Jamaican audiences hailed her as a concert soprano of
unquestionable artistry. Europeans termed her concerts as events “that brought
brotherhood through music.” New York music critics wrote in their newspaper
reviews that her voice was singular—one that only comes along every 100 years. Once,
while practicing for a concert in Chicago, a group of White teenagers passing the
venue gathered to hear her do the numbers she would later perform. As an
artist, she won numerous awards and appeared on stages around the United States
and abroad, but the place where she felt the most enjoyment was in a classroom
at Oakwood University.
Alyne Dumas was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up
there with her older brother. As a young adult she moved to Chicago, Illinois,
and married John Frank Lee. One of the great disappointments of the marriage
was their inability to have children; but she would work around that by
adopting two little girls—Angela and Susan.
Lee’s first concert debut was in New York City at Town Hall.
The press compared her vocal characteristics to those of operatic great, Marion
Anderson. She would later appear on-stage in concert with Ms. Anderson. Lee
toured doing concert performances for several years, but returned to Chicago
where she was known by the local Seventh-day Adventist churches as an excellent
choir director and sought-after vocalist. By the time she drastically reduced
touring to care for her family, Lee had performed at the Metropolitan Opera and
Grant Park; appeared with renowned gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson and Marion
Anderson; been directed by composer Henry Weber and conductor Leonard
Bernstein. Lee thrilled audiences with her programs, which spanned a vast
repertoire of music. She sang fluently in French, Italian, German, and English.
But her skill was most evident in her vocal interpretation of Negro spirituals.
Indeed, she was admired by audiences and musicians for her ability to convey
the pathos and passion, fury and gentleness of her music just by using vocal
inflection and soul.
In 1967 Lee received a call to teach at Oakwood College in
the Music Department and be an artist in residence at the institution. This was
an invitation she would not refuse. The opportunity to teach at Oakwood was one
that she considered a privilege, so she moved her two daughters to Huntsville,
Life in Alabama was a huge change from Chicago—from the
relatively liberal North to the segregated South. During the move Angela and
Susan, who were young at the time, were exposed to the separate and very
unequal facilities that were typical of the South in the 1960s. When confronted
with water fountains marked “Coloreds” and “Whites Only”, the girls were
confused. Their mother calmly told them to ignore the signs and drink from the
one that looked the cleanest and was a real water fountain, not just an open
spigot. Of course, that was the one marked “Whites Only.”
Notwithstanding the social milieu, it was life at Oakwood
that had drawn Lee to Huntsville. Oakwood was in a burgeoning phase in regard
to music education and Lee was challenged. She envisioned, along with the other
exceptionally talented music faculty, the rich musical mecca that Oakwood would
Unfortunately, Lee would not have many years at Oakwood. On
Alumni Homecoming Weekend in 1970, she sustained a massive heart attack and
died. Her musical legacy and love for Oakwood University lives on, however. Her
daughter, Angela Meriweather, is an accomplished soprano and musician. Her other
daughter, Susan, is a faculty member at Oakwood and is married to Dr. Delbert Baker, the current president of Oakwood University.
Lee’s dear friend and Music Department colleague Mrs. Inez Booth has opined
that Lee would be proud if she had lived to see how that move to Huntsville