In honor of Black History Month, we're showcasing Laurel's most influential men and women who have used their talents and gifts to pave the way for generations. One of the most notable African-American women to use her voice to change the world happens to be born and raised in Laurel.
Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1927 and continues to be the first African-American soprano opera singer to receive international acclaim. Leontyne is a Grammy award-winning performer and a world-renowned opera singer that has performed at the most notable opera houses like the Royal Opera House, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and La Scala.
Her vocal performances mesmerized the world and inspired music lovers and musicians alike to follow her career from a young age. She attributed her inspiration to a school field trip when she was nine years old to hear Marian Anderson sing a recital in Jackson. Marian's performance had an extraordinary effect on Leontyne and inspired her to pursue a musical career. She began performing all through her time at Oak Park Vocational School and even participated as a cheerleader and graduated as salutatorian.
At the time, Mississippi was highly segregated, and Price was limited in her vocational paths. Her only career path in music could have been as a teacher, so she attended Central State University in Ohio after her graduation. Soon she would change her major to voice in her third year.
She would attend Julliard in the fall of 1948 and would live in Harlem YWCA. Her focus would lean to opera, and she enrolled in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center in 1951.
She would emerge as an operatic A-lister throughout her career, performing at the world's most renowned opera houses and even asked to sing at important national occasions. One experience to note was when President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing at the White House for the visit of Pope John Paul II and at the state dinner. She sang at President Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration and his state funeral. She also sang for Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton.
Her voice and ability to command an audience made her name rise to infamy, and she achieved a reputation that no other African-American opera singer ever had.
Her hometown of Laurel honors her talent and musical contribution to the world with the Leontyne Price Musical Park on Central Avenue in Downtown Laurel. The park includes an interactive experience with a Weenotes Ensemble, a small Babel drum, and a musical bench created by local children at Central Creativity.