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Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor

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.

Excerpted from Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor by Christopher A. Brooks and Robert Sims (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of University of Indiana Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

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.

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.

William Hayes had built a two-room log cabin at the foot of Horn Mountain using trees from nearby woods. By the time Roland was born, the cabin was equipped with a large wood-burning fireplace and chimney. There were a few other adornments in the house, and of course the cabinets and other furniture were expertly made by William. Off from the house was a kitchen that William had also built, where Fannie cooked for her growing family.

As the disciplinarian, William had a somewhat detached relationship with his children. The nurturing and housework were left to his wife. When a boy reached a certain age (around eight), he was expected to shoulder his responsibility for the household. Roland helped to stick the hogs for curing in the family’s smokehouse, to fetch wood and water for cooking, and, when he was a little older, to join in the hunt for wild game with his father and older brothers.

Roland’s somewhat idyllic – as he later described it – picture of his childhood depicts a boy roaming in the woods and hunting with his father. Hunting, however, was not Roland’s favorite activity. Because he was the youngest at the time, he was obliged to carry the dead catch. As he grew older, he became deft at snaring rabbits and other small game, following the example of William and his older brothers.

Roland had four older brothers and an older sister; later, “Baby” Jesse was born. Roland’s vivid recollections of his older brothers William Jr. (or “Willie”) and Nathaniel “Tench” centered on their sometimes troubled relationship with their father because of the latter’s strict ways. Before Roland was born, Willie had reached adolescence and run away from home. Although he was permanently disabled from a knee injury, Willie returned to Curryville with an education from Chattanooga. His schooling there had surpassed that of the local teachers in the Curryville school for the African American children, and Willie likely became his younger brother’s first formal grade school teacher.

Nathaniel “Tench” Hayes would have been eleven when Roland was born, and young Roland would have been no more than six or seven when Tench left home. Tench would return to the Hayes household over the next several years with various illnesses and eventually died sometime in the late 1890s. He was probably no more than twenty-one years old.

As his only sister, Mattie Hayes would have been in her fourteenth year when Roland was born. She, too, met with an untimely and unexplained death, but unlike her brothers she at least had the opportunity to wed, although it was a short and unhappy marital experience. Hayes recollected that the only time he remembered seeing his mother cry was when his sister died. Letting down her guard for the display of emotion was not a luxury she could often afford. Of Fannie Hayes’s seven children, three died within a short time frame, and only four survived to see the twentieth century.

Churchgoing was an integral part of life in Curryville, and Fannie insisted on a strict Baptist religious foundation for all of her children. She taught them to fear and respect the Lord and to believe in his power to change people’s hearts and minds. Roland received his earliest music lessons from his father, which included witnessing William’s uncanny sensitivity to sounds. He remembered his father’s “shimmering” and mellow tenor voice, which he used to summon his hogs. He also learned to sing his career-defining messa di voce from his father and not from formal voice lessons.

Roland once remembered asking his father about his ability to imitate natural sounds so expertly. William explained to his son that all humans had some manifestation of nature within themselves and that everyone possessed the ability to understand and imitate the sounds if they were willing to look deep inwardly and tap into it. Roland’s assertion years later that when he performed it was not him but the spirit expressing itself through him was a direct outgrowth of his father’s teachings on vocal production.

While William Hayes had many talents, farming was not among them. He was known to have employed a trick using a cowbell to rhythmically simulate the family’s cow plowing the fields while he sat and smoked under a tree. Joe Mann, the former enslaver of Fannie in Gordon County, mistakenly associated Roland with the cowbell incident when it had actually been his father. The story is still recounted among the Hayes family members more than one hundred years later.

In the small, rural, southern dwellings of northwest Georgia, there were relatively few social outlets. Thus, the religious life of the community took on enhanced significance. Mount Zion Baptist Church was made up of mostly preliterate African Americans and was an important foundation in Roland’s religious and musical formation. As the young boy grew more confident in his ability to speak before audiences, he was tasked with learning new songs to teach to the congregation. These songs also formed the basis of the “Aframerican” (as Hayes called them) folk songs that he would arrange and perform on the concert stage many years later.

Fannie wanted Roland to become a preacher, as he began to display signs of an oratorical gift from a young age. Although Roland did not formally enter the pulpit, he routinely spoke about his singing and his art as a “message,” which he felt compelled to deliver. He regarded his “work” in religious terms. In his later years, he routinely spoke about his religious beliefs but seemed not to have had a formal denominational affiliation. There is no question, however, that he considered himself a spiritual person and that his religious conditioning was based on his early days at Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Other social forces had a major impact on his worldview. Roland spoke of Peter Vaughn, who taught him how to read music from hymnals when Vaughn came to the Flatwoods to conduct his seasonal singing school. Other influences included two of Fannie’s younger brothers, Wiltsie and Simon, who were seasoned banjoists. These uncles of Roland were regular churchgoers but “scandalously” played (from their big sister’s perspective) at social events at which peopled danced.

