In Memoriam

Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006)

The Nicholas Brothers
Harold on the left and Fayard on the right

Fayard Nicholas, who with his younger brother Harold performed some of the most skillful dance numbers ever seen in American film or on the stage, died from pneumonia late last month at his home in Los Angeles. He was 91 years old.

Born to parents who were Vaudeville musicians, the Nicholas Brothers learned to tap-dance at an early age. By the time Fayard was 18, he and his brother, who was then 11 years old, were the featured act at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Howard died in 2000.

After their discovery at the Cotton Club by Samuel Goldwyn in 1934, the Nicholas Brothers went to Hollywood and appeared in many feature films. They reached their zenith in the staircase routine for the film Stormy Weather. Fred Astaire called that Jumpin’ Jive routine the greatest musical number he had ever seen.

Obedient to the racial stereotypes of the time, the filmed scenes in which the Nicholas Brothers performed were designed so that they could be edited out without disrupting the flow of the film when the moving picture was shown to southern audiences. It was not until their last movie together in 1948, The Pirate with Gene Kelly, were the Nicholas Brothers permitted to dance onscreen with white actors.

Fayard Nicholas continued to dance until this past November when he suffered a stroke.

Roland T. Smoot (1927-2006)

Roland T. Smoot, the first black faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, died late last month while on the way to the hospital to be fitted with a defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat. Professor Smoot, who had a date to play tennis later that day, was 78 years old.

Smoot was a native of Washington, D.C. His father was a postal worker and his mother was a household maid. Smoot was a 1944 graduate of Dunbar High School. After serving in the Army at the end of World War II, Smoot returned to Washington and used funds from the GI Bill to complete a bachelor’s degree and medical training at Howard University.

Early in his career, Dr. Smoot worked in hospitals in North Carolina and Alabama. In 1963 he was named chief of medicine at Provident Hospital in Baltimore. Three years later he became the first black physician to be granted admitting privileges at Johns Hopkins’ medical center. Smoot was named to the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1974 and served as assistant dean of student affairs from 1978 to 2004.

After leaving the dean’s office Smoot remained active in laboratory research on breast cancer. Smoot had four sons. One son, Duane T. Smoot, is chair of the department of medicine at Howard University.

Ida Mae Holland (1944-2006)

Ida Mae Holland, playwright, author, civil rights activist, and university professor, died late last month at a nursing home in Los Angeles. Holland suffered from ataxia, a genetic disorder that degenerates brain functions which control muscular movements. She was 61 years old.

Holland was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, to an unwed mother who picked cotton for a living and worked as a domestic servant for a white family. At age 11 Young Ida Mae was raped by a white man who owned the home where her mother worked.

As a teenager, Holland became a street-walking prostitute. She charged black men $5 and white men $10. One day she ventured into the offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and instantly became interested in its cause. She became a foot soldier in the civil rights movement and was arrested 13 times for participating in civil rights protests.

One day a bomb was thrown into her house. Her mother was trapped inside and died. Holland was burdened with guilt and decided to leave the South. She moved north and in 1965 she enrolled at the University of Minnesota. She married and began to write. Her play, From the Mississippi Delta, inspired by her civil rights work in the South, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

It took 13 years for Holland to win her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1985 she earned a doctorate in American studies from the same institution. Holland then joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo and continued to teach until 2003 when her ataxia affliction made it difficult for her to speak clearly.

Copyright © 2006. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. All rights reserved.