A tribute to Roland Hayes

While this past weekend springtime arrived here in DC, Massachusetts was cold, wet, snowy, and miserable. However, everyone was excited about the event on March 15th to honor one of America’s true legends: Roland Hayes, a grandson of slaves from Georgia who spent much of his life in Boston.

Friends and families from all over the country and Europe showed up at Christ’s Church Longwood in Boston to honor and to remember Roland Hayes with the support of the Saul and Naomi Cohen Foundation.

The event was filled with choral singing,  French and German romantic songs, and African American spirituals… At times, Roland’s  musical influence came through the chorus’ vocals, especially from the presence of his great grandson Wenceslas,  who is from France.

The handsome young Roland was raised in rural  Georgia and worked as a farmer, a waiter, an ironworker, and a sawmill operator during his life. In 1917 he gave the first solo program by a black classical artist a Boston’s Symphony Hall, combining  both African American and European musical traditions; this was one of many “firsts” in American concert halls. The NAACP’s historic Spingarn Medal for 1924 was awarded to Roland Hayes.

In 1921 Mr. Hayes was summoned for a command performance for King George V and Queen Mary of England. This helped to launch a brilliant career that in the 1920s and 1930s took him to France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, and Russia as well a other music centers.

The famous tenor fell in love with a married Austrian countess, Bertha Colloredo-Mansfield.  In 1926 they had a daughter, but the relationship could not be publicly acknowledged  because of the intense racism that existed in most of Europe and America. Hayes offered to adopt the daughter, Maya,  but the countess refused and later moved to France.

Roland Hayes subsequently married Alzada Mann, and they had a daughter, Afrika, who continued the family tradition both by singing and by teaching music. Mr. Hayes’  grandchildren and great-grandchildren in France have become know as successful writers and as talented singers following the footsteps of their famous great grandfather. The romance between Roland and the countess is now contained in the book Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American.

The Hayes legacy is even stronger now because Roland’s daughter, Afrika, and his grand daughters, Zaida and Erika Lambe, discovered they have an extended family in France after the death of Mr.  Hayes in 1977.  This is truly a story of forbidden love with a happy ending.

One can just imagine the dangers, passion, pain, and separations of such interracial relations experienced by two prominent and creative personlities in Western society at the time.

“Once known as the ‘Black Caruso,’ Roland Hayes was hailed as one of the greatest concert performers of the twentieth century.

“He transcended cultural, geographical, and musical boundaries with his mastery of genres and a repertory from some of history’s greatest composers.”

from Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor.

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