African American Studies
Interviewee: Bertha Hope
Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison
Summarized by Alice Stryker
Bertha grew up in Los Angeles California to parents who had a background in music and the music business. Her parents met when her father casted her mother as a dancer for the production “Showboat.” While her older sisters were young, they and her mother traveled around with her father, who was on a concert tour. The family settled in Los Angeles and her father’s connections to the music industry grew.
She got the majority of her music training in public schools. She was very talented and learned many instruments. She discusses the presences of sexism in the music world at the time, saying that women would mostly play violins, violas, clarinets, and other “feminine” instruments. Even though she learned to play many instruments, the piano was her favorite. She did not have many role models in the classical music world or the jazz world. Her parents encouraged her dreams to enter show business, but they still stressed traditional academics and the importance of a college degree.
She met her current husband, Elmo Holk, in L.A at a Club. She really enjoyed his music and worked up the nerve to talk to him. The two became friends and married in 1960. They moved to New York in 1961. Bertha’s involvement as a pianist in a traveling dance troop is what prompted the move. The moved to Leihman place with Elmo’s West Indian family. She was able to work for a phone company and Elmo worked on a record, which featured a few duets done by the pair.
She continued to play and was the pianist for Jimmy Caster. She played with them for quite awhile, until she got involved with drugs. She says that using was common, not only amongst musicians, but in the community in general as well. She lost her children to Elmo and his family and believes she is still trying to recover from this experience. Drugs also dictates their social life.
Around this time, she moved to Webster Avenue. At this time, Elmo was dealing to support his own addiction as well as pay for rent. Elmo died in 1967 from a heart attack, not a drug overdose. At this time, she moved to Boston Road in the Bronx and quit drugs cold turkey. She ran a store with her cousin called the African Den. This was during the Black Power movement, and because of the African style clothes and accessories the store carried it was very popular. At this time, she had given up on the piano and music. The store would often help with fundraisers put on by the Black Panthers.
After the store closed, she moved to the Lower East Side. During this time, she got involved with teaching and started to play again. During this time, she started fighting to get her children back, which was unsuccessful. Later, she and her daughter wrote a play, as part of the healing process.
She believes that moving away from Los Angeles at the time she did lead to her fall into drug use. She is not sure if it was the Bronx, specifically, but knows that the move profoundly affected her.
Hope, Bertha. February 17, 2004. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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