Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent, pianist and educator, was born on May 19, 1904, in Houston, Texas. The daughter of two local icons, community activist and physician Jennie Belle (Murphy) Covington and Benjamin Jesse Covington, respectively, Ernestine began taking piano lessons at the age of four and inherited her parents’ musical traits. Benjamin Jesse Covington played several instruments and even performed with a quartet, probably in college; Jennie Covington began taking piano lessons while pregnant with Ernestine. In 1908 or 1909 the preschooler began taking piano lessons from a neighbor, Madame Corilla Rochon, a well-respected musician from Louisiana, who trained dozens of schoolchildren in Houston. Later as a preteen in 1915, Ernestine Covington studied the violin and trained under a local railway employee and New Orleans native, Will Nickerson, the brother of Howard University music professor Camille Nickerson. Ernestine eventually performed with her mother in the Ladies Symphony Orchestra, circa 1915, established by Jennie Covington, Rochon, and a German-American school teacher. The orchestra played free of charge at many local events in and around Houston for many years. A member of Bethel Baptist Church in Houston, the young pianist played for the church’s Sunday school and earned two dollars weekly for her services.
At her father’s urging as well as the recommendation of Willie Nickerson, the gifted teen tried out for Oberlin College. She was accepted at the age of fourteen. The Covingtons, nervous about their adolescent daughter’s need for superior professional training, decided to delay her departure from Texas. The Houston Colored High School valedictorian entered Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the fall of 1920 at the age of sixteen. She described Oberlin as “a fine school” and “simply beautiful to be there.” At Oberlin, where she majored in piano and minored in violin, Ernestine Jessie Covington studied music theory, musicianship, music appreciation, and musicology. Her graduation recital, which was performed with the conservatory orchestra, was Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, by Camille Saint-Saëns. After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1924, she applied for a one-year $1,000 fellowship with the Julliard Musical Foundation. She won four back-to-back fellowships from the Julliard foundation (later the Julliard Graduate School) and worked with pianist, music teacher, and critic Olga Samaroff (formally Lucy Hickenlooper of San Antonio) and Scottish-American pianist and composer James Friskin.
With a grant from the Rosenwald Fund, the musician returned to Oberlin in 1932 to continue her graduate studies and earned the master’s degree in piano the following year in 1934. She wrote her thesis on Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt and later performed as her recital Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. The professional pianist performed regularly, becoming one of the most sought-after concert pianists on black college campuses in the 1920s and 1930s. While a Julliard fellow in New York from 1924 to 1928, she performed public concerts as a soloist and accompanist, especially for radio station WEAF. Reviews called her technique “magnificent” and tone “lovely.” As a teacher and mentor, she shared her musical talent. She taught music for a number of years, first in Houston at a music school she launched, and later at Bishop College in Marshall, where she served as department chair for the department of piano. Many of her students went on to have successful careers in teaching.
The pianist also had a family. Ernestine Jessie Covington met her husband, businessman Albert Walter Dent, in the late 1920s while teaching at Bishop. The couple married in 1931. Their first son, future writer and civil-rights activist Thomas Covington Dent, was born in 1932. She retired from the concert circuit in 1936 at the age of thirty-two, after the birth of her second son, Benjamin Albert Dent. Their last son, Walter Jesse Dent, was born in 1939.
The Dents moved to New Orleans in 1932 after Albert Dent was named hospital administrator of Flint-Goodridge Hospital, the only medical facility for the city’s African-American residents. Then in 1940 Dillard University named Dent its third president, a position he held for twenty-nine years; he retired in 1969. In the meantime, E. Jessie Covington Dent actively did volunteer work and still occasionally performed for charities. In 1956, while raising funds for her husband’s university, she inspired the beginning of Ebony Fashion Fair, which has raised nearly $50 million in scholarships for students. While she retired from professional life before reaching the age of thirty-five, Dent made a lasting impression in the music world and within the African-American community, especially in Houston and her adopted hometown, New Orleans, where she was the inaugural recipient of the Amistad Research Center’s Fine Arts Award in 1985.
Both her husband and eldest son Tom preceded her in death. She died on March 10, 2001, at the age of ninety-six at Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans. She was buried in Lake Lawn Park Cemetery in New Orleans. The Jessie Covington Dent Memorial Scholarship in Music was established in her honor at Dillard University.