Amplified is a first-person account of the anonymous heartbeats of APS. It is our way of saluting their accomplishments and amplifying their voice. Our first feature is pianist, organist and retired music educator Rowena Dennard.
Anyone who has attended a graduation commencement ceremony for any Atlanta Public Schools (APS) high school has had the pleasure of experiencing the melodic wonder that is Rowena Dennard. For many years, she has performed the musical processional and recessional marches for thousands of graduating seniors and has delighted attendees with a live arrangement of “Pomp and Circumstance” on the organ, an instrument many don’t hear played outside of traditional religious settings.
Her journey at APS began in March of 1974 in Fulton County at what was then North Fulton High School. In 1991, the school’s population merged into North Atlanta High School and is now the campus site of Atlanta International School.
Following the 2023 graduation season, APS had the pleasure of securing a firsthand account of her time as a musical educator, her roots in Alabama, what Atlanta was like some forty years ago and the impact she has made in the lives of some of her students who have succeeded her in academia and the music industry.
Years In Education
APS: 31 Years
Total: 36 Years
North Fulton High School
*Now North Atlanta High School
Roosevelt High School
Southside High School
*Now Maynard Jackson High School
Color: Kelly Green
Sorority: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. *Member
Food: I love chicken prepared all ways.
Atlanta Restaurants: The Beautiful and Yard House
Vacation: 2018 trip to Dubai
Pastimes: Reading and working on puzzles
How did the invitation to play for the graduation commencements occur?
At Maynard Jackson High School, when I taught, it was Southside High School. Well, my daughter was the band director at the time and the venue was not feasible for a band. She asked me if I would play for her school. And of course, I agreed. That was the start of it. Then the next year they asked me to play for the district. Then this year, so that’s how it started.
Paint a picture about how you became an organist.
I did not study the organ. I’ve been playing piano, my grandmother said, since I was three or four years old. But I did not experience the organ until I got to my beloved Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. That’s my alma mater. And I did not study organ until I was a sophomore in college.
I learned with my late teacher, Dr. J. Roland Braithwaite. I had not touched an organ ever in my life until then. He was awesome, and he shared all of his work from Boston University. I just loved it and I began to study it and practice and practice, and eventually he allowed me to become his assistant. We had compulsory chapel, and it was a requirement that we go to church. We had it on Wednesday and Sunday mornings, and he allowed me to be his assistant and play at Wednesday chapel to kind of hone my skills.
We had a big pipe organ in the chapel, so I was allowed to play that, and we had organs in our music building. It became a fascination with me. Piano was my major and I entered college through piano. But it was a requirement that we studied the organ and I wanted to study it because I heard other students play it, and I thought it was just awesome.
I didn’t resume organ until I got to Atlanta at another church. In Alabama, where I taught for three years and at another smaller district in Georgia, there was no pipe organ. But when I came to Atlanta, I affiliated with the church. In fact, I’m still a member of that church, West Hunter Street Baptist Church. I saw a pipe organ there, and I thought, ‘Wow! Yes. I like this!’
Did you know when you were in college that education was your end goal?
Pretty much. My mother, Mable Patton Dennard — my hero, my heroin, my inspiration — was the first in her family to go to college. She was a home economics educator. She went to Tuskegee Institute. It’s now Tuskegee University. She was the fifth of fifteen children, and she went to college, graduated and became an educator. Subsequently, five of her sisters all became educators. So I kind of grew up around educators. In fact, my first school experience was with one of my aunts going to school with her. That was before they had the age requirement. I think I was about four. But I had a lot of inspiration from my mother and my aunts, who were all educators.
What was your first teaching subject?
I have been a music educator my entire career. I’m very blessed, and that’s really unusual. Many music teachers had to teach subjects. I have been so blessed. I’ve done nothing else. I’ve been a music educator my entire career.
APS THROUGH THE YEARS
Describe the early part of your career at APS, the city of Atlanta and your perspective of education as a whole.
There was a lot of transition. Maynard Jackson had just been elected the first black mayor of Atlanta, and at the time, I was just coming to Atlanta. I’m ‘Right-on’ and all excited!
When I got the call to come downtown it was in the midst of desegregation, and they wanted a black music teacher. The school is now closed, but [currently] it’s the International School … it was then North Fulton High School. All I did was send my application.
The district was involved in a lot of turnover racially, and I’d been here about five months. In fact, I was [already] working. I had a job downtown as a job counselor at a personnel agency that doesn’t even exist anymore.
