FREEDOM IN BROOKLINE:
Throughout the 20th century, Brookline was gradually becoming a welcoming community for African Americans. Many people worked to make this possible. The life story of Roland Hayes tells the story not only of the pain but especially of the opportunities that arise from making change.
Roland Hayes (1887-1977), son of two formerly enslaved people, was one of the greatest tenors of the first half of the 20th century. In the foreword to his book My Songs, Hayes wrote,
"I was born just twenty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The atmosphere of the slave days was still strong at my place of birth and the religious folk songs of my people were being born out of religious experience at white heat."
Hayes grew up singing. He made his first home in Boston. Racial prejudice barred him from many opportunities.
"I remember that one day--I think it was in 1920--I met William Brennan, who was the manager of the Boston Symphony. I told him about my hopes, and he told me that no one of my race would ever be accepted in music."
So he left for Europe, where his renown grew as a lyric tenor of the classical repertoire. In England, the king requested a "command performance" so anxious was he to hear Hayes. His success led to engagements across Europe, though he was not welcomed everywhere. In Berlin, the audience had not realized that the famous Roland Hayes was black. Hayes described that evening:
"When I entered the concert chamber at the Beethovensaal, I found myself standing in a flood of light; in front of me, a black-out audience sat unquietly. From the rear there rolled out a great volley of hisses, which seemed to fill the hall entirely. I was terribly apprehensive, but I took my place in the curve of the piano, closed my eyes, lifted my head into singing position, and stood still as a statue. I waited moment after moment, perhaps for five or ten minutes altogether, listening to the ebb and flow of antagonistic sound. I tried to match the determination of my adversaries with quiet invincibility, and after a time I seemed actually to impress them. No one came to my defense on this occasion, so far as I could hear, but presently the attack upon me petered out.
When the silence came, as it absolutely did at length, the hall was more still than any I had ever sung in. It was so quiet that the hush began to hurt. I conveyed my readiness to my accompanist with the slightest movement of my lips, without turning my head or my body, and began to sing Schubert's "Du bist die ruh," which otherwise would have occurred later in the program. The entry to that song is almost as silent as silence itself. The German text, stealing out of my mouth in sustained pianissimo, seemed to win my hostile audience over."
In 1923, Hayes returned to the US, with his reputation firmly established. His manager became none other than William Brennan, who had earlier discouraged him. Hayes became the first African-American to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also broke the color bar in many American cities, north as well as south, cutting a pathway for other African-American singers, including Marion Anderson.
Two years after his return to the US, Hayes settled in Brookline, buying a lovely large home, with the front parlor set up with a grand piano and a small concert stage. His biographer, Robert Hayden stated, "He adopted Brookline and Brookline adopted him." Proud of his heritage, he took the unusual step at the time of giving his daughter the name Afrika. She grew up as one of a tiny handful of African American students in Brookline.
Already one of the greatest tenors of his age, Roland Hayes made another signal contribution to music: bringing African-American spirituals into the classical repertoire. He included one or more spirituals in all his concerts, believing they belonged to the world. Even today, the beauty of songs like "Steal Away" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" are often sung according to Hayes' own arrangements.
Roland Hayes was widely honored during his lifetime with honorary doctorates and other awards. His life's work in music and against prejudice continues to enrich our lives.