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Maud Cuney-Hare: Lifting the race through the arts

Anthony W. Neal | 11/7/2012, 7:33 a.m.

While enduring more than her share of personal misfortunes, Maud Cuney-Hare showed a love of music and the theatrical arts, and an untiring dedication to uplifting her race. She was born in Galveston, Texas on Feb. 16, 1874, the daughter of Adelina Dowdie Cuney, a schoolteacher, and famed politician Norris Wright Cuney. As members of a relatively well-to-do family, she and her brother, Lloyd Garrison, enjoyed privileged childhoods.       

Her father served as an alderman in Galveston and helped unionize black dockworkers. He later became chairman of the Texas Republican Party. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him U.S. collector of customs for the port of Galveston.       

Although one of eight children born to a bondswoman of mixed race and one of the largest slaveholders in Texas, Norris Wright Cuney identified with black people’s plight. He instilled in his daughter a strong sense of racial pride and a loathing for all forms of racism. Maud Cuney was raised in a musical household. Her mother, a former slave, possessed a “beautiful, dramatic soprano voice” and played piano. Her father played violin. Both parents stressed to their children the value of reading and education.   

After graduating from Central High School in Galveston in 1890, Maud Cuney moved to Boston at the age of 16 to study music, German and English literature at the New England Conservatory of Music. After she and Florida L. Des Verney, another woman of mixed race, enrolled as boarding students on Sept. 11, 1890, they created a considerable stir. Although some white students established friendly relations with the two young ladies, other students — Southern segregationists — complained of their presence and demanded their expulsion. That both women had been excellent students did not matter to their racist foes.    

On the boarding controversy, the New England Conservatory offered the women no support. Richard A. Dana, vice president of the conservatory, announced that its executive committee had come “to the conclusion that while it was their duty to keep open all the educational facilities of the institution to all classes, they could not enforce social regulations.”

 “In this dilemma, without closing the door of the institution, the committee thought it best to lay the case before the parents of the colored young ladies,” Dana said, “suggesting that it would be more conducive to their happiness if they should board outside.” He expressed “deep regret on the part of the committee that they had failed in their undertaking in making the home socially agreeable to all.”  

The Colored National League (CNL) responded on the night of Nov. 4, 1890 by holding a packed meeting of concerned citizens in the vestry of the Charles Street A.M.E. Church. They vented indignation at the way the conservatory had treated the two women. CNL President Edwin Garrison Walker presiding, the league adopted a resolution calling attention to the fact that objection to the students based on their race was prohibited by Massachusetts law, and further calling upon the school’s management “to see that justice was done to all, irrespective of color.” It appointed a committee comprised of attorney Edward Everett Brown, John J. Smith and others to deliver the resolution to the school.