With dreams of becoming a fashion designer, Mattiwilda Dobbs attended Spellman College in the early 1940s. Her instructors encouraged young Mattiwilda to pursue singing and she graduated in 1946 with a degree in music.
She began performing in Europe, making her operatic debut in Holland in Stravinsky’s The Nightingale. In 1953, at the request of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Mattiwilda performed as “Elvira” in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at La Scala in Milan. This marked the first time a black artist sang in the Italian opera house.
She returned to the United States, taking the role of “Gilda” in Rigoletto, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Mattiwilda was the first African American singer to perform in a romantic role at the Met. Although the celebrated Marian Anderson previously sang at The Met, Mattiwilda was the first African-American offered a long-term contract.
Mattiwilda toured the country in various roles to much acclaim. Following the lead of other African-American of the day, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. Although this decision hurt her career, she stood by her convictions. When the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium was desegregated in 1961, Mattiwilda was the first person to sing to an integrated audience in the city. Mattiwilda retired from the stage in 1974 to begin a teaching career at the University of Texas, where she was the very first African-American faculty member.
Pastor Martin Luther King Sr. wanted Mattiwilda to marry his son Martin Luther King Jr, but things just didn’t work out.
Mattiwilda was aunt to Atlanta’s first black Mayor, Maynard Jackson, and she sang at his 1978 inauguration.
Mattiwilda eventually made her permanent home in Atlanta. She passed away in December 2015 at the age of 90.