When she graduated as the valedictorian from Mount Holyoke College (then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) in 1883, Hortense Parker Gilliam became the school's first known alumna of color.
In 1926, Mount Holyoke became one of the Seven Sisters colleges, a consortium of then-women's colleges (Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Radcliffe, Vassar, and Wellesley) formed as a counterpart to the Ivy League, and Parker Gilliam became the first known student of color to have graduated from any Seven Sisters college.
Hortense Parker was born in 1859 in Ripley, OH to Miranda Boulden Parker and John P. Parker, a noted abolitionist, businessman and inventor. The Parkers were free people of color who valued education and encouraged their children to do the same. All the Parker children attended college. Hortense and her two sisters studied music and became music teachers.
After starting college close to home in Ohio, Hortense Parker transferred to Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, MA, arriving on campus in 1878. The school did not know ahead of time that they had admitted a woman of color and, notably, allowed Parker to live on campus in the Seminary building. (At the time, colleges that admitted students of color typically required them to live off campus.)
As a talented pianist, Hortense Parker was often asked to perform for peers and faculty members at the College. Her classmates called her “a quiet ladylike girl, noted especially for her musical ability.” One reportedly stated, “In all these years I have never heard ‘Home Sweet Home’ played with such beauty and pathos as Hortense played it.”
After graduation, Parker taught in schools in Indiana and New York. In 1906, she became a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Kansas City, MO. Hortense married Cornell University alumnus James Marcus Gilliam in 1913. The couple moved to St. Louis, where her brother Horatio was living.
In St. Louis, James worked as a school principal, while Hortense continued to teach music and kindergarten. She passed away in 1938.
Recently restored, Hortense Parker Gilliam's childhood home in Ripley is on the National Register of Historic Places. The John P. Parker House is now a small museum devoted to sharing the story of her father’s life and the abolitionist movement.
In 2009, students Ahyoung An and Camila Curtis-Contreras established a day of campus-wide celebration at Mount Holyoke College to honor and acknowledge Hortense Parker Gilliam and to celebrate alumni of color.