A Tribute to the First African American Woman Graduate of the Yale School of Music

Helen-haganHelen Eugenia Hagan was a concert pianist and composer who graduated from the Yale School of Music in 1912. She is believed to be the school’s first African-American woman student.

Hagan began playing organ at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven before the age of 12. The church is the oldest African American congregational church in the world.

After graduating from Yale, Hagan studied in France for two years. Upon, her return home, she became a concert pianist. In 1919, she became the only African-American performer to travel to France during the First World War to entertain Black troops. Later, Hagan was a member of the music faculty at what is now Tennessee State University and served as dean of music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas.

Hagan is buried in an unmarked grave in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Elizabeth Foxwell, featured Hagan in her recent book In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I (Oconee Spirit Press, 2015). Foxwell said she was “shocked” to learn that such an accomplished woman was buried in an unmarked grave. She launched a successful crowdfunding effort to erect a monument to Hagan at Hagan’s gravesite.

The Yale School of Music contributed to the effort. 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.”

A dedication ceremony at the Evergreen Cemetery has been scheduled for this coming November.

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