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.
Maud Cuney was born to Wright and Adelina on 16 February 1874 in the thriving coastal city of Galveston. We rarely think of nineteenth-century black childhoods as idyllic, but Maud and Lloyd appear to have enjoyed one. The extended family was large and the neighborhood full of cousins, and the majestic Gulf shoreline was just a short walk away.
Not surprisingly, the promotion of education and culture were important to Wright and Adelina. Every night Wright read aloud to his children (often Byron), and they analyzed, memorized, and performed Shakespeare. Maud later wrote, “Christmas with the children’s party and the candle-lighted tree, always brought us books galore.”
Maud graduated from Central High School in Galveston in 1890. From there, she decided to pursue her musical interests and enroll at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. There she studied piano with Edwin Klahre (a Liszt student) and theory with Martin Roeder (a Joachim student and former assistant to Wagner).
But her heritage marked her for trouble. As the Conservatory had grown, it had admitted more and more wealthy students whose families held deep-seated prejudices against dark-skinned people. Weeks after her arrival, the Conservatory’s executive committee wrote to Maud’s father:
We have a large number of pupils who are affected by race prejudices, and the Home [the dormitory] must be conducted so as to insure the comfort and satisfaction of the largest number possible, otherwise its success, and the success of the Institution, which is entirely dependent upon its patronage, is imperiled.
The committee went on to suggest that for her own comfort and safety, Maud might want to live off-campus.
Maud refused to concede to the idea that her presence would singlehandedly destroy the New England Conservatory. When told she ought to move from her dormitory, she made it clear to the administrators that she would not. Her father was delighted with his daughter’s bravery. He wrote her:
You were quite right, darling, when you said that you knew your father would tell you to stay. I can safely trust my good name in your hands.
Completely understandably, another black student at the Conservatory, Florida L. Des Verney, couldn’t handle the stress, and decided to move off-campus instead of making waves. So Maud bore the brunt of the racism alone. “I refused to leave the dormitory,” she later wrote, “and because of this, was subjected to many petty indignities. I insisted upon proper treatment.”
After graduating from the Conservatory, she began studying music privately and taking courses in English literature at Harvard. During this time, she befriended members of Boston’s intellectual elite. One of her most influential friends (and fans) was no less than W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the most important American activists of the twentieth century. The two fell deeply in love and were even engaged for a time, but they never married. Scholars have suggested that Du Bois may have been hesitant to marry such a light-skinned woman, for fear of undermining his work and image. Whatever happened, they seem to have parted amicably, as they remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
After she finished her Eastern education, Maud returned to Texas. She taught at the Texas Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youths in 1897 and 1898. (Her father had been a supporter of the Institute for years.)
Again and again she found herself forced to push back against her field’s rampant racism. In 1897, she was scheduled to appear at the Austin Opera House. The administrators there forbid her to integrate the house; all black audience members, she was told, would have to sit in the balcony. Furious, she canceled her appearance and re-booked it at the Institute, where audiences of all races could sit together.
Tragedy struck the Cuney family in the 1890s, when Maud was in her early twenties. On 1 October 1895 her mother died of tuberculosis; on 3 March 1898, so did her beloved father. Their deaths were deeply destabilizing, and it’s tempting to speculate that her marriage in late 1898 to Dr. J. Frank McKinley was a reaction to these losses.
Marrying Dr. McKinley was not Maud’s wisest decision. He was a mixed-race physician twenty years her senior, and one of the few black doctors in Texas. But he seems to have lacked the activist bent that had been such a crucial component of Maud’s upbringing. Not long after their marriage, McKinley decided he wanted to leave for Chicago, purportedly because the patients he served in Texas were too poor. He also decided to abandon his African heritage after the move, choosing to pass as Spanish-American instead. He insisted that Maud follow his lead…which she did. When she gave birth to a daughter in 1900, baby Vera’s birth certificate identified her as Spanish-American.
The lie haunted Maud; it went against everything her father had ever taught her. As she once wrote, “He abhorred above all things the supposedly easier way of ‘passing for white,’ and instilled in my young brother and me a hatred and contempt for the cowardly method which is upheld by many who can successfully disown their Negro blood.”
Perhaps to soothe her conscience, she began to work as a volunteer and music teacher in Chicago, becoming a church leader and even joining the burgeoning settlement movement. But despite the importance of this community-centered work, Maud couldn’t escape the stress of the lie she was living.