Roland’s musical training under Peter Vaughn was quite extensive, but he also identified Jim Kirby (whom he called “Uncle Nat”) as yet another teacher. It was from Uncle Nat that young Roland learned a number of African songs as a child. He apparently forgot many of them until meeting several continental Africans in England and France in the early 1920s. When these songs combined with the stories of his fabled African great-grandfather Abá ‘Ougi, Roland developed a fascination, commitment, and affinity for the African continent that manifested itself in various ways throughout his career and the remainder of his life.

Roland’s formal classroom education was different from what he experienced in the informal settings of his religious upbringing. This education was typical for a young black boy in the rural South in the late nineteenth century. That is, there was very little of it. The meager education that was available to him was seasonal at best. He described how it was the practice for the African American children to attend school in the winter months, only after the responsibilities of the fall harvest were completed. The teachers themselves had minimal skills, and the lessons did not go beyond the basics of reading, reciting, and perhaps some rudimentary mathematics. The highest level available to African American children in the Flatwoods during Roland’s youth was the seventh grade. The lack of educational opportunities available would ultimately be a factor in Fannie’s decision to move her younger children to Chattanooga, Tennessee, after the turn of the century.

Roland himself was unequivocal in his assessment of his early school years in the Flatwoods – he hated it. Young Roland was especially terrified by the weekly recitations in which the students had to present memorized speeches. Even when he desperately wanted to stand up to recite so as not to disappoint his teacher, whom he loved, fear and shyness overcame him.

Fortunately in 1896, a young graduate from Atlanta Baptist College named Wilkin Green boarded with the Hayes family for a time and helped young Roland conquer his timidity. Green also began telling the young boy of great African and African diasporan leaders, such as the legendary Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, who inspired the young Roland and captured his interest into adulthood. As a result of Wilkin Green’s confidence-building exercises, young Roland gave speeches in other African American schools and churches throughout the county, developing and displaying his oratorical talents.

Although records do not make clear when or how it occurred, William Hayes suffered a severe spinal injury from a logging accident sometime in the latter half of the 1890s. The accident was serious enough to keep him bedridden and in constant agony. His eventual death in 1898, while traumatic for his family, was not altogether unexpected. The funeral song of triumph, “Roun’ about de Mountain,” was sung at William Hayes’s home-going procession. Roland’s own performance of this song, with its prophetic refrain “the Lord loves a sinner, and he’ll rise in his arm,” became celebrated for many years and was included in his collection My Songs, Aframerican Religious Folk Songs.

Facing economic hardship with three young sons at home (Robert Brante, fifteen; Roland, eleven; and Jesse, less than ten), the pragmatic Fannie had to quickly assess the family’s financial circumstances. It would take about two years of working the fields for her family to rise out of debt, at which point Fannie could take her sons to Chattanooga for a proper education. Roland and Robert Brante dropped out of school temporarily to run the Hayes family farm and the additional acres that Fannie leased. Because of the family’s extreme need, the brothers also hired themselves out to work on other area farms.

By 1900, the family had retired its farm debt, and Fannie carried on with her plans to get her sons educated in Chattanooga. Robert Brante and Roland (seventeen and thirteen), along with the family cow, traveled to the city by foot with another Curryville family. Fannie and “Baby” Jesse took the train. The Hayes matriarch left the management of her ten acres to her cousin Obie Mann. Although she leased the land for others to work, she continued to pay property taxes, and it remained in her family. The adolescent Roland was bound for a new city where a world he could barely imagine awaited him.

Like the Flatwoods area of northwest Georgia, the comparatively urbanized Chattanooga, Tennessee, had been once occupied by the Cherokee Nation prior to the infamous Trail of Tears. The city saw many dramatic battles during the Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant had attempted to pound the region into submission. Chattanooga held a good mixture of black and white citizens, but as was the case throughout the South, social and racial lines were pronounced.

Fannie’s arrival in Chattanooga by rail with her youngest son was a homecoming of sorts. Her mother, Mandy, had moved to the city after the Civil War to raise her family, and Fannie had begun her married life with William Hayes in Chattanooga before settling in the Flatwoods of Georgia. Fannie’s younger sister Harriet, who lived in the Fort Wood area of the city, met Fannie when she arrived, and Roland and Robert eventually made it after their fifty-five-mile trek, having walked barefoot with their supplies and furniture, reluctantly pulled by the family cow. Harriet provided temporary housing for her older sister and her three sons until they could get themselves established.

Hayes Takes Up City Life

The boys’ introduction to city life was dramatic. They saw things that they could not have fathomed, even in their wildest imaginations. Streetlights and paved roads were just a few of the wonders to behold in this “New Jerusalem.”

Roland recalled one of the earliest adjustments was in their religious worship. Having recently arrived from the country with their mended clothes, brass-tipped brogan shoes, rural accents, and “backwoods” mannerisms, the newly arrived Hayes family felt sorely out of place in their aunt’s middle-class church, the First African Baptist Church. Once Fannie and her family could afford their own living accommodations, they established membership at the less “Hoity-toity! Madam-is-in-her airs” Monumental Baptist Church.

