With"Pearls and Pianos," Helen Hagan's Memory & Music Live On

Marie Sanford | May 11th, 2023


Culture & Community  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Symphony Orchestra  |  Westville  |  Greater New Haven NAACP  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.



Top: Attendees including Dori Dumas, an AKA and director of the Greater New Haven NAACP. Bottom: Soprano Lisa Williamson. Marie Sanford Photos.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas! 

Lisa Williamson’s soprano filled the sunny, plant-filled wellness room at Bloom, fluttering over the space before she took a breath and pressed forward. Her voice coasted towards the ceiling, sweet and full as it enveloped listeners. As she sang, she carried generations of Black women with her, standing on their shoulders as she forged a path ahead. 

Saturday, Williamson set the soundtrack to “Pearls and Pianos: A Dedication to Helen Eugenia Hagan” at Bloom, a wellness boutique, flower shop and cafe at 794 Edgewood Ave. Over charcuterie boards, mini desserts and lush classical music, attendees both learned about Hagan and prepared for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s (NHSO) May 12 concert, which will feature the works of Hagan, Margaret Bonds, and Florence Price. 

All three are Black women composers who had some success during their lifetimes, but have remained largely underperformed and under-researched since. The NHSO first played Price’s work in March 2020, just a week before an unwelcome and long pandemic intermission.   


Farron Harvey check into the event.

“Pearls and Pianos” was co-sponsored by the NHSO, Bloom, the Theta Epsilon Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, and the Greater New Haven Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was also organized by Ala Ochumare, co-founder of Black Lives Matter New Haven.

Hagan, a Black female composer, was born and raised in New Haven during the post-Reconstruction period. After receiving the prestigious Lockwood Scholarship in 1911, she was the first Black female graduate from Yale School of Music (and most likely, from Yale itself). Though she had a prolific career—her work took her around the country and abroad—her legacy has been lost to her native New Haven community until recently.  

The event at Bloom has been part of a longer push to elevate Hagan’s life and music, particularly within New Haven. Efforts to reclaim Hagan’s legacy began with the work of historian Elizabeth Foxwell, who raised funds in 2016 to buy Hagan a proper grave marker. In September 2016, she was honored with a formal gravestone and ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery. In 2021, she posthumously received recognition from the NHSO and from the federal government, as she was entered into the Congressional record.  



Top: Ala Ochumare. "What I have realized is that you have to center joy, you have to center the things that are actually keeping us moving," she said. 

Since then, NHSO Marketing Director Katie Bonner Russo said, programming around Hagan’s life has been organic yet entirely fitting. The NHSO was the first to produce Hagan’s piano concerto in 1912 (at which performance Hagan herself was the pianist). Its concert on Friday will include an arrangement of this long-lost Piano Concerto No. 1, Mvt. 1, which the organization received an NEA grant to orchestrate. 

For Ochumare, the significance of the event comes from celebrating Black joy—and Black female joy specifically. 

“Black people and people of color have been really socialized to the point of apathy for our lived experiences through systemic oppression, so it's very easy for us to sit in our pain and our harm,” she said. “But what I have realized is that you have to center joy, you have to center the things that are actually keeping us moving.” 


BLOOM Owner Alisha Crutchfield.

Alisha Crutchfield, the owner and founder of Bloom, was immediately on board with the larger vision when she heard the idea. After opening her business in summer 2021, she has welcomed Black entrepreneurs, community healers, chefs, young musicians, booksellers, and school groups into the space. The celebration was a natural fit. 

“I highlight Black-owned businesses and products and services, but it's all about sharing it with others who don't know about us, who need to learn more about us and who need to be able to celebrate us with a full understanding of what it is we're here celebrating,” said Crutchfield.

Black joy was on full display on Saturday as people of all ages and genders filled every room of Bloom’s multipurpose space. During the performances, audience members sat spellbound as Williamson sang pieces penned by Black poets and set to music by Black composers. Her repertoire included Hagan’s until-now-lost duet for voice and piano, “Eternity.”

Between sets, guests were invited to mingle around the store, where an exhibit on Hagan’s life was displayed. Many opted to enjoy the nice weather on Bloom’s outside patio. 



The Theta Epsilon Omega AKAs were also excited to support their soror: Hagan was initiated into the Lambda Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha in New York. Dori Dumas, a member of Theta Epsilon Omega and President of the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP, sported a floral dress and pearls as she and her sorority sisters both enjoyed the music and reflected on Hagan’s life. 

“We need to make sure people in our own backyard understand our history, know about these people who have come through the doors, who have done phenomenal things and we should celebrate them,” said Dumas. She noted that this education was especially important to share  with younger people, who would gain a lot from learning about a figure like Hagan.

In fact, if there was one consistent remark from the guests in attendance, it was that before this event, they didn’t know who Hagan was. The second consistent remark was that they were now excited to celebrate her life and her music. 

Williamson comes from a family of musicians, so the idea that a Black woman could be a musician isn’t novel to her. However, the longevity of the legacy did put Williamson’s own understanding of the significance of Black women composers especially in a new light. 

“I graduated [from Yale] a hundred years after her, which feels just sort of amazing to think about that that legacy goes back so far,” she said. “That's so common for women's history, but especially for Black women in history. It's not that we weren't participating, we weren't creating, we weren't part of the story.” 

Instead, Williamson said, she likes to think of Black women as little fires that burned out throughout time and whom, because of legacies of disenfranchisement, never caught spark. 

This is the reclamation work that the NHSO aims to enact, said Bonner Russo, who made the good point that people should be loose with our use of the word “lost” to describe Hagan. 

“It's lost to us, but it could be not lost to somebody, right?” said Bonner Russo. “So we are optimistic that things will, the more we talk about, the more people will be like, ‘Oh yeah, we have one of those in our basement.’”

As Ochumare said, hopefully the Bloom event, in conjunction with the May 12 concert, will be affirming and inspiring for Black people—Black youth especially—and edifying for others.  The concert will feature a performance from Music Haven students before the show.

“By the time we're finished with all of the things, hopefully some young Black and Brown kids, [are] like ‘Maybe I need to go into music; this is like really dope,’” said Ochumare. “Just as much as folks enter into social movements through protests and things like that…what we find is the things that keep folks invested in that work is actually joy work.”

And as Hagan herself probably knew so well, Black voices deserve to sing joyfully, for eternity.