DU History / History / News

DU adds new chapter to its black history

For years the University of Denver identified Grace Mabel Andrews as its first African-American graduate. But as is often the case, history may need a little re-writing.

Last May, Adjunct Professor Valeria Wenderoth arrived at DU to teach musicology classes for a Lamont School of Music faculty member who had taken a sabbatical.  At the time, Wenderoth had been researching an article on DU alumna Emma Azalia Hackley — a well-known singer, conductor, teacher and composer in the late 19th century and early 20th century — for the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians, a multi-volume resource that explains just about everything in music, including the who’s who. In her time on campus, Wenderoth confirmed that Hackley had graduated from DU in 1900 with a degree in music — eight years before Andrews. Not only does Wenderoth’s article place Hackley alongside other musicians in the definitive reference on music, it also appears to confirm — as at least one other source does — that she’s DU’s earliest known African-American graduate.

“It’s a nice thing for DU, because it was not known at all,” Wenderoth says. “She was pretty famous, judging from the articles in newspapers at the time, and she seemed very well-known in her time.”

Wenderoth’s New Grove article about Hackley, which cites four sources in its bibliography, collects some key details about Hackley’s life and career. She was born in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on June 29, 1867. Not much is known about her upbringing, but she married Edwin Hackley in 1894 in Denver. Incidentally, Edwin Hackley was one of Denver’s first African-American attorneys. (It’s unclear how the couple met, but Wenderoth thinks it may have come at a stop on a musical tour.) During her time in Denver, Azalia Hackley enrolled at the University of Denver. She also wrote several articles and columns for The Statesman, an African-American newspaper based in Denver’s historically black Five Points neighborhood. One of her articles was “Influence of Music in the Negro Home and on Youth.” She moved to Philadelphia in 1901 and became music director of the Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion in 1904. While there, she organized the People’s Choir, whose singers included the legendary Marian Anderson. Hackley moved to Chicago in 1909, where she founded a music publishing company and established a school for underprivileged black students. She gave her last vocal performance at Chicago’s famed Orchestra Hall in 1911. She self-published A Guide in Voice Culture and in 1916 toured the country lecturing about her experiences as an African-American musician. In 1921, Hackley collapsed on stage at a concert in Oakland, Calif., and retired to Detroit the following year. She died in 1922. In 1943, the Detroit Public Library established the Azalia Hackley Collection, which includes more than 600 pieces of material from numerous African-American artists.

There’s no concrete reason why Hackley’s chapter in DU history went unknown for so many years, but DU archivist Steve Fisher may have a clue. At the time of Hackley’s attendance, the University did not collect information on race as part of its student records. Through the years, DU historians have had to rely on old photographs to help identify a student’s race.

The quality of Hackley’s surviving pictures isn’t close to modern photography, and her appearance in them doesn’t conform to modern-day conceptions about African-Americans. But Vincent Harding, professor emeritus of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, says it’s worth looking beyond a person’s photo to establish their racial identity.

“I would not be thrown off by the appearance,” Harding says. “The historical setting and the evidence and the connections of her life are much more important than what she looks like. In many cases, you can’t really tell much about racial identity by what a person looks like.”

Harding points to Hackley’s contributions to The Statesman, her published papers, her marriage and her work with African-American organizations as more conclusive evidence of her identity. “You must take very seriously the context in which you find her,” Harding says. “It’s very unlikely that a white woman would be writing for an African-American journal at that time and very unlikely for a white woman to be married to an African-American man at the time.”

A separate, earlier scholarly venture from Wenderoth also had identified Hackley as DU’s first African-American graduate. The book, African Americans of Denver (Arcadia Publishing, 2008), which is part of the “Images of America” book series, provides an in-depth look at Denver’s African-American history and contains a photo of Edwin and Azalia Hackley. Authors Ronald Stephens, chair of African-American studies at Ohio University and former professor of African-American studies at Denver’s Metropolitan State College, and La Wanna Larson, a former curator at Denver’s Black American West Museum, identify Hackley as DU’s first African-American graduate in the photo’s caption.

Hackley also was listed as black in the 1900 U.S. Census.

Another interesting aspect of Hackley’s time at DU lies in the degree she obtained. The University of Denver’s music program experienced several gaps in its availability to students until 1941, according to the late DU history Professor Allen Breck, author of From the Rockies to the World, the History of the University of Denver 1864-1997. In 1941, Breck writes, DU purchased a financially troubled Lamont School of Music. But he also outlines the years in which the University offered and didn’t offer music. Hackley’s time at DU fits squarely in an early period when the University was offering music.

Much of Hackley’s story is still hidden in history. Most of what remains are her writings on music pedagogy and newspaper articles. Recording was in its infancy during her prime performing years, and no recording of hers has surfaced.

But during her research, Wenderoth found a composition of Hackley’s music in the Detroit library’s Hackley collection. “Carola: A Spanish Serenade” for solo voice and piano was self-published in 1918. The composition was given its first performance in decades last year after Wenderoth asked Erica Papillion-Posey, then a grad student in her History of Opera class, to perform it at an upcoming recital.

As an African-American studying vocal performance, it was an opportunity Papillion-Posey gladly accepted. As she began learning the piece, Papillion-Posey says she was struck by its color and adherence to classical music constructions — she had thought it may resemble a spiritual or a gospel song. Indeed, the song’s words and melody float on top of a bouncy, subdued piano accompaniment and its Spanish inflections are subtle yet plainly audible. But combined with Papillion-Posey’s strong mezzo voice and classical interpretation, the performance offered a textbook example of a serenade.

Papillion-Posey’s performance was recorded, so at least one small piece of Hackley’s music will be known to the world. And as Papillion-Posey practiced and performed the piece, she began to feel a kinship with its composer.

“I felt like I was walking in her spiritual footsteps,” Papillion-Posey says. “It was like an out-of-body experience for me.”

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