Remembering Maria Hawkins Cole, 1922–2012
Sunday July 10, 2022 marked the tenth anniversary of the passing of jazz singer Maria Hawkins Cole (also known throughout her life as Marie Hawkins, Maria Hawkins Ellington, Marie Ellington, Mrs. Nat King Cole and Maria Hawkins Cole Devore). Marie Hawkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 1, 1922; the second of three daughters born to Caro Saunders and Mingo Hawkins. Caro passed away shortly after the birth of her youngest daughter Carol. A few years after Caro’s death, Mingo sent his oldest two daughters to Sedalia, NC to live with his sister, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and attend Palmer Memorial Institute. Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown founded Palmer Memorial Institute in 1902 and acted as President of the school until 1952. Palmer provided a college preparatory and social finishing education for Black children from 1902 to 1971.
Maria received a formal vocal and music education during her time at Palmer, and she expressed her interest in the field at a very young age. Following her graduation from Palmer in 1938, Maria went on to attend Boston Clerical College by day, singing for local orchestras and bands in her free time. Maria married her first husband, Spurgeon Ellington, in 1943. Ellington was a lieutenant and a pilot with the Air Force during World War II and was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. A tragic training flight accident took Lt. Ellington’s life in December of 1945, leaving Maria Ellington a widow.
Maria performed under the name Maria Ellington for different bands and orchestras, including Count Basie; however, her rise to fame came when she started singing for Duke Ellington. In 1947, Maria met Nat “King” Cole while she performed as a solo artist at Cafe Zanzibar in Harlem. Easter Sunday 1948, the couple were wed before a crowd of approximately 3,000 at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Throughout their marriage Maria and Nat made numerous visits to Palmer Memorial Institute and Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown. The couple remained married until Nat passed away due to lung cancer in February of 1965.
Maria decided to re-enter the world of entertainment following Nat’s death, she had paused her career in the show business industry for most of their marriage, choosing that time to focus on the rearing of their five children, Carole, Natalie, Nat Kelly, Casey and Timolin. Following Nat’s death, Maria honored his legacy by establishing the Cole Cancer Foundation and assisting with the creation of the biography Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography alongside Louie Robinson.
According to Charles Wadelington, in the early 1980s Maria worked with Palmer alumni, former Palmer staff and faculty, and North Carolina politicians to help convince the state of North Carolina to purchase the grounds of the former Palmer Memorial Institute and turn the property into a historic site. Thus, the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Memorial Foundation was created and in November of 1987, the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum at Palmer Memorial Institute was designated as a member of the NC Division of Historic Sites. Maria Hawkins Cole passed away due to stomach cancer in Boca Raton, Florida at 89 years old on July 10, 2012. Maria is survived by her daughters Casey and Timolin who have upheld their father’s legacy with the creation of Nat King Cole Generation Hope, Inc..
Cole, Mrs. Nat King. “Why I Am Returning To Show Business.” Ebony, January 1966.
Cole, Maria and Louie Robinson. Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography. New York: W. Morrow, 1971..
Sanders, Charles L. “The Elegant And Busy World Of Maria Cole.” Ebony, October 1981.
Slotnik, Daniel E. “Maria Cole, Singer and Wife of Nat King Cole, Dies at 89.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 14, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/arts/music/maria-cole-jazz-singer-and-wife-of-nat-dies-at-89.html.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women, Book II. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1996.
Wadelington, Charles W., and Richard F. Knapp. Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute: What One Young African American Woman Could Do. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.