On June 29, 1867, Emma Azalia Smith was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, her parents were Henry B. and Corilla Smith. Henry worked as a blacksmith while Corilla was a school teacher and taught singing lessons. Corilla founded a school for formerly enslaved people and their children. On many occasions, during singing lessons, Corolla and her students were threatened by several white terrorist groups. To keep his family safe, Henry moved his family to Detroit, Michigan in 1870. While in Detroit, Emma became the first black student to attend public school. At age three, she began taking singing lessons and learning to play the piano. She developed her talent very quickly and was considered a child prodigy. To help bring money into her home, Emma would perform at high school dances. In addition to developing her musical talents, Emma was a brilliant student. In 1887, she completed the graduation requirements for her high school and the Washington Normal School. A year later she earned her teaching certificate and began teaching at Clinton Elementary School. While teaching, she also began taking French lessons. To pay for her singing and piano lessons, Emma continued to teach singing lessons, voice lessons, continued to perform her music, and give voice recitals for her students. Emma became a singer for the Detroit Musical Society, which helped to bring more attention to her talents. Because she was very fair-skinned, she was encouraged by other black people to pass as white and use the privilege, but she was too proud of who she was to pretend to be a white woman.
In 1894, Emma Smith met and married a man named Edwin Henry Hackley. She quit her job as a teacher and moved to Denver, Colorado with her husband. Mr. Hackley was the co-founder of The Colorado Statesman, a newspaper publishing company and worked as a lawyer. He was the first black person admitted to the Colorado bar. Emma and Henry had similar goals, so they combined their talents to create the Imperial Order of Libyans, an organization working to eliminate racial injustices. In 1900, Edwin sold his portion of The Colorado Statesman. He used the money and co-founded the newspaper the Statesman-cum-Denver Star with his wife Emma. Unfortunately, Denver’s high altitude caused Emma to begin having health issues so severe that she was forced to move to Philadelphia. When she originally moved, her husband was still living in Denver, but he eventually moved to Philadelphia with Emma. To make a living, Henry found a job as a newspaper carrier while Emma gave singing lessons and became a music teacher. Later in 1900, Emma earned her bachelor's degree from the Denver School of Music, making her the first black person to graduate from the school. She would become the assistant choir director for one of Denver’s largest choirs and the director of her church’s choir. She was also trained to sing in the bel canto vocal style and used that style as a soprano in a Denver concert choir.
Emma gained a reputation for using her music to promote black pride among the people who supported her music. The Denver Post newspaper once wrote an article highlighting how her music caught the attention of many black people. She used her voice and her pen to help educate black Americans about black history and black culture. She became the editor for the Statesman Exponent, the women’s section of the Colorado Statesman newspaper. She founded the Denver branch of the Colorado Women’s League. The Colorado Women’s League was founded to improve the living conditions of black women in Colorado. In 1901, Emma held her first performance on her tour as a singer, she also moved back to Philadelphia and became the music director at Philadelphia's Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion. In 1904, Emma founded the Hackley Choir, which was a 100-member choir. She organized festivals for folk music, introducing her community to folk music made by black people. She took voice lessons in Paris from a notable opera singer and vocal coach, Jean de Reszke. During this time, she was able to give voice training to legendary black musicians such as Marian Anderson and R. Nathaniel Dett. Emma would often hold benefit concerts to raise funds for students to receive vocal and musical training abroad. In 1912, Emma founded the Vocal Normal Institute in Chicago, Illinois. In 1916, she published her book The Colored Girl Beautiful and became a lecturer until her health began to decline. Emma Hackley died in December of 1922, as a woman who used her legendary vocals to inspire black people to learn more about themselves. She also wrote several newspaper and magazine articles to educate black people about black history. To Mrs. Emma Azalia Smith Hackley, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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