Less than five years into her marriage, Maud fled to Texas with Vera. In 1902 Dr. McKinley filed for divorce. Maud was forced to return to Chicago for the ensuing custody battle, which quickly became bitterly personal. Dr. McKinley’s lawyer implied that Maud had left her husband for no reason and had endangered Vera by bringing her to Texas. Maud’s lawyer fired back the bombshell that Dr. McKinley was concealing his racial identity. At the time, fathers usually prevailed in these types of court battles, and in the end, Dr. McKinley gained full custody of Vera.
After losing her parents, her marriage, and her daughter, Maud sought solace in work and moved back to Boston. There she found new love with a man named William P. Hare. From the time of her second marriage, she went by the name Maud Cuney-Hare. She also re-ignited the custody battle, recognizing that she’d have a better chance of regaining her daughter if she was no longer a single mother. The plan worked; Maud was allowed to see Vera for three months every summer. But tragically Vera passed away at the age of eight in 1908.
Again Maud found solace from tragedy in her work. Over the next few decades she racked up a dizzying list of professional accomplishments, all with the aim of promoting black musicians and black music.
She began a decades-long collaboration with baritone William Howard Richardson. They toured, played, and researched black music together. Eventually they began writing and performing “lecture concerts” to spread the word about African achievement. These proved to be so popular that Maud employed two booking agencies to schedule these lectures a year out. One critic admiringly described one of her lecture concerts: “Mrs. Hare talked in an instructive and interesting manner, about the origin and character of music. She is a fluent speaker, fortunate in her choice of words. Nor is she too didactic in giving information.”
She traveled the world as a pioneer of ethnomusicology, focusing on the music of Latin America as well as Creole music specifically. In 1921 Carl Fischer published her arrangement of and commentary on Six Creole Folk-Songs. She was especially drawn to the cultural diversity present in Creole music, and was quickly acknowledged as an expert in the field.
Six Creole Folk-Songs, arranged by Maud Cuney-Hare, from 0:00 – 8:52. IMSLP score here.
She wrote countless articles about music and the arts, often from a black perspective. She edited a column for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by her old friend Du Bois. She also wrote for whiter audiences in magazines like Musical America, The Christian Science Monitor, and others.
In 1929 she wrote and produced a play called Antar of Araby about the pre-Islamic poet, Antar Bin Shaddad. Black composers Clarence Cameron White and Montague Ring wrote the overture and the incidental music.
She founded the Allied Arts Center in Boston and ultimately became its funder and manager. The Center was open to students of all colors, but was especially geared toward supporting performers of color. She told the New York Age: “Through our art classes we aim to cultivate friendliness with all racial groups. Two Japanese boys are registered in a Saturday class. We are opposed, you see, to the idea of separateness, and hope, through conscientious work, to become one of the noteworthy streams in making of an ideal New England and American spirit.” By the late 1920s, supporting the Center took so much of her time and energy that she cut back on concertizing.
She collected artifacts of music history, like instruments, photographs, and letters. One of her prized possessions was a set of copies of the letters between Beethoven and George Bridgetower, the black dedicatee of the Kreutzer violin sonata. To learn that Beethoven thought so highly of a performer of color must have been eye-opening for her American audiences.
Her crowning achievement, however, was her book Negro Musicians and Their Music. She finished a first draft in 1924, but faced extreme difficulty in finding a publisher. She wrote to Du Bois:
The manuscript of my History of Afro-American music is still at the house – two or three publishers have spoken well of it, but think it too expensive a proposition, in that the book would appeal to a limited class of readers. I am tempted to break it up in parts, but it ought to be published as it is. It is needed.
Finally, in 1931, black historian Carter G. Woodson offered to publish the book. The only other volume that had ever been published about black music was James Monroe Trotter’s Music and Some Highly Musical People…in 1878. Maud was on the cutting edge of the scholarship. Today the book is available for free.
In the early 1930s, Maud Cuney-Hare began experiencing excruciating pain. She underwent exploratory surgery that spring. The pain turned out to be terminal cancer. Toward the end of her life, she wrote to Du Bois:
I am in such trying irritating pain – never a day free from it since I was operated on. I miss my music, that is the ability to play for myself, and can’t but get discouraged when acute pain keeps me from playing.
She died on either 13 or 14 February 1936. The funeral was held the day after her sixty-second birthday. She was buried in Galveston. Her parents’ graves are marked. Hers is not.
“Maud Cuney was the bravest woman I have ever known,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote after her death. “For those born in adversity, fighting fate becomes a habit, rather than virtue; but when one is born to the purple and is first in mid-life overwhelmed by successive and relentless blows of every kind of cruelty and adversity, then to keep one’s chin up, the eye unflinching, and the courage unfaltering, calls for the sort of soul men seldom see.”
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