New biography tells story of the first world famous African-American concert performer

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A recent biography co-written by a Virginia Commonwealth University professor tells the story of the tenor Roland Hayes — the first African-American man to achieve international fame as a concert performer, selling out Carnegie Hall and other major venues around the world.

"Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor," (Indiana University Press) was co-authored by Christopher Brooks, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Robert Sims, a professor of voice in the School of Music at Northern Illinois University.

Brooks will discuss the book at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29, at the Depot, 814 W. Broad St., as part of a talk sponsored by VCU's Humanities Research Center and VCU Libraries.

He recently spoke about the book, which aims to shed new light on the life, career and legacy of Hayes, who is not widely remembered, yet was an important pioneer of African-American music and a champion of African-American rights.

What was it about Roland Hayes' life that made you want to tell his story?

My scholarly interest and curiosity about the life of Roland Hayes (who paved the way for so many) was at the foundation of my interest in pursuing this book. I was also interested in reviving a name that is hardly remembered today.

This story brings from the shadows a portrait of a man as complex as the music he performed. His trailblazing career carved the paths for Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Todd Duncan, Dorothy Maynor, and a host of other African-American concert artists. He was one of the first classical vocalists to routinely program African-American spirituals, thereby beginning a tradition which continues among African-American classical singers today (including names like Lawrence Brownlee and Robert Sims, my collaborator). He transcended cultural, geographical and musical boundaries with his mastery of genres and a repertory from some of history's greatest composers.

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, Hayes's life was peppered with relationships that would place him among some of the most influential thinkers and artists of the 20th century. He counted George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Walter White, Pearl S. Buck, Ezra Pound, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson, Sterling Brown, Harry T. Burleigh, Ralph Bunche, A'lelia Walker, Richmond Barthé and Langston Hughes among his friends and acquaintances. He also crossed paths professionally with Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, and — with great stealth — the exiled "Lion of Judah," Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in exile in the United Kingdom.

What do you see as Roland Hayes' legacy?

Most modern day and many past African-American concert artists are inheritors of the Roland Hayes legacy because African-American spirituals continue to be performed by them. There is also another part of the legacy. In 1982, the Roland W. Hayes Concert Hall was dedicated at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus (where Hayes had been given an honorary doctorate in 1968 when the institution was still known as the University of Chattanooga). In 1990, the University of Wisconsin at Madison produced a public broadcast documentary entitled, "The Musical Legacy of Roland Hayes," which was aired nationally. In 1991, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame inducted Roland Hayes into that organization.

In the legendary singer's home state, the Roland Hayes Committee, which was responsible for his induction into Georgia's Musical Hall of Fame, evolved into the Roland Hayes Guild. The guild established a museum in his honor in Calhoun, Georgia, in what was once known as Curryville. In 1995, the Roland Hayes Guild (formerly the Roland Hayes Committee) oversaw the erection of a historical marker placed in Roland's honor in Calhoun under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. In 2000, the Roland Hayes Museum opened in the Harris Arts Center in Calhoun, Georgia. Concerts continue to be held annually in his honor. Similar dedicatory concerts are held throughout the country, especially in the Boston area, where schools and other collections were established in tribute to the late tenor's musical genius.

The Calhoun-based Roland Hayes Committee has, for the last several years, been the driving force behind the movement to have the United States Postmaster General issue a Roland Hayes commemorative stamp in its Black Heritage Series. Stamps have been produced to commemorate many lesser achievers, but to date there has been no Roland Hayes stamp.

What do you hope readers will get out of this book?

I want the reader to appreciate the significance of Roland Hayes' background (i.e. one generation removed from legal enslavement in this country) and how he managed to overcome the challenges of his times to become one of the world's most revered musicians. I would also want the reader to know that Hayes lived in an era when African-American men rarely spoke about or displayed their feelings publicly which added a layer of complexity to researching this book.

Why do you think Roland Hayes is not widely remembered, despite being such a trailblazing musical artist?

This is a complicated issue which I still grapple with. His slightly younger contemporaries Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson have been duly recognized with Black Heritage stamps among other honors. Marian Anderson was at the center of a major civil rights conflict in 1939 which involved the then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Robeson had his movies which offered him a degree of exposure and he also took a public political position which caused him grief during the McCarthy hearings. Roland Hayes, on the other hand, was quite quiet politically and stayed away from anything that might draw him into the public limelight which he didn't feel was appropriately crafted.

What did the research process for this book entail?

This is by far the most heavily researched book I have done in my career thus far. I (or my collaborator Robert Sims) traveled throughout this country, Europe and Africa researching this story. I was also fortunate to have the assistance of several VCU anthropology majors who helped with some aspect of this book.

Were you surprised by anything you found while researching his story?

Yes, Roland had a relationship with a married European countess with ties to the celebrated Hapsburg dynasty. They did their best to keep this relationship secret, but they had a child together. One of the serendipitous outcomes from this book was reuniting Hayes's European family with their American family.


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