Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor

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Performing in a country rife with racism and segregation, the tenor Roland Hayes was the first African American man to reach international fame as a concert performer and one of the few artists who could sell out Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall, and Covent Garden. His trailblazing career carved the way for a host of African American artists, including Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Performing the African American spirituals he was raised on, Hayes's voice was marked with a unique sonority which easily navigated French, German, and Italian art songs. A multiculturalist both on and off the stage, he counted among his friends George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ezra Pound, Pearl Buck, Dwight Eisenhower, and Langston Hughes. This engaging biography spans the history of Hayes's life and career and the legacy he left behind as a musician and a champion of African American rights. It is an authentic, panoramic portrait of a man who was as complex as the music he performed.

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After completing a major engagement in Atlanta in November 1926, Roland Hayes traveled seventy-five miles north to stillrural Gordon County, Georgia, where there was once a town called Curryville.1 Although Hayes was in the area on other business, he met with Joseph Mann, an impoverished, elderly white man who had enslaved Hayes’s forebears. Roland solicited the meeting with the feeble Joe Mann because gaps in the tenor’s maternal lineage could be filled only by his family’s former enslaver. As is true for many Americans of African descent, it was difficult to document the life of his forebears who had been seized in Africa and sold into enslavement in the American South. And so, determined to understand the origins of his family, Roland returned to the countryside of his youth, where his own story begins.

Joe Mann was born in the 1830s and had once lived a life of opportunity and privilege. Like his father, Edward Mann, he farmed two sizable plantations in the antebellum South. By 1926, however, the once-wealthy landowner and his sickly, bedridden wife had been reduced to living in a drafty shed, outfitted with makeshift furniture. His living quarters were scarcely better than those of the blacks who had once worked that very land.


1 A New Jerusalem (1887–1911)



A New Jerusalem


Curryville in gordon county, Georgia, in an area known as the Flatwoods, was mostly a backwater village when Roland Wiltsie Hayes was born there on June 3, 1887. The summit of Horn Mountain beheld an unobstructed panorama of hills, grasslands, creeks, woods, falling rocks, waterfalls, animal-worn dirt trails, and a smattering of houses and plots of farmland.1

Roland’s worldview was shaped by the racially segregated environment of his parents, William Hayes and Fannie. Black landowners eventually became the new reality in post–Civil War Georgia, but only in the context of die-hard racial animus. African Americans were still required to show deference to their white counterparts lest they become subject to racial attack from organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, among others. The people who populated this part of the country and shared Roland’s ethnic heritage and lower social status found themselves as part of a permanent underclass; they had managed to survive because they knew “their place” when interacting with the white majority.


2 Roland’s World in Boston (1911–1920)



Roland’s World in Boston


The great missionary conference “The world in Boston” was staged in April and May 1911. It was from this important northern city that Roland launched his career and his new life. The city refined Roland even more and prepared him for the realities of the mostly European and American concert worlds.

“The World in Boston” was a showcase of global missionary activities that the New York Times claimed would “Give Vivid Reproductions of How Natives Live in Foreign Lands Where Church Work Is Carried On.”1 The event featured Muslims, Turks, continental Africans, Chinese missionaries (from the post–Boxer Movement of 1901), and others from the Far East. To demonstrate African American progress since the end of legal enslavement nearly fifty years prior, the missionary conference organizers invited the sophisticated Fisk University singers as well as other musical groups to perform. Fisk was an example of an African American university in a state that had once been the bastion of the Confederacy. The all-black school helped the state project a different image to the world. It was now educating a few of the sons and daughters of those it had once held captive. With this background, Roland’s arrival in Boston in May 1911 had been many years in the making.


3 Roland Rules Britannia (1920–1921)



Roland Rules Britannia


On Friday, April 23, 1920, Roland Hayes and Lawrence Brown watched the New York skyline recede as the SS Mauretania set sail. Sister ship to the infamous Lusitania, the Mauretania served as a hospital ship during the war and had only recently been refitted as an exclusive cruise liner.1 Roland’s recent concert in Washington, D.C., had netted him what he needed in order to travel to Europe in first class passage with his accompanist. At the age of thirty-two, Roland’s persona as a rising concert artist was well formed, and he enjoyed playing the part.

For the better part of 1919, he had been preparing himself for this day. His first passport made clear his plan. Issued in February 1920, it indicated he intended to travel to “Africa” (no particular country or region was specified), London, and Belgium. The United Kingdom and Belgium could also provide opportunities where he could raise more funds, make the necessary introductions and arrangements, and then move on.


