Mattiwilda Dobbs (b. 1925)
Named for her maternal grandmother, Mattie Wilda Sykes, Mattiwilda Dobbs was born on July 11, 1925. She was the fifth of six daughters born to Irene Ophelia Thompson and John Wesley Dobbs, who were leaders in the African American community of Atlanta's Auburn Avenue area. Like her sisters, she began piano lessons at the age of seven, sang in community and church choirs, and attended Spelman College, where she began to study voice. Naturally shy, she was so nervous at her first solo appearances that she had to lean on the piano for support, but her unusual talent and quality of voice persuaded her father to fund further studies in New York. She studied with Lotte Leonard and won a Marian Anderson Award, among other scholarships, and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, which enabled her to study in Europe.
Although she remained close to her family and performed in Atlanta several times, personal as well as professional considerations prevented Dobbs from making the city her home. She lived in Spain with her first husband, Luis Rodriguez, who died of a liver ailment in June 1954, fourteen months after their wedding. She then married Bengt Janzon, a Swedish newspaperman, just before Christmas 1957. Her family attended the wedding, but because of the stir an interracial marriage would have caused in the segregated South, the ceremony was held in New York, and the new couple made their home in Sweden. Bengt Janzon did not visit Atlanta until 1967. (He died in 1997).
Following the example
In 1974, after retiring from the stage, Dobbs began a teaching career at the University of Texas, where she was the first African American artist on the faculty. She spent the 1974-75 school year as artist-in-residence at Spelman College, giving recitals and teaching master classes. In 1979 Spelman awarded honorary doctorates to both Dobbs and Marian Anderson.
Dobbs continued her teaching career as professor of voice at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. She served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and on the National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel. Dobbs continued to give recitals until as late as 1990 before retiring to Arlington, Virginia, where she currently resides.
Gary M. Pomerantz, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn : The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta (New York: Scribner, 1996).
Diane Trap, University of Georgia Libraries
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.