Roland and his brothers also met several of their cousins for the first time. Roland recalled that this was when he first met Uncle Robert and Aunt Katie’s daughter, Helen Alzada Mann. Born September 24, 1893, Alzada was among the oldest of fourteen children. Roland offered a fanciful tale of this meeting with his first cousin and future wife. As he told it, she was more impressed with his recently purchased, “squeaky high-pitched bright” yellow shoes. Roland was thirteen and Helen Alzada was a mere seven when they met. This was hardly a fateful first encounter for the two, as his account suggested. In fact, the path to their marriage some thirty-two years later was far more complex with many roads and detours than Roland’s simplified version intimates.

Fannie had moved her sons to Chattanooga to take advantage of better educational opportunities. Her strategy, then, required that Robert and Roland alternate going to school. While one son spent the year being educated, the other would work to support the family. Robert, who was older and presumably more educated than Roland, began school in Chattanooga, while Roland found work. Because of his age, “Baby” Jesse was able to attend school full-time.

Before he turned fourteen in 1901, Roland had found a job at the Price-Evans Foundry Company, which produced iron door and window weights. He persuaded his employer to hire him, citing his family’s dire need for him to work, and he was initially compensated at eighty cents a day. The young Roland described his work at the foundry as the hardest work he had ever done. Along with an adult employee, he loaded iron from a nearby freight yard from the early morning to the midafternoon. Once they returned to the foundry with the metal, they began melting the iron in large vats and pouring it into molds to create the weights.

While transporting the molten hot iron from the vats to the molding casts, Roland wore his old brass-tipped brogans without shoestrings. In the very likely event that hot iron spilled, he could easily kick off the shoes. Even with this precaution, the boy sustained permanent scars on his feet and legs from the occasional hot iron flake. Roland eventually graduated to the less physically taxing job of working with the casts used in molding the iron. Because he developed a more efficient method of blending the formula in this process, he was promoted to foreman with a higher salary and shorter working hours.

Roland worked this job for more than a year before returning to school and kept it, at least part time, while he attended school in the afternoon. The muscle-bound, nearly sixteen-year-old wage earner and head of his household struck a clear contrast with the rest of the class of young children learning basic skills. But for the times, such a contrast was not that unusual. During the oratorical lessons, he lost a little of his southern drawl but not his somewhat affected pronunciation of words beginning with the letter t, which sounded more like a td combination.

Fannie had not abandoned her plan for Roland to enter the pulpit. In 1903, Roland and his brothers were baptized in the Tennessee River after being inspired by the word as delivered through Reverend William G. Ward. Reverend Ward led more than twenty-five converts (among them Roland) to the waters of salvation wearing their white baptism gowns. In accepting Jesus Christ into his life, Roland had to give up certain practices, such as buck and toe dancing (a popular dance step of the time), and he had to dissociate himself from non-churchgoing boys. He reached a compromise in the latter category by requiring his friends not to swear, take the Lord’s name in vain, or engage in other blasphemous activities when he was around. Had it been left up to Fannie, the restrictions would have been even more severe, as she had routinely warned him to “come out from amongst them” after his baptism.

Roland did not, however, concede to stop singing. In fact, he sang whether he was at work or in casual settings and saw no contradiction between singing and his newly acquired spiritual status. Roland recalled hearing a young African American man, Lemus Hardison, singing on the streets in the Fort Wood area of Chattanooga during this period; his tenor voice was strangely and profoundly reminiscent of Roland’s late father’s. Roland frequently sat in on the rehearsals of Hardison’s singing group.

Whether it was in response to Hardison’s group is not clear, but Roland did join an a cappella vocal group, the Silver-Toned Quartet. It included Robert Igoe (who eventually married one of Roland’s cousins), Ben Ingram, and Roland’s brother Robert Brante. The group sang at train stations and in affluent neighborhoods, where appreciative listeners responded by tossing them nickels and quarters. As choir members of the Monumental Baptist Church, the Silver-Toned Quartet had to adhere to the singing requirements of musical director Mrs. Jane Kennedy, who also played a pivotal role in young Roland’s career aspirations and goals.

A life-changing event occurred shortly after Roland’s spiritual conversion. He offered different accounts of the incident at the Casey-Hedges Foundry but always came to the same conclusion – his survival was nothing short of miraculous.

While standing too close to the conveyor machinery, Roland’s clothes got caught in one of the belts. He was dragged onto the machine, which rotated at least three times on the pulley before it could be stopped. Mercifully, he was knocked unconscious by the belt’s first rotation, but his rescuers initially thought he had been killed by the accident. After being revived, he was taken to a doctor’s office and treated. Eventually the battered young Roland was taken home in a full body cast. When Fannie saw her son in this condition, she lost her composure and ran from the house, fearing that she would be told he was dead. Because African Americans were rarely hospitalized in those days, the foundry provided Fannie with a full-time nurse to assist her in bringing Roland back to health. The owners of Casey-Hedges were also prepared to guarantee Roland a lifetime position with the company as additional compensation for his accident.

