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On this date in 1867, Emma Smith Hackley was born. She was a Black classical singer, social worker, writer, philanthropist, and activist.
Emma Azalia Smith was born in Murfreesboro, TN, the daughter of Henry and Corilla Smith, a blacksmith and a schoolteacher. Corilla Smith started giving Emma music lessons at the age of three. She also took private voice and violin lessons. Her mother had established a school to teach freed Blacks and their children, but white hostility drove the family out and they moved to Detroit.
She graduated from Capital High School in 1886 and got a teaching certificate a year later. Smith taught at Clinton Elementary School from 1887 to 1894. She became a member of the Detroit Musical Society, played in a Black orchestra, and performed voice recitals in the area.
In 1849, she eloped with Edwin H. Hackley, a lawyer, writer, and clerk and the two settled in Denver, CO., where she received a bachelor of music degree from the Denver College of Music. In 1901, she began her first concert tour, making her debut in Denver. She traveled abroad, and funded a “foreign scholarship for Black musicians,” established the Normal Voice Culture Institute in Chicago, and conducted numerous folk festivals around the country to teach the Negro Spiritual. At the time, many Black people did not want to hear this music, associating it with slavery. In 1904, she founded the People’s Chorus, 100 members of the Black community. She went to Paris and London where she studied and performed. She and her husband eventually separated, although they remained friends.
Hackley was intensely devoted to her Black roots, as she easily could have passed for white. She had light skin with auburn hair and many urged her to pass to further her career, but she refused. She made several tours--cross country and abroad--to raise funds for African American classical musicians.
Emma Azalia Smith Hackley championed the use of African American spirituals among the African American people as a tool for social change. Her efforts laid the groundwork for the use of spirituals as freedom songs during the early 20th century American Civil Rights Movement.
Her name became synonymous with musical excellence and progress. Emma Hackley, who championed the use of the Black spiritual among her own people as a tool for social change died on December 13, 1922 in Detroit.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York