Lois Towles Caesar, African-American concert pianist, music professor, and fashion model, was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, on April 4, 1912, to Thomas Elsworth Towles of Alabama and Anabella Clark of Arkansas. She was the fourth of eight children; her father worked as a house carpenter and farmer. Sometime between 1920 and 1922, the family moved to the Texas side of Texarkana.
After graduating magna cum laude from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1933, Towles went on to the University of Iowa where she attained a master of arts in music in just over seven months and a master of fine arts degree in nine months. The latter, awarded only to the highest proficiency in professional performance, was so rare that Towles was only the second person, the first African American, to attain the degree in the history of the university. Her thesis was titled “The History of Music Education at Wiley College” and was written under the name Lois Towles McNeely, indicating that she was married at the time. No other information is available about this first marriage, but it is likely that the union was short-lived. Following graduation from Iowa, she began studies toward a doctoral degree in music from the Julliard School of Music in New York where she received special training under the renowned concert pianist Sascha Gorodnitzki during most of 1948.
While pursuing higher education, Towles was appointed to an assistant professorship in the music department at Fisk University and served as artist-in-residence at Tennessee State University, both in Nashville. At a concert at Fisk, eminent pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, heard Towles play and was so impressed that he gave her a free fellowship to become one of his private students at his Hollywood, California, studio. In 1949 Towles took a leave of absence from her professorship to study under famed pianists Nadia Boulanger and Robert Casadesus at the American Conservatory at Fountainebleau near Paris, where she practiced between six and eight hours per day. She performed several recitals in Paris, including at Salle Gaveau, Opéra Comique, and before the members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and earned international fame and high praise from music critics. Following the recital she said, “For the first time in my life I have found a place where an artist can achieve a career without restrictions. I love France and the people of France.”
In late 1949 Towles performed throughout Paris as the pianist with the choir of Fisk University, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. During this tour, Lois’s sister, Dorothea Towles Church, came to visit and found a job modeling for the famous fashion designer Christian Dior, beginning her career as an internationally famous model. In early 1950, Lois Towles returned to the United States for a thirty-day concert tour to the country’s major cities and colleges, including her New York debut at The Town Hall, before resuming her professorship at Fisk.
During her time in Europe, Towles, like her sister Dorothea, became one of the first internationally-known black models in the world of high fashion and wore the clothes from famous Parisian designers, including Christian Dior and Robert Piguet and posed for several magazines. In the United States, Towles regularly hosted fashion shows and piano recitals (oftentimes combined) at universities throughout the country, particularly for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority of which she was a member.
In June 1956 Towles married Dr. Richard Cornelius Caesar, who was a graduate of Morehouse College, dentist, Tuskegee Airman, and renowned philanthropist and civic leader in San Francisco. The couple had no children. Following her marriage, Towles began volunteering and became a cultural activist, particularly in the San Francisco area. She helped establish several philanthropic organizations, including the Symphony-in-Schools program, which hosted summer and fall workshops for children and young adults interested in music, and LINKS, an art program for youths directed by black women. Towles was a member of the mayor’s Youth Services Task Force, Criminal Justice Council Executive Committee, and Juvenile Justice Commission (serving as the first woman in the latter body) and was named president of the city’s chapter of the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), an international children’s organization founded by actress Jane Russell. She was not only the first black to serve on the San Francisco Symphony’s Board of Governors and Symphony Foundation but was also the first black and woman to be elected as the foundation’s director in 1966 and 1969. For this work, the city and county board of supervisors honored Towles in 1969 for her civic leadership and “many contributions to enhance and promote appreciation of the cultural arts in the community.” In 1978 she was honored with the American Institute of Public Service’s Jefferson Award for Community Service. Towles also has the distinction of being the first artist to perform a full concert aboard the luxury liner SS United States and was featured on the December 10, 1953, cover of the African-American weekly Jet, under the heading “The Pianist Who Captured Paris.”
Lois Towles Caesar died in her sleep on March 18, 1983, at her home in San Francisco. She was survived by six siblings and her husband Dr. Caesar, who passed away on December 20, 2011. The location of her burial could not be ascertained. The Lois Towles Caesar Memorial Chapel Youth Guidance Center was dedicated in her honor in San Francisco in 1984. Towles became a “Founding Patron” of the Texarkana Symphony Orchestra, sponsored by the Junior League of Texarkana, by a donation from her sister Dorothea in memoriam.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
D. Antoinette Handy, Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras, Second Edition (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998). New York Times, March 25, 1983. St. Petersburg Times, February 12, 1949. Jessie Carney Smith, Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (Canton, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 2003). Dale Wright, “The Pianist Who,” Jet, December 10, 1953.
Activism and Social Reform
Music and Drama
Public Four-Year Colleges and Universities
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