Elsewhere, Roland likened his conveyor belt incident to that of the apostle Paul, who similarly had to be prepared (through his temporary blindness on the road to Damascus) for his mission. Describing the incident in Pauline terms, Roland said: “There was nothing at all to save me… except the power of God. That I was saved convinced me that I was spared to fulfill a Divine Purpose. I saw the accomplishment of that Purpose through the musically artistic gifts with which the ALMIGHTY had endowed me.” During his ten-week convalescence, he reflected on what he had experienced and the severity of the incident that he had miraculously survived. When he returned to his old job, Roland could no longer stand the sight of the conveyor machine. When he passed the huge contraption, he again questioned how someone could have survived being pulled through the machine three times.

Even before the accident at the foundry, Roland had a reputation for singing at work. His employers at the foundry, as well as in his previous jobs, made exceptions to the rules and allowed him to do so. Once he was fit enough, Roland resumed his membership in the Silver-Toned Quartet, as well as in the Monumental Baptist Church choir, again under the direction of Mrs. Kennedy. The stage was now set for the next phase of Roland’s formal musical development.

Roland’s first formal voice teacher learned through Mrs. Kennedy that he could sing. She arranged for him to perform at a commencement program where W. Arthur Calhoun, Mrs. Kennedy’s brother and a student at the well-regarded Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, was also present. Calhoun, who would spur Roland on to the next phase in his career, had taken a year away from his studies to earn money for school by returning to Chattanooga to teach voice and piano. Calhoun also gave small programs in area churches for extra money and staged such a program at Monumental Baptist Church. After hearing Roland’s small solo, Calhoun attempted to persuade him that his voice was worth developing. During a walk after that service, Calhoun took Roland’s hand and said, “Boy, but you have a fine tenor voice! What are you going to do with it?” The still shy Roland responded, “I don’t know, Sir. I just sing because I like to.”

Encouraging him to take his talent seriously, the Oberlin-trained keyboardist and voice teacher walked Roland to his house, convincing him that his instrument was worthy of cultivation and training. Persuading Fannie that her son should spend fifty cents per lesson, twice a week, was an entirely different matter. Roland quite vividly remembered Calhoun approaching his mother about studying voice with him:

When he [Calhoun] talked to my mother about it he had an even more discouraging reception. I only laughed at the idea; but she resented it.

To her it was worse than nonsense. She was rather proud of me – a good, steady, hard-working boy, earning better wages than many older men received. She knew no colored people who made a living out of music, except those who sang and played in dance halls and places of that sort. She didn’t want any boy of hers to take up that kind of life. So she and my friend were decidedly at swords’ points.

He was so persistent that I consented to let him teach me, or try to, and for a while he gave me lessons. But I still wasn’t very much interested.

Roland made reference to some of the repertoire that he worked on with Calhoun, such as the once-popular wedding song “I Love You Truly,” “Forgotten,” and “The End of a Perfect Day.” Calhoun exposed the young Roland to other standard art music repertoire. Within months of studying with Calhoun, Roland’s voice lessons stretched his imagination, and he became dedicated to pursuing a singing career.

Shortly thereafter, a local lodge staged the Hezekiah Butterworth cantata David the Shepherd Boy, and Roland (with Calhoun’s influence and coaching) was assigned the lead role. The mostly white audience’s reaction to the young singer was “tremendous.” But Roland still wavered, heeding Fannie’s warnings, weighing her often-stated opposition to a singing career against his own desire, and wondering, “Does God want me to sing instead of making stoves?”

Among Calhoun’s other pupils were the daughters of Civil War colonel and editor of the highly regarded Chattanooga Times William Stone. After Roland had been studying for about a year, Calhoun arranged an introduction between the young singer and Stone, who played a defining role in Hayes’s development. Roland recalled the fateful meeting of early autumn of 1904, when Calhoun first took him to Stone’s house to sing. Roland recalled that he was eventually invited into a parlor where Stone, his wife, and their daughters were present. Following the protocol of the period, Mrs. Stone and her daughters immediately excused themselves from the room upon the young black man’s arrival. As Hayes began to sing, however, they returned, one by one.

While the setting was unique for Roland (the tenor had mostly visited the homes of poor African Americans), the experience at Stone’s home was memorable for another reason. After Roland had sung for the family, Stone introduced Hayes to the recordings of Dame Nellie Melba, Emma Ames, and Marcella Sembrich on his gramophone. Roland likened the experience to being reborn and later referred to it as akin to a blind person being given sight; it was one of three epiphanies that he experienced during his formative years.

It was Stone’s recording of the celebrated tenor Enrico Caruso, however, that would have the most profound impact on Roland. The wealthy editor played the Italian singer’s rendition of “Vesti la giubba” (Put on your costume) from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s decade-old verismo opera I Pagliacci (The Clowns). The beauty, clarity, and power of Caruso’s voice seared Roland’s being. He sat in the parlor, nearly speechless. If, after studying with Calhoun for only a few brief weeks, Roland was dedicated to a singing career, the experience at William Stone’s house that evening sparked him to set yet another new goal: that of being a great artist in the tradition of Caruso himself. Pursuing his ambition of becoming a great singer became Roland’s life’s work, and from that point on he pursued it with missionary zeal.

Roland Hayes studied with Arthur Calhoun for at least another year, but he (and no doubt Calhoun) realized his teacher’s limitations. Roland credited Calhoun, however, with exposing him to the necessary people and circumstances that would eventually lead him to greatness.

