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Trailblazer, Performer, Educator, Friend

Martha Flowers
(Photo credit Jock Lauterer/The Durham Voice)

The Department of Music mourns the loss of beloved former professor Martha Flowers. Ms. Flowers passed away on March 11 and was celebrated by friends and family in a ceremony later in April. In an email to department faculty members, professor and chair Dr. David Garcia wrote,

“I am sad to share with you the news of Martha Flowers’s passing. Ms. Flowers led an amazing career as a soprano and educator. She was the Department of Music’s first Black faculty, teaching voice and African American music starting in 1973. I am very fortunate to have met Ms. Flowers and to have learned from her about her career and many contributions to the fields of voice and opera. She was an amazing person full of life and kindness. [Below], I am sharing a photo of one of my fondest memories with Ms. Flowers shared with our colleagues LaToya Lain and Marc Callahan.”

LaToya Lain, Martha Flowers, David Garcia, and Marc Callahan at lunch together in September 2020.
L to R: Assistant Professor LaToya Lain, Martha Flowers, Professor David Garcia, Assistant Professor Marc Callahan at lunch together at Bar Taco in Chapel Hill, September 5, 2020. Photo courtesy of David Garcia.

In November 2020, Dr. Garcia, along with Assistant Professors Dr. LaToya Lain and Dr. Marc Callahan, wrote a feature on Ms. Flowers for the Do the Work Wednesdays series titled, “Martha Flowers: Black Music Faculty Trailblazer.” They spoke of Ms. Flowers’s incredible strength as the department’s first black faculty member, her prowess and renown as a performer, and how beloved she was by her students.

“Martha Flowers joined the faculty in the Department of Music in 1973. She taught courses in voice, diction, and Afro-American music as well as putting on faculty recitals in Hill Hall Auditorium (now Moeser Auditorium). And she inspired her students, especially Black music students. In 1973 Sadie Copland, staff writer for UNC Black Student Movement’s Black Ink, wrote a feature on Flowers titled ‘UNC Welcomes Singer’ in which she described Flowers’s role as Bess in the famous 1955–1956 production of Porgy and Bess. She also explained the reason why Flowers decided to come to Carolina, saying ‘Since there were no Black music instructors here, but there were Black students in the music program, she decided UNC was where she could best fulfill this need.’”

October 1973 photo of Martha Flowers from Black Ink newspaper. Caption reads, "'Bess' during a recent concert in Hill Hall. A three-minute standing ovation concluded her performance.
Martha Flowers, 1973. Black Ink: Black Student Movement, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Online resource (Oct. 1, 1973).

Dr. Callahan, Dr. Garcia, and Dr. Lain spent numerous lunches and afternoons with Ms. Flowers listening to the stories of her life and career and learning from her. It was time that all of them cherish greatly. 

“The opportunity to share time and space with the consummate teaching-artist, Martha Flowers, is one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I’m so grateful to her for opening her heart and allowing us to share her fascinating life story,” Dr. Lain remarked. “Through her career as an international opera singer and music professor at UNC, she poured into the lives of her students with the same grace, dignity, and resiliency as she once did for her opera audiences worldwide.”

The trio has been so inspired by the legacy of Ms. Flowers, that during their many meetings (and ever since) they worked to help her leave her mark even more permanently. Dr. Garcia helped Ms. Flowers edit her autobiography, they filmed a documentary on her life and career, and they hope to establish the Martha Flowers Opera Institute at UNC one day. The institute, which is still in the fundraising phase, aims to train aspiring and early career opera singers, conductors, and stage directors with a commitment to forming a supportive environment for diversity in arts education and operatic training.

Dr. Callahan noted, “Ms. Flowers was an artist of unmatched quality, a pioneer, and breaker of glass ceilings. She was one of the most spirited people I have ever met, and I am honoured to have shared a brief moment with her on this earth.”

The documentary they filmed about Ms. Flowers predominantly features an interview between her and Dr. Lain. A small snippet was shown at her memorial service and can be viewed below.

“I pray that she knew and felt how much we appreciated her life and her contributions to this artform and to our department,” reflected Dr. Lain. “I will always honor her life and her legacy as it is on her shoulders that I stand.”

Read Ms. Flowers’s full obituary here.

by Catherine Zachary, ’10

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