Celebrating Hortense Parker

A photo of Hortense Parker and several classmates. Parker is looking off to the right of the camera.

Hortense Parker, standing, second from right. Photo courtesy of MHC Archives and Special Collections

2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the Hortense Parker Celebration on campus. Hortense Parker, class of 1883, is the first known student of color to graduate from Mount Holyoke. She was born in 1859 to Miranda Boulden Parker and John Parker, a noted abolitionist and inventor — one of the only African Americans to obtain a U.S. patent in the 19th century. John Parker aided hundreds of enslaved people to escape by the Underground Railroad after buying his own freedom. The Parkers valued education and encouraged their six children to do the same. After starting college close to home in Ohio, Parker transferred — with her family’s support — to Mount Holyoke, arriving on campus in 1878. She lived on campus in the Seminary building — one of 250 students. As a talented pianist, Parker was often asked to perform for peers and faculty members at the College. A classmate reportedly wrote, “In all these years I have never heard ‘Home Sweet Home’ played with such beauty and pathos as Hortense played it.” 

When she graduated from Mount Holyoke a few years later as valedictorian of her class, Parker became the first African American to graduate from a Seven Sisters college. Immediately after graduating she taught in schools in Indiana and New York. From 1906 to 1913, she was a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1913 she married James Marcus Gilliam, and the couple moved to St. Louis, where she continued to teach, and remained until her death in December 1938. In 1997 Hortense Parker’s childhood home in Ripley, Ohio, was designated a National Historic Landmark and is now a museum about John Parker’s life and the abolitionist movement.

In 2009 students Ahyoung An ’09 and Camila Curtis-Contreras ’09 established a day of campuswide celebration to honor and acknowledge Hortense Parker and to celebrate other African American alums. They were inspired by Smith College’s Otelia Cromwell Day, which celebrates the first known woman of color to graduate from Smith and was first held in 1989.  

In the past decade Mount Holyoke’s Hortense Parker Celebration has evolved into an annual event with a theme. Since 2011 the celebration has also included a student essay contest with prizes ranging from $200 to $500 and the opportunity to speak at the event. The day is planned by the Students of Color Committee and the Division of Student Life and features visiting speakers, panels and talks. 

—By Althea Finch-Brand ’21

This article appeared as “A Decade of Celebration” in the fall 2019 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

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