When the African-American concert soprano, teacher, and social activist Emma Azalia Hackley (1867-1922) called herself a “race musical missionary,” spreading musical culture to blacks while traversing the country, she probably didn’t think her missionary work would continue 90 years after her death.
However, the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of Negro Music, Dance and Drama, housed in the Main Detroit Public Library (DPL), is still promoting awareness of African-Americans in the performing arts, from the 19th century to the present.
The collection began in 1943 as a gift to the DPL from the Detroit Musicians’ Association, a local chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians. It was the first archive of its kind in the world, and has since grown to include more than a quarter-million items in the library’s vertical file (newspaper and magazine clippings), as well as thousands of books, movie and concert posters, illustrated sheet music, vinyl records and CDs, photographs, recital programs, and other ephemera.
Hackley, who was born in Tennessee, grew up in Detroit, and taught in Detroit Public Schools. Her fame spread as she traveled throughout the country, performing concerts and teaching. One of her students was the contralto Marian Anderson, the first African-American to be on the roster at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
“It’s a great resource, because a lot of people think everything is on the web, which it is not,” says Romie Minor, assistant manager of the DPL’s Special Collections Department. “People are astonished at what we have here.”
To offer an idea of the collection’s breadth, Minor spread out a sampling of materials on tables in the Hackley Reading Room, on the third floor of the Main Library. There’s sheet music of “Reflections” by the Supremes, a movie poster of Richard Roundtree in Shaft, a poster touting Duke Ellington at Masonic Auditorium, another one promoting the appearance of soprano Carlotta Franzel; a movie lobby card of Sidney Poitier in Lilies the Field; and several portraits by white photographer Carl Van Vechten, who documented black performers — from the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Among them are photos of a young Billy Dee Williams from the early ’60s when he was in the stage version of A Taste of Honey, a dewy-eyed Lena Horne from 1941, and another of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Donning gloves, Minor gingerly unfolds a paper he calls “one of our treasures.” It’s a 1928 letter from Mahatma Gandhi to black tenor Roland Hayes, inviting the singer to visit India. Minor also shows a tour scrapbook of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the 1880s.
One of the richest mines of material, Minor says, is Hayes’ collection, which his daughter, Afrika, donated to the DPL after her father’s death in 1977. “Roland Hayes actually visited the collection, and other famous performers too, like Johnny Mathis,” he says.
Although the Hackley Collection is known to researchers, scholars, and some performers, Minor says it remains one of Detroit’s best-kept secrets.
“When we had our annual open house on Noel Night [in December], about 300 people came, and most people’s reaction was, like, ‘You’re kidding.’ We also have tours for schoolchildren, and they’re just amazed at how much is here,” he says.
To further spread the word about the collection, Minor has been hosting a free-lecture series for four years that covers the gamut of black music. The next one (6 p.m. April 25), called “Southern Soul: The History of Stax Records,” focuses on the Memphis, Tenn., record label dubbed the “Motown of the South.”
There’s also an annual concert in the library’s Friends Auditorium that centers on a particular genre of music. This year’s performance (7 p.m. Feb. 22), showcases the jazz ensemble In the Tradition.
Items in the Hackley Collection are considered reference, which means they can’t be checked out, though considerable numbers of records and books are duplicated in the Music and Performing Arts Department, which may be borrowed.
Like the woman after whom the collection is named, Minor has to be a musical missionary of sorts, too.
“This is one of those things that, over time, you have to consistently promote to a new generation,” he says. “And with every new genre of music, like rap or techno, you have to keep adding to the collection.”