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Notable Virginia Women -  Undine Smith (1904–1989)


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Born on 25 August 1904 in Jarratt, Virginia, Undine Smith (1904–1989) was the youngest child of James William Smith and Hardie Turnbull Smith. The family moved to Petersburg in 1908, and at age seven, Undine began piano lessons with Lillian Allen Darden. In 1924 she received the first scholarship from the Juilliard Graduate School to study music at Fisk University. She graduated cum laude in 1926 and became supervisor of music in the Goldsboro, North Carolina, public schools. Smith began teaching at Virginia State College (later Virginia State University) in 1927, where she remained on the faculty until her retirement in 1972. Between 1929 and 1931 Smith commuted to New York to study for her Master of Arts degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She married Dr. James Arthur Moore in 1938 and, on 4 January 1941, gave birth to their daughter, Mary Hardie. Undine Smith Moore served as visiting professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and at the College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minnesota, and was adjunct professor at Virginia Union University in the 1970s. She received numerous awards, including the National Association of Negro Musicians Distinguished Achievement Award in 1975 and the Virginia Governor’s Award in the Arts in 1985. In 1977 Moore was named music laureate of Virginia. Undine Smith Moore died on 6 February 1989 in Petersburg.

Often referred to as the “Dean of Black Women Composers,” Moore began composing while at Fisk University. Although she composed works for piano and for other instrumental groups, Moore is best known for her choral works, including Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, based on the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Moore drew from African American sources for her compositions. In her keynote address to the First National Congress on Women in Music (1981), Moore noted that she considered herself “a teacher who composes, rather than a composer who teaches.” Moore credited her family and the Petersburg community for nurturing her love of music. She said, “To live in a society where one’s favorite art is highly regarded, highly valued, where one’s progress is a source of pride to the family and the entire community is enough to create in a child a fine sense of self-worth and a high level of aspiration.” She also credited the women in her community for using their power to establish a rich musical and strong cultural life in Petersburg.