My great aunt Juanita Marjory Jackson, was a tremendous influence on my life.  She is one of the five women I write about in They Raised Me Up.  Born  in 1904, she was a writer, musician, social activist and all-round outrageous person.  To fully get a sense of what she was like, you need to read my book!  But here’s a small excerpt where she talks about her time at the Milan Conservatory.


Aunt Marj took my hand in hers and squeezed it. On each of her fingers, nut brown and twisted by rheumatism, rings made from glass diamonds glittered softly in the light. now that i finally had her attention, I poured out my heart to aunt Marj in a jumble of emotion. i told her about how desperately I wanted to work as a jazz pianist, and about how difficult it was to be a black person in the classical music world.

When I’d finished, Aunt Marj chuckled softly. “i know just how you feel, Carolyn. When i was at the Milan Conservatory i ran into quite a bit of that.”

After graduating from high school three years early, Aunt Marj had begged her father, a Methodist minister with a large black congregation in the south side of Chicago, to let her study music in Europe. J. W. Robinson, a dramatic personality in his own right, believed in giving his youngest daughter the best of everything. In the summer of 1919, he dropped aunt Marj off at the Milan Conservatory in Italy on his way to a bible convention in the Middle East. For the next two years, the precocious fifteen-year-old lived a Spartan existence dedicated solely to music. Known today as the Conservatorio di Giuseppe Verdi, the Milan Conservatory has trained many of italy’s best-known opera composers. Verdi himself studied there, as did Giacomo Puccini, the composer of La Bohème, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly. but when Aunt Marj spoke of her time there, she spoke of only two things—the beatings administered to students who came to their lessons unprepared and the isolation she’d felt as the only black person at the school.

“Wherever I went, people would follow me around asking questions and so forth.” she shook her head ruefully. “I always attracted a lot of attention because at that time I had very long hair and I wore it in two braids down my back and of course I was black. They were not unkind, mind you. They just didn’t know any better.”


After two years in Europe, my great-aunt returned to New York.  In the early 1930s she moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Broolyn and began teaching music, French, German and Italian to the neighborhood children.  In 1952, she formally opened the J. Marjory Jackson School of Music and Dance, which she ran for the next fifty years. 


But Aunt Marj was not just a talented musician.  She was an outspoken community activist who fought to get Brooklyn’s first-ever African American elected to the New York State Legislature.  You can learn more about this remarkable woman in my book They Raised Me Up: A Black Single Mother and the Women Who Inspired Her.