Hayes Blossoms at Fisk University

In spite of Roland’s clear commitment to an artistic career, in 1906 Fannie remained the doubting Thomas. She often stated, “They tell me Negroes can’t understand good music, and white people don’t want to hear it from us. So it seems to me you are making a mistake.” Based on her enslaved background and lack of exposure to such an unimaginable world, her observation was sound. Roland, at the same time, was committed to moving forward with his goal, which meant furthering his vocal studies. For some time, Calhoun had wanted Hayes to enroll at Oberlin College in Ohio, and Roland was more than willing to comply. To address the obvious issue of resources, Roland asked Fannie for some of the family’s collective savings. With fifty dollars, most of which he had earned himself, and an incredible amount of determination, he set off for Nashville on the first leg of his journey.

After arriving in the city–which, by the turn of the century, had become an important trading center as state capital with a population of 90,000–Roland went to African American churches to seek the assistance of those ministers. Encouraged by what he had learned from Calhoun, Hayes gave concerts at local churches, charging ten cents for admission, which he would share with the church. He had begun this practice in Chattanooga. Of course, Roland had to pay from his share the accompanist and other performance-related expenses. This arrangement actually depleted his resources. In order to avoid returning to Chattanooga in defeat, which young Roland considered unthinkable, he adjusted his plans. Instead of attending Oberlin, he would choose a school closer to home. A public school teacher in Nashville, Miss Margaret Stubbs, who was familiar with other music teachers in the city, suggested that Roland try nearby Fisk University. Founded in 1866 by the American Missionary Association, a collection of Protestant denominations dedicated in the nineteenth century to abolition, Fisk University was one of several institutions committed to educating young African Americans who had either been enslaved or who were the children of Africans who had been held in bondage. Roland, however, understood that his fifth grade education and lack of resources would be a hindrance to such a suggestion.

Roland was understandably shy when he and Stubbs entered Fisk’s well-manicured campus and was awed by the magnificence of Jubilee Hall, built through a donation by the renowned Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. Roland’s intimidation grew when he and Stubbs approached the tall and severe Miss Jennie Robison, director of the music department. After much pleading, Stubbs persuaded Robinson to give Roland an informal hearing. Stubbs accompanied Hayes at the keyboard while he nervously sang Robert A. King’s “Beyond the Gates of Paradise” and “Forgotten.” Although the well-known and often-performed “Beyond the Gates” was a standard at the turn of the twentieth century, Robinson appeared unmoved by the singing. Her specific remarks were, “Where did you learn such sentimental rubbish?” Predictably, Robinson vetoed even the possibility of a place for Roland for the approaching fall school term. Stubbs rose again to his defense and prevailed upon her to speak to Fisk president Dr. James G. Merrill on Roland’s behalf.

The following day, a now genuinely frightened Roland appeared before Merrill, whose long Roman nose impressed the apprehensive youth. Hayes thought the man looked like the American eagle itself. After rapidly administering a battery of questions and asking Hayes what gave him the temerity to present himself without adequate preparation, Merrill sent the thoroughly cowed young man for a formal admission examination. That test measured Roland’s mathematical ability, reading comprehension, geographical knowledge, and ability to recite poetry. Quite expectedly, the test revealed that Hayes was at the fifth grade level at best. Yet Roland had evidently stirred the heart of the institution’s otherwise stern president, because after thoroughly scrutinizing the test’s results and informing him of his deficiencies, he granted Hayes a provisional month-long admission, during which his performance would determine his future at the school.

Roland was admitted to Fisk’s lower school – like a high school – in a program designed to assist students who needed remedial work prior to collegiate admission. Less than two generations after enslaved Africans were legally freed in the United States, Roland Hayes’s admission scenario was not that uncommon. In addition to granting Roland provisional admission, Merrill took the extraordinarily generous step of securing the newly admitted student a job as a butler and furnace boy to a local judge and his family. It included his accommodations, meals, and a stipend of one dollar per week. Roland admitted that he worked mind and body at school as well as at his job off-campus to prove himself worthy.

His relationship with his employers, the Childress family, was long lasting, even though he worked for them only for his first year at Fisk. While he served the Childress family, Roland learned all of the niceties of polite society, including how to set tables, among other activities which displayed his polish.

But the most pivotal personality in Hayes’s years at Fisk, and perhaps throughout his life, was Jennie Asenath Robinson. Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1857, Robinson’s family had moved to the territory from Michigan with Christian missionary intent and abolitionist sympathies. She received a bachelor’s degree from Highland College in 1875 and later matriculated at Oberlin, where she studied until 1887, when she took a position as director of the fledgling music department at Fisk University. Robinson arrived in Nashville as a single thirty-two-year-old; she was imposing, severe, and strict and always wore her blonde, full-length hair neatly in a bun on top of her head. She was the definition of modesty. She wore no frills and very little jewelry. Robinson came to the institution with clear standards about what constituted an appropriate music education and recruited like-minded faculty members from Oberlin to support her in establishing the budding program. The great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European music composers were her ideal for instructing her students in voice culture, music theory, and other aspects of vocal production. Even late nineteenth-century composers like Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf, whom Roland would come to love, were considered “too modern” for this classical music purist. She equipped all of her aspiring teachers with other necessary tools they would need to be successful and directed them to stay current with the latest vocal techniques and avoid repertory like popular “Negro spirituals,” which she felt might demean their knowledge of great composers of previous centuries. Her thirty-two-year legacy was rich as she trained and placed students in strategic music-related teaching and administration positions throughout the South.