But I had gotten a job when we moved to Atlanta, and like I said, it was a lot of transition. A lot of teachers had been moved. I was new, of course, but a lot of teachers who had been here were being transferred. There was a lot of turnover [from] the predominantly black schools to the predominantly white schools.
I’d been in that predicament throughout the beginning of my career, when I came out of college. I was just one of three black teachers in an Alabama district that was home to George Wallace. The school was named after him when I was assigned, it was very turbulent. So in coming to Atlanta, I ended up being at the personnel agency. And when I got the call about going to North Fulton as my first teaching experience, many people wanted to know who I was. I’m not a native Atlantan. I didn’t go to Spelman. I didn’t know anybody. I did not do substitute teaching. It was like, how did you get this job? I would always just say it was divine intervention, and it was. Because none of those things were applicable to me.
But I came in at a time of a lot of transition. And I was later sent to another high school, and they’re both closed now. Even though Atlanta is the capital city from recent years, if you know the story it wasn’t always the capital, but it became the capital. And then the turnover from white to black, that was a lot with both sides trying to maintain their individuality. Yeah, but it was it was a happy time.
What are the moments that stood out during your rich tenure as an APS educator?
Well, let’s see, there’s so many! But some of the really outstanding things were my students who made the Georgia All-state Chorus. I had students who made the Governor’s Honors Program. Those were pivotal points in my career. And still being in contact with some of them. They’re very successful now, some of them have doctoral degrees, some have religious titles. They’re bishops, and some are music directors. All of them did not go into college and become professional musicians or music educators, but they became lifelong learners. I really do think that those things turn out very prominently for me in my career, having seen that success and experienced it through my students. And [to see some] graduate from college or get their advanced degrees.
But on a personal note, twice in my career I was voted Teacher of the Year from [Southside High School]. I also got an academic incentive award in music one year. So those are some outstanding honors that I will always remember and cherish. I am very proud of what I have done.
The last student before I retired that I am proud of is Dr. Jimmy Lee Thomas and I believe it was in 1994 that he was in the Georgia All-state Chorus. Since then, he’s gotten his doctorate degree. I actually witnessed his hooding.
I had several students in the ‘80s. Also, in the latter years of my career, [there were] many times the students were not able to stay in the program. It just got to be very competitive. And the Governor’s Honors Program was special. It was in every academic area, as well as elective credits. But the students got to have an intense six-week summer program. For the last few times [during my career], it was at Valdosta State. They had a very rigorous, like a college prep course, study in their field and it really enlarged whatever area they were in. But it’s also a very prestigious honor for a student to be chosen to be in the Governor’s Honors Program.
Having those students do that and then some to actually go to college and major in music, all of them did not become music educators, as I said. But that’s not even the important thing. The exposure and their love of music and their love of learning was key more than anything else. Thank God for social media. I still am in touch with them.
When you retired from Southside High School what was your role? I was the choral director and they called me the music teacher. I did all the graduations every year [at Southside High School]. Initially, it was held at the civic center, which is now closed, but we always had our ceremonies there. I was in charge of the music. If they did a class song or I had to teach this or that. And that was my job every year, every school.
THE PRESENT & THE FUTURE
What is happening with you now, what are your interests, and how are you carrying out your passion for music?
Well, believe it or not, I am still doing church music! I’m very proudly the director of music and worship at Atlanta First United Methodist Church. You should see that organ! And it’s a pipe organ. This is a real pipe organ. I did a recital there in October to commemorate their 175th year anniversary.
And before that, I must give a plug to my home church West Hunter Street Baptist Church on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in southwest Atlanta. That’s the first pipe organ I played after I left Talladega. The late Reverend Abernathy was the pastor. But I played there. I was at West Hunter for, oh my gosh, maybe 35 or 40 years. And I was not looking for anything, but it was something that I was asked to do and I was very grateful at this point in my life.
I thought when I left West Hunter, when my service was complete there, I thought, okay I’m good. Then [Atlanta First United Methodist] came up and now I’m there every Sunday. It’s in the heart of Midtown. It has beautiful pipework.
Do you have any future aspirations to add to your musical legacy?
To just be able to play well and know that what I’m doing is what God wants me to do. That I represent Him and the gift He gave me. I just want to stay in the will of God and let these [assignments] come to me. Just like with APS, the church where I am now, and even way back then when I started with West Hunter. I don’t seek any kind of adulation or appraise. That was never my goal. But these things have just come, and I pray that I can continue to present the gift that I was given. The God given gift that I have. And to continue to refine it and to continue to hopefully be a blessing to others through music. That’s all I want to do.