Black History 365: Hortense Parker

Since there are so many facets of the history that people of African descent have made in this country, I’ve decided to continue my “Black History 365″ series from my poetry blog here on my AfrocentriqueAZ blog. I’ll be posting a new “First Black” entry every Wednesday. This week is the First known African-American woman to graduate from one of the Seven Sisters college: Hortense Parker.


From Wikipedia:

Hortense Parker Gilliam, born Hortense Parker (1859–1938), was the first known African-American graduate of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in 1883. She taught music and piano at elementary school in Kansas City, Missouri from 1906-1913. That year she married James Marcus Gilliam, and moved with him to St. Louis, where she taught music and lived the rest of her life.

Hortense Parker was the fourth of six children born to the free people of color John Parker and Miranda {Boulden} Parker in Ripley, Ohio. She had three older brothers and two sisters. Her mother was freeborn in Cincinnati. Born into slavery, her father had bought his freedom and became a noted abolitionist, inventor, and industrialist. Before the American Civil War, he aided hundreds of slaves to escape by the Underground Railroad. Her parents’ house has been designated a National Historic Landmark and restored, now called the John P. Parker House after her father.

The Parkers ensured that all their children became well educated. Hortense Parker and her two younger sisters studied music as children, in addition to traditional subjects. Hortense went to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), where she graduated in 1883, the first known African-American graduate.

In 1913 Parker married James Marcus Gilliam, a graduate of Cornell University. They moved to St. Louis, where her brother Horatio Parker was living. There Gilliam served as a principal for most of his career. Parker Gilliam taught music for many years. She died on December 9, 1938.


  1. John P. Parker, HIS PROMISED LAND: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JOHN P. PARKER, FORMER SLAVE AND CONDUCTOR ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, Edited by Stuart Seely Sprague, New York: Norton, 1996, pp. 11-12, 83, accessed 5 February 2011
  2.  “Hortense Parker”, Ohio History Central, accessed 5 February 2011
  3.  “Hortense Parker”, Our Path: Students of Color at Mt. Holyoke exhibit, Alumnae & Student Conference, 2007, Mount Holyoke College, accessed 5 February 2011
  4.  John Parker, Hortense Parker Gilliam, 1905, Local History book, Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Library
  5. Photograph of Hortense Parker Gilliam and her husband, 1932, Archival Digital Image Database, Mount Holyoke College, accessed 5 February 2011




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