To the chagrin of her Fisk colleagues, notably John W. Work II, the Nashville-born, Harvard-trained African American professor of classics and the leader of the Jubilee Singers at the time of Hayes’s arrival, Jennie Robinson was dismissive, if not disdainful, of the music being performed and promoted by the celebrated Jubilee singing group. From her standpoint and musical training, the Jubilee vocal tradition was uncultured and unprogressive, as it employed demeaning black dialect and advanced practices contrary to the standard she set for her students. Unfortunately for Roland, he arrived at the institution as these clearly delineated musical philosophies were most pronounced.

At the end of Hayes’s first year at Fisk, he was summoned to President Merrill’s office for his “one-month” probationary assessment. Merrill reported to the young student that it had been a “long one-month probation.” He offered Hayes a scholarship and employment with a family on campus for the following year. Roland was properly elated but had learned to show polite restraint in public. He formed a closer bond with his next employer than that which he had enjoyed with the Childress family.

In the fall of 1907, the second-year Fisk student began working for Professor Warren G. Waterman, whom he described as a “tall Yankee chemist with sunburned skin and a consumptive stoop.” As with the Childresses, Roland maintained a relationship with the Waterman family, even after they left Nashville. Warren Waterman, like William Stone years prior, possessed a Victrola Talking Machine, on which he played recordings of European art music singers for Roland. This exposure to the great operatic repertory would be useful to him in the future. While performing his servant duties in the Waterman household, it was common practice for Roland to sing. On one occasion, Waterman heard singing and assumed that the young man was playing some of his prized recordings without authorization. He rushed downstairs, expecting to find Roland playing his phonograph, only to discover it was Roland singing. Hayes had no idea that he had been observed. Thereafter, Waterman invited Roland to listen to his recordings but did not tell him he had mistaken Roland’s voice for a professional’s until many years later.

The relationship between Roland and Warren Waterman later developed into a genuine friendship. After moving to Evanston in the 1920s, the chemist maintained regular communication with the singer. Hayes later stayed as a guest in Waterman’s home when performing in the Evanston area.

Roland’s ability to sight-read notated music, pronounce and sing English and other languages, and develop his overall musicianship was dramatically enhanced under Jennie Robinson’s watchful eye. His method of learning vocal repertoire under Arthur Calhoun had been primarily through rote learning in which Calhoun played the notes for Roland on the keyboard, who then memorized the music. Through study with Robinson, he learned several well-known arias and great sacred works such as “If with All Your Heart” and “Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, pieces from Haydn’s Seven Last Words and Beethoven’s Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), and various Schubert lieder. Roland also sang solos at area churches and in 1908 participated in the Negro Music Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. Between 1908 and 1910, the tenor sang solos in concerts given by the Fisk Mozart Society, which was, of course, a Robinson-sanctioned outlet for his impressive talent.

Some sources suggest that Hayes toured with the highly regarded Jubilee Singers, who were loosely affiliated with Fisk University, but there is no record of such travels. In subsequent years, however, he received communications from those who were either in the group with him or saw him perform with the group. His greatest involvement with the Jubilee Singers seems to have been during his fourth year at Fisk, during which time Roland continued his employment with Warren Waterman but lived in a men’s dormitory.

President Merrill, who had been so generous to the young student, left the university in 1908. During the 1908–09 academic year, George A. Gates assumed the helm of the growing university. Roland had made steady progress in the lower school, where he had one more year of study before seeking admission to the collegiate department.

In the spring of 1909, Roland was the victim of a racial attack, which made its way into the local African American weekly. Under an April 23 headline that read, “Row Over Beef Steak, Mr. Rowland [sic] W. Hayes Assaulted,” the Nashville Globe detailed Roland’s encounter with three white men:

Mr. Rowland [sic] W. Hayes, a student at Fisk University, was brutally assaulted by three white men near the corner of Eighteenth avenue and Jefferson street one day last week, and was severely injured. It is said that two of the men held Mr. Hayes while the third man was doing the cowardly act. Mr. Hayes is slowly recovering from his injuries.

The affair, it seems, was the result of a difference of opinion about a beefsteak. Mr. Hayes went into a grocery of one Burton to purchase a steak. He asked that he be given one to cost a certain price. When the grocer cut it the weight put the price in excess of what was asked for. Mr. Hayes told him that he could not accept it. Burton insisted and Mr. Hayes started out. He was followed to the door and across the street. Burton called him a s… of a b… and struck him a blow, felling him. Young Mr. Hayes rallied quickly and retaliated. He was giving a good account of himself until several other white men took Burton’s part, preventing Hayes from defending himself, so that Burton could assault him.

The citizens in the neighborhood are very indignant over the affair and are outspoken in their denunciation of the grocer-man. They entertain some fear as to the safety of this place.