4 “Le Rage de Paris” (1921–1922)



Le Rage de Paris”


Fresh from their April 1921 triumph at Wigmore Hall and the completely unexpected command performance at Buckingham Palace, Roland Hayes and Lawrence Brown took a much-needed break. The following month, the two prepared to cross the English Channel to France, where the tenor had hopes of advancing his career beyond the British Isles. The trip was equal parts vacation and business. Roland took a letter of introduction from Robert Leigh Ibbs and John Tillett to their Parisian associate, Charles Kiesgen. In their letter, Ibbs and Tillett told the French agent about Roland’s recent successes in the United Kingdom, including his unheralded yet impressive royal performance.1

Several people in France were anticipating Roland’s first visit to the country. Maud Christian Sherwood, one of Roland’s supporters in London, contacted the veteran French composer Vincent d’Indy asking him to be on the lookout for Roland and Brown and to assist them if necessary.2 Emma Koechlin, the wife of the equally respected French composer Charles Koechlin, wrote to someone in London (possibly someone at the Ibbs and Tillett Agency) about Roland’s arrival:


5 “You’re Tired, Chile” (1923)



You’re Tired, Chile”


Roland returned to the United States during the third week of December in 1922 apparently in response to a somewhat disturbing letter he had received from his mother, Fannie, now around eighty years old, a few months earlier.1 Despite having been enslaved and denied a formal education, the mostly self-taught matriarch had little difficulty expressing her concerns.

By September 4 (the date of her letter), Fannie had moved to a larger apartment at 11 Arnold Street in the Roxbury area of Boston and was having domestic challenges with Roland’s older brother Robert Brante. He had stopped attending church, and because of it she feared for his soul. Part of Fannie’s letter bordered on the bizarre. She thought Robert Brante was afraid of her, because while he was in Chattanooga, he had heard rumors that she had killed his older brother John. Robert Brante had experienced a debilitating stroke that resulted in the paralysis of his left side and may also have left him with some mental deficiencies that would cause him to think such things. Fannie’s letter was punctuated with a sense of her mortality: “I feel good because the lord let me have all the days he promised me. You ought to be glad for me and not feel sad when the lord comes to take me away. If I am who I say I am, I will be better off.”2 Despite the sobering and worrisome letter, Roland’s performing schedule in Europe prevented him from returning to the United States any earlier than December.


6 The Hayes Conquest (1923–1924)



The Hayes Conquest


Roland crisscrossed Europe like an evangelist proselytizing among the unconverted. With Howard Jordan, his personal assistant, and Leo Rosenek, his accompanist, who was an up-and-coming pianist and later a conductor, Roland traveled from Vienna to Graz and from Budapest to Karlsbad, channeling his mourning into exquisite performances. Countess Marguerite Hoyos, daughter of Austro-Hungarian nobility, had heard and met Roland in Vienna. She was so moved by his performance she wrote a letter to her friend Countess Bertha Henriette Katharina Nadine Colloredo-Mansfeld enthusiastically suggesting that she call on this new tenor sensation when he debuted in Prague.1

The thirty-six-year-old tenor arrived in Prague in October 1923. He retreated to a comfortable hotel suite, unaware of the social currents eddying in the capital of the five-year-old Czechoslovak Republic. Politics permeated the city, and the art scene was no exception. Concertgoers from all levels of society flocked to music halls, each group wary, if not suspicious, of others in attendance. The tension was as palpable as the situation was complex. Industrialized Czechs holding economic advantage over rural Slovaks vigorously championed the unifying virtues of the common language they shared.2 The German minority, despite the downfall of the Hapsburg Empire, kept a tight grip on their economic interests by closely guarding what remained of their old cultural influence.3


7 Roland and the Countess (1924–1926)



Roland and the Countess


Off and on for the rest of the summer of 1924, Roland and Countess Bertha worked on the three programs Roland needed for his 1924–25 season. Bertha made Roland’s life easier in small ways – for example, by receiving his mail when he was on the road performing. But it was his repertory that mattered most to them both. Roland devoured her library. He took extensive notes on her suggestions and studied the composers’ styles, including those of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf. They also studied the styles of great Italian masters such as Claudio Monteverdi and Baldassare Galuppi. Roland had a particular fondness for reading with the countess about George Frideric Handel and Joseph Haydn. He absorbed the stories about the composers’ lives and the contexts in which they produced their bodies of work, and in later years he required of his voice students the same type of study of composers’ backgrounds.


