Officials at The Harris Arts Center have uncovered a rare piece of history dating back more than a half-century. It concerns Roland Hayes and not only adds credence to a lasting legacy but certifies the hall of fame singer and Gordon County native as a quiet but effective booster of civil rights -- a man ahead of his time.
The piece of history is three typed pages by L.L. Dunnington, identified later in the piece as “a Christian minister” who, it is assumed, composed them from an interview with Hayes to be placed in a newspaper, Zion’s Herald. It was written on an old Underwood, or Royal, and includes a couple of strike-overs and e’s which look like o’s, i.e., “people” comes out “pooplo.”
The three pages are titled “The Secret of One Man’s Power, its sub-title “An Interview with Roland Hayes, Famous Negro Tenor.” They are dated Oct. 9, 1935, with the lead paragraph, “Roland Hayes has recently completed the most successful and triumphant year of his artistic career. His audiences have invariably been large to the point of over-flowing, and the requests for new contracts more than he could fulfill. Best of all, his power as a truly great artist and his ability to capture and hold his vast audiences has reached a new peak. What a man can accomplish this in spite of a depression, there must be a reason.”
The author explains in the story that he is visiting Hayes in the latter’s hotel room. He does not identify the hotel or the city. Hayes is eating breakfast, prompting the author to offer an apology for the times, “for a condition in our social order that makes it necessary for a colored man of his (Hayes) sensitive nature to stay away from the public dining room and to enter hotels by side doors.” Hayes’s answer was sensitive and, seemingly, heartfelt and was as follows:
“There is nothing that you or any white man can do to alter that. That is a job for me and my people. I’m trying to live every moment with such consciousness of the Devine Presence without any trace of bitterness in my heart that that condition of prejudice and racial antipathy shall disappear. And I am trying to get my people to do likewise. I am perfectly happy here by myself, and nobody in all the world can hurt me except myself.”
Dunnington uncovered another part of Hayes’s approach not only to his concerts and audiences but to life. The revelation came in the singer’s answer to a question about his first minute on stage and what he does to capture his audience.
“I stand there perfectly quiet with hands clasped before me and pray – that Roland Hayes may be blotted entirely out of the picture,” he said. “That the people sitting there may feel only the spirit of God, flowing melody and rhythm – that racial prejudice may be forgotten. The audience instinctively feels what is happening as I commune with my Father – and I capture them that moment and never let them go until I am done. Hayes also relates how he rid himself of greedy managers so that ticket admissions to see him perform would be more affordable, especially for the poor, and reveals, how he was able to handle and even soften racial prejudice as he went about his career.
That copy, along with other Hayes memorabilia is displayed in the Roland Hayes Museum located within The Harris Arts Center and is a must-see attraction since this year marks the 125 anniversary of the great tenor.
Since the museum opened almost 10 years ago, music lovers from exactly one-half the United States, as far west as California and to the east as far away as New York, have left notes and signatures on the museum guest book. Not only that, but devotees of classical works from three foreign countries, Poland, Italy and England, have signed the book, all appreciative of what they saw and learned on visits.
The quickly scribbled notes include the following:
“Being a lover of all kinds of music, I loved the exhibit.”
“So impressive and informative. A beautiful exhibit.”
“I was so moved by the collection. What a wonderful legacy!”
“We’ll be back!”
There are one-word tributes: “Great!” Fabulous!” “Excellent!” “Wow!” And the shouted refrain every performer longs to hear, this one in cursive appreciation, “Bravo!”
Among other states represented are Alabama, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Missouri, and even North Dakota, among the 25 represented by visitors to the Arts Center museum. The foreign visitors hail from Milan, Italy, Norfolk, England and Sosnofilee, Poland.
The most recent tangible recognition of Hayes’ legacy were performances by musical groups from Gordon Central, Sonoraville and Calhoun high schools at the Ratner Theater, Feb. 5, with their performance of “A Tribute to Roland Hayes.”
Calhoun High and music director Casey Parker even boast of a classical pianist, Lattie Ruddoch, so accomplished she has won numerous awards and honors, including qualification for the Governor’s Honors Program. Kim Watters, music director at Gordon Central, tells of numerous performers taking on the classics and is proud of the fact she recently exposed her classes to Brahms’s works. It is part of what the New Harmonies Roots of American Music exhibit is all about as the legacy continues.
(The New Harmonies : Celebrating American Roots Music exhibit is on display at The Harris Arts Center, April 14 – May 24. Admission is free to the exhibit and to many live performances. Other events will be ticketed at affordable prices. Call 706-629-2599 for details.)