CRAWFORD, ROBERTA DODD
African-American opera star,
Courtesy East Texas State University Archives,
CRAWFORD, ROBERTA DODD (1895–1954). Roberta Dodd Crawford, black lyric soprano, also known as Princess Kojo Tovalou-Houenou, was born in 1895 in the black Tank Town section of Bonham, Texas, the oldest daughter among eight children born to Joe and Emma (Dunlap) Dodd. As a child she attended Washington School and later worked as a waitress at Curtis Boarding House. Her singing talent brought her to the attention of several Bonham women who arranged for her to perform at the Alexander Hotel and at several Bonham churches. With help from benefactors, she attended Wiley College at Marshall for two years, then entered Fisk University, where she studied with Roland Hayes. About 1920 she entered the Chicago Musical College (now Roosevelt University), where for the next six years she studied with Madame Herman Devries, a noted voice coach. While in Chicago Roberta Dodd married Capt. William B. Crawford of the Eighth Illinois Regiment.
On April 15, 1926, she debuted at Kimball Hall and was accompanied by pianist Cleo Dickerson Holloway. Her performance received favorable reviews from the Chicago Daily Tribune, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender. She sang art songs and arias in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English, as well as a Negro spiritual; the inclusion of the latter followed the practice of her mentor Hayes and other African-American recital singers of that era. Her program included works by Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Schumann, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Gounod, and Puccini. She also sang an aria from the opera L'Africaine by Meyerbeer and the arietta waltz from Mireille, a Gounod opera. Four sponsors and seventy-four society patrons supported her Kimball Hall debut.
In a review of another 1926 performance by Crawford, the Defender's Maude Roberts George described a program of fifteen songs in English, Spanish, French, and German. Classical singers rarely included Spanish-language songs in their repertory at the time, and George reported that Crawford learned the language from a Spanish operatic singer living "on the Arizona border." Her German-language program included selections from Bach, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. The recital also included a song by Maj. N. Clark Smith, an African-American composer.
In the months before Crawford's Kimball Hall debut, Roland Hayes battled Jim Crow laws before his own concert appearances in Atlanta and Baltimore by refusing to go on stage unless theater managers ceased the practice of refusing blacks access to privileged seats in the house. In 1926 Crawford performed in cities outside of Chicago, including Rockford, Illinois; Indianapolis, before the National Association of Negro Musicians; and St. Paul. On December 11 she embarked on a pre-Christmas tour of cities in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, along with accompanist Hortense Hall.
In 1928 she performed at the First United Methodist Church in Bonham, where her program combined Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English art songs and operatic arias with Negro spirituals and at least one "primitive African melody." Later she traveled to France to become a student of Blanche Marchesi in Paris. In 1931 she made her French debut by singing selections in five languages at the Salle Gaveau. Now widowed, she met Kojo Marc Tovalou-Houenou (or Marc Tovalou Quenum), a doctor and lawyer and Pan-African activist from Porto Novo, the capital of Dahomey in French West Africa (now Benin). Some sources also refer to him as a prince. They married in 1932 in Paris's Sixth Arrondissement; he died about 1938. After his death, his widow returned to Paris. She was never able to secure funds from her African property.
During World War II she joined the Red Cross and sang in churches and canteens for American soldiers. From 1943 until 1945 she worked part-time in the National Library of Paris. She also gave voice lessons and sang professionally. During this time she was known in Paris as Princess Tovalou-Houenou. Suffering from anemia, she relied on friends for financial help and credited a Fort Worth physician with saving her life by getting surplus food coupons for her. She reportedly spent time in a concentration camp during the German occupation of France, but was released. In 1948 she returned to Bonham, but her poor physical and emotional health left her unwilling to perform again. She moved to Dallas a few years later to seek medical care.
Roberta Crawford performed in numerous American and European cities and at Spellman and Tuskegee universities. She had no children. She died after suffering a stroke on June 14, 1954, in Dallas and was buried in Gates Hill Cemetery in Bonham.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Employment records from Direction de l'Administration et du Personnel, Mission des archives. Bonham Daily Favorite, June 15, 1954, November 25, 1973. Chicago Daily News, April 16, 1926; Chicago Daily Tribune, April 16, 1926. Chicago Defender, January 16, 23, February 6, March 13, 20, 27, April 3, 10, May 1, July 3, October 9, 16, December 11, 1926. Fannin County Folks and Facts (Dallas: Taylor, 1977). Juanita C. Spencer, Bonham-Town of Bailey Inglish (Wolfe City, Texas: Henington, 1977). Pat Stephens, ed., F orgotten Dignity: The Black Community of Bonham...1880–1930 (Bonham, Texas: Progressive Citizens, 1984). Texas Department of Health, Certificate of Death.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Nancy Baker Jones and Cynthia Greenwood, "CRAWFORD, ROBERTA DODD," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcr69), accessed December 07, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.