Only one African-American performing artist was sent to World War I France as part of the Proctor Party, a small group of black women who provided services ranging from catering to entertainment for 100,000 troops from the American Expeditionary Forces. But today, she lies in an unmarked grave in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. Elizabeth Foxwell, staff editor at the Catholic Historical Review, is looking to change this.
Helen Hagan, who graduated from the Yale School of Music in 1912, was a composer and pianist who travelled to France in 1919 .Foxwell, currently based in Washington, D.C., was editing a book about American women in WWI when she discovered that Hagan was buried in an unmarked grave. She launched a crowdfunded campaign via the online platform “CrowdRise” to raise $1,500 to install a tombstone. Although she is now just $245 away from her target, Evergreen Cemetery’s board of directors decided Sunday to move ahead with the installation of a grave marker regardless of the outcome of the campaign.
“For a proper grave marker that would recognize Hagan’s place in music as well as her World War I service commitment, it would be a substantial contribution,” Foxwell said. “I thought it should be a collaborative effort.”
Foxwell noted that as an African-American classical performer, Hagan was a pioneer. When Hagan was younger, she played the organ at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, which has stood since 1820 and is the oldest African-American Congregational United Church of Christ in the world. Hagan then matriculated at the Yale School of Music, winning a substantial monetary prize in 1910 for her performance talent. Hagan also performed with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.
Foxwell said Hagan’s service in France was a significant commitment. Travelling required her to forgo around eight months of concert revenue. Foxwell said she read a letter authored by Hagan that outlines her financial difficulties funding an advanced degree to enable her to teach.
“[These women] really should be lauded for their tremendous hard work and what they had to accomplish with not a lot of resources,” Foxwell said.
Hagan’s only surviving composition is her 1912 concerto in C minor. Foxwell said Hagan composed other pieces for the pianoforte and for the violin that have not been recovered.
Paul McCraven, a member of Evergreen Cemetery’s board of directors, said the cemetery considers it important to celebrate the life and accomplishments of such a unique woman.
“We’re definitely very excited,” McCraven said. “We would love to have a ceremony in the fall when the marker is placed.”
The crowdfunded campaign has brought about a new awareness of Hagan’s achievements.
Associate Dean of the School of Music Michael Yaffe said he was excited about the recent attention given to Hagan, whose musical and compositional talent was often overlooked because she was an African-American woman.
“I think [the push for a gravestone] is so important,” Yaffe said. “She wasn’t a name familiar to me, but now she is.”
Lucy Caplan GRD ’20, a graduate student in American Studies and African American Studies, came across Hagan’s name while researching for her dissertation on African-American classical musicians in the early 20th century. After learning of the push for a tombstone, Caplan said the situation presents an opportunity to think about how Hagan’s story is a part of Yale’s story.
Caplan added that she would love to see a performance of Hagan’s surviving concerto on campus.
“There’s been lots of discussion on campus this year about which aspects of its history Yale chooses to acknowledge,” Caplan said. “Recognizing the historical achievements of a student of color is a salient issue.”
Hagan went on to teach at what it is now Tennessee State University.