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Brookline renames Heath School after Roland Hayes

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.
Brookline renames Heath School after Roland Hayes
Roland Hayes in 1923. PHOTO: UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD

Earlier this month, the town of Brookline approved renaming Heath Elementary School the Roland Hayes School. An internationally renowned Black tenor and composer whose manly, melodic voice moved countless concertgoers, Hayes almost singlehandedly paved the way for Black concert singers such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price to perform in the world’s most prestigious concert halls. He lived on Allerton Street in Brookline for nearly 50 years. 

Efforts to rename the Heath School had been underway since 2021, when the Brookline School Committee’s Ad Hoc Task Force on School Names discovered that John Heath, the Heath family patriarch, had enslaved five people. 

“For us, when we learned that information, it felt like too far afield. We were not interested in walking under that moniker,” school principal Asa Sevelius told Brookline News last June.

Brookline’s Heath School is now the Roland Hayes School. COURTESY PHOTO

Beginning the process of changing the school’s name, a student renaming committee proposed five names: Roland Hayes, METCO founder Ruth Batson, sculptor and painter John Wilson, and abolitionists Ellen and William Craft. Students, families and staff then voted on the names, selecting Hayes. After the School Committee and task force subsequently approved the renaming, Town Meeting members gave final approval on Nov. 16. 

The Heath Elementary School is the second school in Brookline to have had its name changed in recent years. In 2021, the Devotion School — temporarily renamed the Coolidge Corner School — was formally renamed for Florida Ruffin Ridley, a Black late-19th-century teacher, clubwoman, suffragist and anti-lynching advocate. Ridley and her husband, Ulysses Archibald Ridley Jr., a prominent tailor, were among the first Black homeowners in Brookline, having purchased a home at 131 Kent St. in 1896.

About Roland Hayes

Roland Wiltse Hayes was born in a three-room cabin in Curryville, Georgia, on June 3, 1887. His parents, Fanny and William Hayes, were tenant farmers who toiled in the fields and hunted to provide for their seven children. When William died in 1898, Fanny — who Roland affectionately called Angel Mo’ — moved the family to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Hayes dropped out of school after completing the fifth grade and worked at an iron foundry to help support his family.  He attended church regularly and sang in the church choir. Impressed by his exceptional singing voice, Arthur Calhoun gave him two singing lessons a week in Chattanooga when he was 16 and introduced him to the great opera singers Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso.

Hayes decided at that time to sing professionally. He spent four years at Fisk University in Nashville, toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911 and recorded nine spirituals with three members of the choir for the Edison Phonograph Company. Upon his return to Nashville, he decided to move to Boston, where he believed he had a better chance of becoming a professional musician. Over the next few years, he continued his vocal training with the renowned bass vocalist Arthur Hubbard in Boston and pursued academic study at Harvard University’s extension school.

For several years, Hayes also toured with baritone William Richardson and pianist William Lawrence as the Hayes Trio.

In July 1916, Boston Herald music critic Philip Hale praised the tenor, describing his voice as “unusually good,” and adding, “The natural quality is beautiful. It is a luscious yet manly voice. Mr. Hayes sings freely and with good taste.”

Accompanied by classical composer and arranger Henry Thacker Burleigh, Hayes made his debut at Boston Symphony Hall on the night of Nov. 15, 1917, performing in a recital for a sold-out audience. Despite critical acclaim, he attracted little public support. After another more successful recital, he sailed to London, England, in April 1920, intending to study music.

With pianist Lawrence Brown as his accompanist, Hayes made his debut at London’s Aeolian Hall in May 1920. It was a successful performance, which not only led to more engagements in England but, most notably, led to a command performance on April 23 the following year at Buckingham Palace before King George V and Queen Mary. 

Hayes said in his autobiography, “On my way home from Buckingham Palace, I sent a cable to my mother to say that I had sung before the King and Queen. I heard from friends that Ma was immensely pleased, but she herself, fearful lest I be swollen with pride, simply replied, ‘Remember who you are and give credit where it is due.’” His appearance before royalty won him worldwide acclaim, and he returned to the United States in 1923 a celebrity.

On Nov. 15, 1923, Hayes became the first African American artist to appear as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over the next two decades, he sang with first-rate symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Europe — in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Amsterdam. His classical music, which he sang in German, French and Italian, impressed concert audiences wherever he toured.

Hayes received many honors during his lifetime. For example, on July 1, 1924, at its 15th annual conference in Philadelphia, the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African American.

In 1932, Hayes married his cousin, Helen Alzada Mann. With him, she bore a daughter named Afrika Franzada.

In 1942, Hayes published his autobiography, “Angel Mo’ and Her Son, Roland Hayes,” and in 1948, he published a collection of spirituals with Little, Brown & Co., entitled “My Songs; Aframerican Religious Folk Songs Arranged and Interpreted by Roland Hayes.”   

From the 1940s until his retirement in 1973, Hayes sang intermittently, giving recitals once a year at Carnegie Hall in New York and concerts at Fisk University and other universities.

He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1953.

Hayes held honorary degrees from nine schools, including the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston University, Fisk University, Howard University, Temple University and Morehouse College. Later in life, he became a voice teacher. He continued to perform until age 85, when he gave his last concert at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge.

He died of pneumonia at 89 on New Year’s Day, 1977. 

To honor Hayes’ legacy, the Boston School Committee in 1981 named the musical arts facility at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury the Roland Hayes Division of Music, now known as the Roland Hayes School of Music.

Brookline, Brookline School Committee, Heath Elementary School, Roland Hayes