8 The Conquest Slows (1926–1930)



The Conquest Slows


By Early 1926, Roland’s season was comfortably underway, and he was enjoying, once again, phenomenal reviews for his engagements. But the December 7, 1925, issue of Time magazine, a journal that had been favorably disposed to him in the past, questioned his artistry, implying his tremendous success was mostly due to the country’s interest in African American music and asking whether Hayes would have achieved his current level of celebrity had he been white instead of a “Negro.” The answer: it was “doubtful.”1 This reviewer, however, overlooked the fact that it was Europe that had propelled Roland to international stardom. Only after his conquest of Europe was he recognized as a great artist in his own country. But even after proving his musical skills in Western art music and scoring celebrity and fame throughout the Continent, Roland was still subjected to the greatest scrutiny and criticism in his home country.


9 “Hard Trials, Great Tribulations” (1930–1935)



Hard Trials, Great Tribulations”


Roland’s dream of nurturing talent centered upon four hundred acres at Angelmo Farm. His London friend Robert Broadhurst had sketched a design that included an education center with living quarters for staff and students, classrooms, a museum, and even a small hospital. However, most of the plans came to naught, as financial realities dashed Hayes’s idealism. In July 1930, writing from Paris, Roland complained to his brother Robert Brante about the farm’s mismanagement, saying that there needed to be tighter restrictions on spending and certain land practices. It was micromanagement at its worst:

You may remember that I said to you and to Youngblood [an assistant manager at the farm] as well that I wished to sell the gasoline to Angelmo Farm as well as to the public, but that the farm was to pay two cents less for the gas than the public pays. . . . Don’t sell gas on credit to anyone, unless it be to the Angelmo workers from whose monthly salaries you shall be able to deduct their indebtedness.


10 Return to Europe (1936–1942)



Return to Europe


Roland opened his 1936 season with a benefit recital at Howard University for his friend and supporter of more than twenty-five years, Lulu Vere Childers, the well-known and influential music director at the university. She had wanted Roland to come and teach at Howard as a guest lecturer for the 1935–36 academic year, but he told her he was free only during the summer but needed that time to rest and prepare for the next season.1 He agreed however, to do a recital at the “special fee” of five hundred dollars, which included Percival Parham’s accompanying compensation. Shortly after the Howard engagement, Roland wrote to his former benefactor from the BSO, Maestro Pierre Monteux, who was in San Francisco, to propose they work together again. Monteux said he hoped they would in fact perform together soon and gradually moved in that direction.2

Blanche Watson remained in regular contact with Roland and eventually began predicting for Alzada. Once the numerologist completed her forecast for 1936, she sent it to him. She foretold the importance of the year in the tenor’s career, but her remaining comments were vague, as they had been in the past.3 The following month, Roland wrote Alzada a “happy anniversary” letter, marking their fourth year as a married couple:


11 Rome, Georgia (1942)



Rome, Georgia


Young Africa needed new tennis shoes, so on Saturday morning, July 11, 1942, Roland and Alzada took her to Rome, Georgia, to buy them. Rome was like many midsize and larger southern urban areas; African Americans had access to certain stores but had to be inconspicuous and move about with the requisite deference for the town’s white residents. This was standard practice in the South. Recently, however, there had been two incidents in Rome involving blacks’ asserting their rights against standard southern traditions. In the first incident, a young African American man sat in the white section of a bus, which caused a disruption. The second involved an African American preacher in Rome who had allegedly said from the pulpit that with white men and boys away fighting the war, it would be the right time for African Americans to stand up for themselves.1

The oppressive July heat of Georgia got the better of Alzada when the Hayes family went shopping. Alzada entered Higgins Shoe Store in downtown Rome with Africa. It was her first time in the store, and not seeing a sign directing African American patrons to a particular section, she and her daughter sat under a ceiling fan to cool themselves – which happened to be where white patrons were assisted.2 When Alzada was spotted by a clerk, she was told aggressively that she had to be served in the area reserved for African American customers.3 Alzada responded that she did not see a sign to that effect. When the clerk became a little more threatening, Alzada said, “This is not the time to talk about racial prejudice and segregation. [Adolf] Hitler ought to have you.”4 The clerk demanded that she leave the store and threatened to call the police if she didn’t do so immediately. Alzada and Africa left. Africa began whining because she hadn’t gotten her shoes, but her mother calmly told her that the store didn’t want them there.


12 “I Can Tell the World!” (1942–1950)



I Can Tell the World!”


