Lena Douglas was born in Kansas City in 1895. Douglas, who studied musicology, music composition, and music criticism at Western University, graduated as class valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in music. She became the first African-American woman to earn a master’s degree when she graduated from Chicago Musical College. She did her thesis composition on an orchestral piece called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.
She worked for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, as its music critic from 1917 to 1921. As she once wrote an article advocating for an organization for Black musicians, Douglas co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919.
Douglas later changed her name to Nora Holt when she married fourth husband, a Chicago hotel owner named George Holt. Her husband’s wealth and connections allowed opportunities for her to travel in the highest circles of white Chicago society and pay her music school tuition bills by performing at parties hosted by influential local industrialists. She also briefly published her own magazine, called Music and Poetry. When George Holt died in 1921, Nora inherited his fortune and no longer needed to perform solely for financial reasons. She soon moved to New York and became part of the Harlem Renaissance.
Holt later married her fifth husband, Joseph L. Ray, but their marriage ended in a bitter, highly publicized divorce. In 1945, she became the first African American member of the Music Critics Circle of New York. She died January 25, 1974, in Los Angeles.