Burial Monument Marks the First African American Woman to Graduate from Yale | Connecticut Public Radio

Burial Monument Marks the First African American Woman to Graduate from Yale

Sep 30, 2016

The final resting place of the first African American woman to receive a degree from Yale University is now marked by a monument detailing her life's accomplishments. 

Helen Eugenia Hagan was buried in an unmarked grave in New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery when she died in 1964.

Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Hagan moved to New Haven as a girl with her family. The New Haven Independent reports that she made her debut at the piano at only nine years old, at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church.

From the report:

Around 1910, Hagan became the first black female student to attend (and later graduate from) the Yale School of Music, a feat that brought her acclaim as she performed with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and then around the country at several historically black venues, in states that ranged from Connecticut and New York to small-town Iowa. On a scholarship from Yale, she was able to take her performances to France from 1912 to 1914, returning as the tide of WWI escalated for American troops going abroad.

Hagan took up various teaching positions throughout her life, in Tennessee, New York City, and Texas. In 1921, she was the first black pianist to perform a solo recital in a New York concert venue. 

A historical website on Hagan notes that while she's credited with many compositions, the only remaining records is her "Piano Concerto in C Minor." Listen to the piece below:

Hagan wrote a letter to W.E.B. DuBois in 1932, in which she described the challenges of being a musician, and asked for advice in getting a scholarship to study music at Columbia University. Images of the letter are preserved by UMass-Amherst's archives.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, center, helps to unveil a tombstone for Helen Hagan.
Credit Lucy Gellman / The New Haven Independent

The effort to mark Hagan's grave was led in part by author Elizabeth Foxwell. From The New Haven Register:

[Elizabeth Foxwell has] researched women of the World War I era and is a staff editor at the Catholic Historical Review at Catholic University of America. In a crowd-funding campaign, 22 contributors gave more than $1,600 to the cause.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp declared September 29, 2016 "Women Making Music Day" to honor the occasion.