As difficult as it might be to imagine, there was a beneficial aspect of Roland’s brutal assault by the Rome, Georgia, police: the incident rapidly put Roland Hayes back in the limelight, and he knew better than most how to use such attention to his advantage. Before the media outlets, the tenor presented himself in the way an African American man of a certain age and stature was supposed to – that is, he was dignified yet humble. Although he had been physically abused, he held the moral high ground by forgiving his attackers for their misguided ways (at least publicly). Above all, he appeared protective of his wife and their young daughter, which presented him as a responsible family man. Given the recent waning of his musical activities and his somewhat lagging career, Roland could not have designed or imagined a better public relations campaign.

Almost as if to do penance for its past criticism of the tenor, the Baltimore-based Afro-American kept the assault in front of its readers, just as it had the Lyric Theater incident in the city sixteen years earlier. Several dedicated stories highlighted and addressed the inhumanity of the assault, and the paper sent a special correspondent to Angelmo Farm that summer to do an extensive story, with pictures, of Roland, Alzada, and their child.


13 Struggles in Remaining Relevant (1950–1959)



Struggles in Remaining Relevant


By the early 1950s, Roland was in his mid-sixties and was seen by many as an elder statesman of the concert stage. As such, he advised, coached, corresponded with, taught, and generally showed interest in the next generation of African American concert singers. Among those with whom he had contact (including giving lessons) included Rawn Spearman, Seth McCoy, Elmer Dickey, Ellabelle Davis, McHenry Boatwright, Georgia Laster, and John Patton Jr. Other well-known names with whom he dealt in the early 1950s were William Warfield and Leontyne Price.

In June 1951, his daughter Afrika (as she had then begun spelling her name) graduated from Brookline High School and had been admitted to Keuka College in upstate New York. She stayed at the small college for two years before transferring to Westminster Choir College in New Jersey, where she pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in music education.


14 “I Wanna Go Home” (1960–1977)



I Wanna Go Home”


By the early 1960s Roland’s day as a celebrated performer and artist had unquestionably passed, yet he was determined to remain in the public eye. His skill as a teacher and as an adviser to a younger generation of singers, however, continued as it had the previous decade, and he was regularly consulted for career advice. Those skills were more in demand than his appearances on the concert stage. Often it was no more than a formal (or informal) audition, a letter of recommendation, or basic career moves that were sought. The septuagenarian singer heard from the likes of the up-and-coming lyric tenor Seth McCoy and Odetta Felious. Better known to the world simply as “Odetta,” she had nursed operatic ambitions when she auditioned for Roland. His letter to her was quite encouraging and complimentary.

As a teacher, he wanted his students to have a clear understanding of the texts they were singing, not just of the translations beneath the original language and the notes but an independent translation. He then wanted his students to read about the lives of each composer whose works they essayed – obviously a practice that developed out of his work with the countess.1 Before students could perform a specific song or aria for him, they had to persuade the seasoned veteran that they had command of the translation of the work as well as some knowledge of the life of the composer who created it and of the context in which the work was created. In conversation with students, the master teacher especially wanted to know what personal experiences his young singers were bringing to the performance.


Epilogue: The Hayes Legacy




The Roland hayes story has continued long after his death and burial. While Alzada, Afrika, Zaida, and Erika mourned the loss of their beloved husband, father, and grandfather in Boston, others did the same across the Atlantic. Within a day of Roland’s death, Bertha read about his passing in a Parisian paper. Roland’s oldest grandsons, Igor and Grichka (who were twenty-seven at the time of their grandfather’s death), confirmed that he had communicated with their grandmother and their mother throughout the 1950s, but the communications seemed to have stopped at the end of the 1960s.1

Once Bertha absorbed the news of Roland’s death, she wrote a condolence letter to Afrika expressing her sorrow at her father’s demise. She informed her that his other daughter, Maya, and his European grandchildren shared in her grief. Bertha also asked Afrika if she could return the letters that she had sent Roland over the years, as they were very personal to her. After some time, she received a “very nice handwritten” letter from Afrika acknowledging the condolence letter.2 To Bertha’s surprise, Afrika did not know of her, Maya, or Maya’s children, and she was completely unaware of any letters written to her recently deceased father. While initially embittered by this spectacular lack of disclosure to his “American” family by Roland, Bertha concluded in the end that her relationship with him was still the best thing she had ever done in her life. Specifically, she said, “To me, it has meant so much, so tremendously much. The sin with which I approached it [that is, the relationship with Hayes] must be forgiven [that is, on earth]. Also, in heaven it must be forgiven.”3



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