Famous for music directing the original productions of the respective George Gershwin and Virgil Thomson operas Porgy and Bess (1935) and Four Saints in Three Acts (1933), she is also remembered as America's first internationally-acclaimed female choir conductor of African descent.
After attending both Western University (in Kansas) and Langston University (in Oklahoma), she was appointed choral director at Maryland's Morgan State College.
Also a composer, she was responsible for a 1931 choral work titled The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals, as well as for a 1927 collection of her choral arrangements of traditional spirituals. While in New York, she performed in a Eugene Ormandy-conducted music program at the Capitol Theatre.
Born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, she later lived and worked in New York, New York and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
She served as choral director for the 1929, King Vidor-directed MGM feature Hallelujah!