Tuesday, March 1, 2011

DemocratAndChronicle.com on Armenta Hummings: 'Local pianist recalls meeting Martin Luther King'

[ABOVE: Armenta Adams Hummings, right, with her mother, Estella, and brother, Elwyn. / Provided photo BELOW: Armenta Hummings shows a young student how to hold a violin bow during music lessons at the Arnett Blvd YMCA in 1995. / ANNETTE LEIN staff photographer file photo]

Democrat and Chronicle
Stuart Low
February 28, 2011
“When pianist Armenta Adams Hummings was 15, her mother invited two music lovers to their Boston home: Martin Luther King Jr. and his girlfriend, Coretta Scott. In 1952, Scott was an up-and-coming singer at New England Conservatory, where Hummings took piano lessons. King was a theology student at Boston University and already a charismatic civil rights crusader. 'We knew that King was a rising star and courting Coretta,' says Hummings, 74. 'I believe she had aspirations to be an opera singer, and he loved opera. We invited them to our house to give them our blessing and watch this remarkable union take place.'

“But she had a blunt question lined up for King. Even as a 15-year-old, she was fearlessly outspoken — a habit she kept later as a teacher for Rochester's Eastman School of Music. 'Everyone was nervous that he planned to go back south for his work, because they foresaw an immediate lynching,' she says. 'I asked him: “Why are you going back?” He told me: “Things have to be changed; I'm going back to change them.” I think he knew he was going to die — everyone knew it.'

“The outspoken teen went on to become an acclaimed concert pianist and a trailblazer in teaching minority students. In 1994, the Eastman School appointed her its distinguished community mentor. For the next 15 years, she taught music to some of Rochester's most disadvantaged children in churches, YMCAs and community centers. She was an imposing figure, often wearing a turban and 'peacock-colored' African-style dresses that she made herself. She approached pupils with humor and tough love, speaking their street lingo but refusing to coddle them. Her gospel was self-empowerment — which she learned not only from King but from her father, a factory worker and self-appointed preacher with the Christian Missionary Alliance.

"'My father built a house in Cleveland, brick by brick,' she says. 'No one did it for him. I never thought anything could happen unless I did it myself.' In that spirit, she founded in 1993 the Gateways Music Festival — a classical music showcase for African-American musicians. This biennial event will next be held Aug. 10-14 in Rochester. She retired from the festival and the Eastman School in 2009 and moved back to her family's home in Winston-Salem, N.C. But she kept concertizing and celebrated her 74th birthday by climbing Stone Mountain near Atlanta.

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