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Students, Faculty + Alumni

YSM contributes to grave-marking fundraiser for Helen Hagan


Helen Eugenia Hagan was a concert pianist and composer who graduated from the Yale School of Music in 1912; she is believed to have been the School's first African American student. She was the first black pianist to perform a solo recital at a New York venue, and, in 1919, became the only African American performer to travel to France to entertain black troops stationed there after World War I. Yet, despite her accomplishments, Hagen is buried in an unmarked grave in New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery. 

Elizabeth Foxwell, editor of In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I, (2015), was dismayed to learn of this, and decided to launch a crowdfunding effort to mark the grave. "Reading the reviews of her performances — these rave reviews — and then you find out she’s in this unmarked grave, I was just totally shocked,” Foxwell said. The campaign has exceeded its $1500 goal, and Evergreen Cemetery’s Board of Directors has committed to moving ahead with the grave marker. The Yale Daily News quoted Paul McCraven, a member of the board, as stating that the cemetery is "excited" and feels it is important to celebrate the life and accomplishments of such a unique woman. The dedication ceremony will take place in November 2016, when the marker is installed. The Yale School of Music contributed to the fundraising effort which highlights the accomplishments of such an important alumna.

Robert Blocker, Dean of the Yale School of Music, said: “Over a century ago, Helen Hagan embodied the ideals of the School of Music that are reflected in our current students today - artistic excellence, intellectual curiosity, and service to humankind. Her achievements as a woman of color at the dawn of the 20th century are remarkable. We owe Elizabeth Foxwell profound gratitude for sharing Ms. Hagan's inspiring life with us and ensuring that her legacy is memorialized appropriately."

Foxwell notes that Hagan must have been an extremely talented performer. She began playing organ at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, the oldest African-American congregational church in the world, when she was just 11 or 12. She performed Saint-Saëns's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra when she was still an undergraduate at Yale and later performed her own Piano Concerto in C Minor (her only surviving composition) at Yale. The composition earned her the prestigious Samuel Simons Sanford scholarship, allowing her to study in France from 1912-14. Upon returning to the United States, she began her career as a concert pianist, spending the following years touring and eventually performing in New York City in 1921.

In addition to performing, Hagan served as a music instructor and administrator at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University), and later served as Dean of Music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Hagan is not the only talented female performer to graduate from Yale in the early 1900s: In her book, Foxwell shares an account of Estelle Pearl Cushman, a member of the class of 1914, who was the only official female "song leader" for U.S. Army camps during WWI. Cushman, a current Hartford resident, later became a music educator, active in the Connecticut Music Educators Association. A May 1912 Yale Daily News article includes an account of a School of Music concert that mentions both Hagan and Cushman.