Such were the all-too-frequent affronts and injustices that southern African American men and women faced. Roland never mentioned this assault in any other biographical account, but defending himself as he did in a three-against-one fight was in line with his quick temper.

Hayes Is Certain Destiny Is On His Side

Having had some financial success with his Silver-Toned Quartet in Chattanooga a few years earlier, Roland put together another male quartet made up of Fisk students during the spring semester of 1910. The members included James Clarence Olden (who became a well-known Baptist minister and whose daughter, Sylvia Olden-Lee, was also a celebrated musician), second tenor; Leon Pulaski O’Hara, baritone; and William Henry Patton, bass. Roland, of course, sang first tenor. The foursome initially advertised themselves as the “Fisk Quartette No. 2” and had placed notices in the Globe for an upcoming recital, but by the February 14, 1910, concert date, they staged a “Grand Concert” at Spruce Street Baptist Church at 8:00 pm as the “Apollo Quartet – Fisk University.” However, by regulation of the school’s music department (and no doubt the institution), they were forbidden to form such groups without written permission or to use the name of the university in their title. Specifically, “students in voice culture must consult the teacher of that department before joining any quartet, club, or other singing organization.” As the Apollo Quartet was a private for-profit organization with no official connection to the university, there was an obvious conflict of interest in using the university’s name.

Thus, the stage was set for the drama that Roland later described as his second major epiphany. In early May, he was sent for by Miss Robinson and told that he must return all of his borrowed music to the library, to which he responded with an obligatory, “Yes ma’am,” unaware of the implications of her demand. Robinson then explained that he was being dismissed from the university, an announcement that hit him like a thunderbolt. When the totally bewildered Roland questioned Robinson about what offense he had committed to provoke such a dramatic action, she sternly told him to search his conscience and that it should tell him of his offense.

The still-confused Roland immediately went to see his employer and mentor, Warren Waterman. The best the singer could discern from Waterman’s inquiries was that Jennie Robinson was upset with him for spending too much time with the Jubilee Singers and not enough on his studies in the music department. Waterman then told the young man that Jennie Robinson had been financing, through her personal funds or those solicited from friends, his very education. The seemingly forgetful Roland had not factored in that not only had he formed a quartet without permission, violating department and university policy, but also he had accepted money for it while representing it as an officially sanctioned group of the institution. His participation with these unauthorized groups, which were the antithesis of her musical direction, surely had outraged the strict instructor all the more.

At the time of his dismissal, Roland suspected that he was being told to leave because he had sometimes broken the rules that required students to receive permission before leaving campus. Admittedly, he had neglected to make such a request on several occasions. He understood that he had permission to take off-campus singing engagements, as this had been done with the faculty’s implied, if not specific, approval. Roland appealed his dismissal to the new president, George Gates, but was informed that Miss Robinson’s action would stand.

Had he been more contrite, Roland might have talked his way back into the institution, but his pride and anger, according to him, prevented him from admitting any fault. He eventually accepted the decision as fate and a part of some greater plan for him to leave Fisk University. At Waterman’s advice, Roland decided to leave quietly and be grateful for the four years of secondary education he had received. Before departing, however, he sang with the Jubilee Club at a university commencement exercise. When his solo was announced at the ceremony, his now-former teacher Jennie Robinson conspicuously stood up and left the chapel. This public snub was the final insult from his financier. It was also Roland’s last performance as a student at the institution but not his final affiliation with Fisk.

At twenty-three years old, Hayes acted on Warren Waterman’s advice and traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, where he embarked on the next phase of his journey and joined a choral society, which was being directed at the time by a Fisk University trustee. He had performed in the city two years earlier in the Negro Music Festival, so it was not a totally unfamiliar location.

Roland’s first nine months in Louisville were quite fruitful in terms of opportunities and social acquaintances. Early in his stay he met a white family, the Jordans, who showed him hospitality and friendship. After his experience with Jennie Robinson (and to a lesser extent with Warren Waterman, who Roland felt should have argued his case more vigorously) at Fisk, Roland had reason to be suspicious of European Americans, but he later said the Jordans helped to restore his faith in them collectively through their kindness. The Jordans had a young son, Howard, who was about eight when Roland first met the family. Thirteen years later, Howard became Roland’s personal secretary and assistant.

It was through his involvement with the choral society in Louisville that Roland was engaged to sing the tenor solo in Handel’s Messiah at Howard University under the direction of Lulu Vere Childers. As that university’s music department chair, she was a major supporter of the young tenor’s early career. Roland and Childers maintained a strong professional relationship for years.

Roland’s main job in Louisville, however, was as a waiter at the upscale, all-men’s Pendennis Club, founded in 1881. Of course in 1910, those of African ancestry held only servant roles at the club, as was the case with Roland. His manners, waiting skills, and deportment were quite polished, and his newly cultivated speaking voice also placed him ahead of the other waitstaff.

After discovering his vocal talent, Pendennis Club management invited the singer to perform at several events, including dinners and “smokers.” He was paid five dollars for solo engagements and was also given generous tips. A performance at the Pendennis Club led to an offer from a local theater owner to sing opera arias from behind a screen while silent movies were being shown. Roland earned the tidy sum of forty dollars a week from such engagements.

