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Zelia N. Breaux
*Zelia N. Breaux was born on this date in 1880. She was a Black music instructor and musician who played the trumpet, violin, and piano.
Born Zelia N. Page in Jefferson City, Missouri, she was the daughter of Inman Edward and Zelia Ball Page. She earned a bachelor's degree in music from the Lincoln Institute, where her father served as principal. When her father accepted the presidency of the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) on 1 May 1898, he offered her a job as a music teacher, and she relocated to Oklahoma Territory.
Page established the school's music department and taught piano and instrumental music. In 1902, she organized the first orchestra at Langston, which began with seven musicians and two years later had grown to 23 students. She established the choral society, a glee club, and the school band, requiring students to study classical music. On December 6, 1905, she married Armogen Breaux. The couple had one son, Inman A. Breaux, who was a Professor of Education, an Administrative Dean, and a Dean of Student Affairs at Langston University.
In 1918, Breaux left Langston and accepted the position as Supervisor of Music for the segregated Black schools in Oklahoma City. She established a music teacher in each grade school in the district, organized the Oklahoma City Community Band, and headed the music department at Douglass High School. While at Douglass, she organized a twenty-four-voice chorus, an eighteen-piece symphony orchestra, and several glee clubs. It was unusual for Black schools to offer music training beyond voice instruction at this time. Still, Breaux believed that the discipline and instruction of classical music served as a catalyst for elevating and mastering life. Breaux believed in her independence.
She lived in Oklahoma City, taught, and managed the Aldridge Theater and rental properties, commuting to Langston, where her husband lived. She hired a live-in cook to prepare her meals. She was a talented musician and played the trumpet, violin, and piano. Breaux discouraged her students from playing jazz, instructing them in classical music and music theory. Still, she owned the only Black theater in Oklahoma City and often hired blues and jazz musicians to play at her venue. Count Basie, Gonzelle White, and King Oliver's bands played there, as well as Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith.
The Douglass High School band, which she organized in 1923 with twenty-five participants, was renowned throughout the United States. The students, who were both junior and senior high musicians, became minor celebrities. Her students included Charlie Christian, Jimmy Rushing, and trumpet player-turned-writer Ralph Ellison. In 1932 Breaux organized the May Day celebrations, during which the Douglass band played. In 1933 the band led the Century of Progress Parade at the Chicago World's Fair and performed for a national radio broadcast there. The Douglass band performed at the Texas Centennial Celebration in Dallas in 1936 and 1937 and participated in the Black State Band Festival, which Breaux created, with seven other bands.
Breaux earned a master's degree in music education from Northwestern University in 1939. Her thesis was entitled, The development of instrumental music in Negro secondary schools and colleges. Breaux was appointed the first female President of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers. She retired in 1948 from Douglass High School. She also organized the first music department at Langston University in Oklahoma and the school's first orchestra. Zelia Breaux died in Guthrie, Oklahoma, on October 31, 1956.
In 1977, she was posthumously inducted into the YWCA Hall of Fame, and in 1983, Breaux was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame. In 1991 she was entered into the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame. The Oklahoma City/County Historical Society made a posthumous presentation of its Pathmaker Award to Zelia Breaux at its luncheon on September 9, 2017.
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