When she was born in Galveston in 1874, musician and musicologist Maud Cuney-Hare inherited a legacy that was rich, horrifying, and uniquely American.
Her paternal grandfather had been one of the largest slaveholders in Texas. He was a delegate to the 1848 Democratic National Convention, where he advocated for the preservation of slavery.
Her paternal grandmother was, for all intents and purposes, his concubine, and she bore her owner eight mixed-race children. Maud’s father Wright Cuney grew up in a household teeming with both full siblings and “legitimate” half-siblings. The former were slaves; the latter were free.
We have no record why (guilt? love? ego? paternalism?), but in the end, her grandfather decided to free his mixed-raced children and send them to Pittsburgh to be educated.
Despite the prejudice caused by his dark complexion, Wright Cuney grew up to become a successful entrepreneur, politician, and activist. According to Wikipedia, he secured the “highest-ranking appointed position of any African American in the late 19th-century South” when he was appointed United States Collector of Customs in Galveston in 1889.
When he was twenty-five, Wright married a gray-eyed sixteen-year-old beauty named Adelina. She too was the daughter of a white planter father and his concubine slave. She sang, played the piano, and was an activist in her church and community. Over the course of their marriage, Wright and Adelina had two children: Lloyd (named after abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) and Maud.
Maud Cuney’s cultural inheritance was no doubt a bewildering one to come to terms with. It consisted of rape, poverty, and oppression, as well as self-determination, wealth, and privilege. Ultimately Maud Cuney chose to use that legacy, and the advantages it offered her, to promote the achievements of African musicians.
Despite a lifetime of devotion to that cause, she is almost entirely forgotten today.