June 12, 2020

Black Beginnings at the Conservatory

When Tomoko started teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there was only one other non-Caucasian faculty member: a Black woman Beulah Forbes-Woodard, whose specialty was jazz music.

Born in Ellensburg (in central Washington state), Beulah Forbes grew up in a musical family. Her father played ragtime music for silent films, and all of Beulah’s siblings worked in music or the theater.

Beulah studied classical music at the Conservatory, and was their first African American graduate. Upon her graduation, Beulah was asked to join the Conservatory as a teacher, thus becoming the Conservatory’s first Black faculty member. When she retired from the Conservatory after teaching there for almost fifty years, the Conservatory awarded her a doctorate of music. She also taught at the University of San Francisco and Lone Mountain College.

An accomplished pianist, she played professionally with well known musicians, headlining performances in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Beulah also performed the first jazz concert at the Conservatory, which led to jazz being incorporated into the curriculum.

A friend recalled Beulah saying: “Music is my passion, teaching is my heart, and performing is my thrill.” That sentiment could well be shared by Tomoko.