Less than two decades after slavery was abolished in the United States, Mount Holyoke graduated its first known student of color.
When Hortense Parker arrived on campus in 1878 and Mount Holyoke officials learned that she was African American, they were surprised. But they let her enroll in classes and live on campus with the white students—both unusual in a segregationist era.
Her father was an active abolitionist and former slave who bought his freedom in 1845, and the family valued education. Two of the six Parker children attended prep school, and all three daughters studied music. Hortense began her college-level studies at a college in Ohio, but was unhappy and transferred to Mount Holyoke (then known as Mount Holyoke Seminary).
Hortense was known as “a quiet, ladylike girl, noted especially for her musical ability,” and she was frequently asked to play the piano for students and faculty. She had hoped to continue her musical studies in Europe after Mount Holyoke graduation, but her patron died during her senior year.
She married shortly after graduation and taught music at schools in Missouri, New York, and Indiana before her death in 1938.