 1938 and settled in Los Angeles. She taught music for several years, then returned to New York, where she was the first music critic for the Amsterdam News and later the New York Courier. In 1945 Holt became the first African American member of the Music Critics Circle of New York. She produced and directed “Concert Showcase,” a radio show on WLIB in New York in the 1950s and 1960s.Holt died January 25, 1974, in Los Angeles.