In the spring of 1911, Roland sang at the Pendennis Club for a formal dinner held in honor of northern businessmen doing work in the region. Among the group was Henry H. Putnam, a top executive with the John Hancock Insurance Company in Boston. Putnam and Hayes did not formally meet at the dinner, but the Boston businessman spoke to the dinner’s arranger after Hayes’s performance at the social club. He was quite impressed with Roland’s singing but felt the young tenor needed further vocal study to refine his talent and suggested that Roland come to Boston to do so. The Pendennis manager eventually spoke to Roland about Putnam’s comments.

On the heels of Henry Putnam’s recommendation, Roland received a letter dated March 18, 1911:

My dear Mr. Hayes:

There is to be a great missionary exhibition in Boston in April and May. It is so large and comprehensive that it is called “The World in Boston.” Fisk University has been asked to furnish a company of singers to represent the achievements in this line of Negro people as contrasted with conditions of those people in Africa and later in slavery. That puts upon us a grave responsibility. The judgment which probably more than a million of people will form concerning the ten millions of our people in this country is going to depend somewhat and somewhat largely upon the kind of spirit, as well as musical efficienty [sic], which this company of singers exhibits.

Realizing something of the importance of this undertaking I ventured to appoint a special committee, consisting of Prof. Work, Dean Wright, Miss Robinson, Mrs. Moore, Miss Spence and Miss Cook, which committee, with me, should select the members of this company to go North on this mission.

After several meetings and abundant discussion and earnest thought the following company has been chosen:

Sopranos: Mrs. Mari P. Merrill, Mrs. Hadley, Miss Lula Williams. Altos: Mrs. J. W. Work, Miss Desrette Hodges.

Tenors: Mr. J. C. Olden, Mr. Roland W. Hayes.

Basses: Mr. N. W. Ryder, Mr. L. L. Foster.

Prof. Work expects to go along, at least to get the work started…

The University will be put to large expense in this matter and it is hoped and really expected that the expense will be met from the proceeds of the exhibition…

In order to reach the high purpose with which these singers go North we hope that they will go with the same reverent and consecrated spirit as marked the outgoing of the original Jubilee Singers. As one learns more of the way those singers went out one wonders less that they touched the heart of the world. There is no reason in the nature of things why other companies of singers cannot accomplish something similar. In order to [accomplish] that two things are necessary. First, the spirit already mentioned; second, faithful and patient training with all accessible judgment brought to bear upon it. Therefore may we not ask you that nothing be neglected that can possibly add to the accomplishment of what we desire?

Sincerely yours,

George A. Gates

This letter from the president of Fisk must have hit Roland with nearly the same force as his sudden dismissal from the university had ten months earlier, but this time in a positive way. Receiving this letter on the heels of Henry Putnam’s suggestion that he come to Boston, of all places, to study was nothing short of an other-world sign.

Also of note is Jennie Robinson’s participation in the selection committee that chose him to go north. Robinson most likely opposed Roland’s inclusion in the group but was perhaps outvoted by a majority, most notably by John W. Work II, the director leading the ensemble. He was well aware of the tenor’s musical talent and likely insisted on including Roland based on the musical needs of the traveling choir. In any case, Roland looked upon Jennie Robinson more charitably in later years when he considered her role in helping educate the barely literate young man he was at the time. The six-week engagement in Massachusetts’s most cosmopolitan city was to pay fifty dollars a month plus expenses.

Boston, with its large museums, libraries, concert halls, opera houses, orchestras, plays, and many other trappings, was second only to New York City in terms of its sophistication. A musical education in such a setting, Roland opined, could facilitate his clear and determined career goals more quickly than in any other location. Besides, he also had an invitation to come to the city from an important Yankee businessman.

Seeing his Boston ambitions taking shape, Roland secured a letter of introduction from his manager at the Pendennis Club to Henry Putnam of John Hancock Insurance Company and accepted the invitation from President Gates to join the Fisk group, without revealing his real intentions for wanting to participate in the “great missionary exhibition in Boston.”

Roland’s return to the Nashville campus to attend rehearsals with the Fisk group for its upcoming trip to Boston came exactly one year after his inglorious dismissal. As he had performed for the commencement exercises of May 1910, he similarly performed for the graduating class of 1911.

En route to Boston, however, Roland made an obligatory stop through Chattanooga to see his mother, Fannie, who now was living alone. By 1911, Robert had married and moved to the West Coast, and “Baby” Jesse, who was at least twenty, had run away from home and eventually joined the US Navy. When Roland informed his mother of his plans to travel to Boston, she echoed her refrain that white people would not accept black people singing their concert music. But Roland had heard it all before. And as before, he was not easily discouraged. He left Fannie with the promise of returning to bring her north. Roland believed his move to Boston was the next step in his quest to become a great artist. He was also certain that destiny was on his side.

Christopher A. Brooks is Professor of Anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is author (with Shirley Verrett) of I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer and several other publications.

Robert Sims is Professor of Voice in the School of Music at Northern Illinois University.