Emma Azalia Hackley Reflections by Harvard University Press & Detroit Public Library


Emma Azalia Hackley and the Hackley Chorale

Hackley, E. Azalia Smith (1867–1922) African-American singer, choir director, and advocate of African-American music and musicians.

Born Emma Azalia Smith in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on June 29, 1867; died in Detroit, Michigan, on December 13, 1922; elder of two daughters of Henry Smith (a blacksmith) and Corilla (Beard) Smith (a teacher); attended the Miami Avenue School, Detroit, Michigan; graduated with honors from Central High School, Detroit, in 1883; graduated from Washington Normal School, 1886; received a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Denver, 1900; married Edwin Henry Hackley (a lawyer and newspaper editor), on January 29, 1894 (separated 1909); no children. Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Emma Hackley was the eldest of two daughters of a blacksmith and a schoolteacher.

Her mother Corilla Beard Smith , the daughter of a freed slave who established a successful laundry business in Detroit, had founded a school in Murfreesboro for former slaves and their children, but was forced by the hostile white community around her to close the facility in 1870. The family relocated to Detroit, where Hackley became the first black student at the Miami Avenue Public School.

Precocious both academically and musically, she took piano, violin, and voice lessons as a child, and later helped with the family income by singing and playing the piano at high school dances. After graduating from high school with honors, Hackley worked her way through Washington Normal School by giving piano lessons.

She then taught grade school for eight years, while she continued with her music studies and sang with the Detroit Musical Society, the finest choral group in the city. In 1894, against her mother's wishes, Emma eloped with attorney Edwin Henry Hackley and moved with him to Denver.

While earning a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Denver, she served as choir director at her church and as the assistant director of a large Denver choir. She also devoted time to various black organizations, including a local branch of the Colored Women's League which she founded and publicized through the woman's page of her husband's struggling newspaper, the Denver Statesman.

With her husband, she helped organize the Imperial Order of Libyans, a fraternal group whose mission was to combat racial prejudice and promote equality. In 1901, with her marriage faltering, Hackley left her husband and moved to Philadelphia, where she became the music director of the Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion, a black congregation. (The couple permanently separated in 1909.)

Earning a reputation as a skilled choral director, in 1904 Hackley organized the 100-member People's Chorus (later known as the Hackley Choral). The chorus not only contributed to community spirit but helped launch the careers of a number of talented black performers, including contralto Marian Anderson and tenor Roland Hayes.

Hackley also helped organize a series of highly acclaimed recitals featuring herself and talented members of the chorus, the proceeds from which enabled her to study for a year in Paris with Jean de Reszke, a well-known opera singer and vocal coach. In 1907, upon her return to the United States, Hackley began to look beyond her own career and to focus more on the advancement of black music and musicians.

Keenly aware of the barriers facing them (she herself had scorned concert managers who asked her to "pass" as white), Hackley raised money through concerts and private solicitations to establish a fund to aid African-American musicians who wanted to study abroad.

Around 1910, she began a series of lecture tours designed to further advance black music and to raise self-esteem among her people. She published a selection of her lectures in a book called The Colored Girl Beautiful (1916). Later lectures focused on traditional Negro folk music, a form she hoped to keep alive even though many young black musicians were moving to newer musical styles.

Although stricken in 1916 by a recurring ear ailment which impaired her hearing and caused episodes of dizziness, Hackley produced a series of community folk concerts in black churches and schools across the United States. In the fall of 1920, she introduced black folk music at an international Sunday school convention in Tokyo, after which she embarked on a California tour.

When a San Diego concert date fell through, however, Hackley, who was said to be high strung, suffered an emotional collapse and was forced to return to Detroit. She died there in 1922, of a cerebral hemorrhage.

In recognition of Hackley's contributions to the cause of racial equality, the E. Azalia Hackley Memorial Collection of Negro Music, Dance, and Drama was established in the Detroit Public Library in 1943. sources: James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983. Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

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