Helen Hagan grave marker unveiling, Sept. 29th.

Here is the tentative program for the Sept 29th unveiling of the grave marker for Helen Eugenia Hagan, black pianist for the AEF and Yale School of Music’s first black female graduate. The ceremony will be held at 2 pm at New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. This is the result of the crowdfunding campaign for the marker that I initiated.

More on Hagan’s life and work
Listen to Hagan’s only extant composition, the Concerto in C Minor (1912)



“Village after village absolutely levelled”: Sara E. Buck.


Sara E. Buck, from her 1918 passport application

Stevens Point, WI, native Sara Elizabeth Buck (1889–1978) served as a YMCA canteen worker in occupied Germany (attached to the 42nd Division, aka the Rainbow Division) and Toul, France, as she relates in her April 1919 letter to Stevens Point’s Ida Week published in the December 1919 issue of Wisconsin Magazine of History.

In “A Woman ‘Y’ Worker’s Experiences,” she refers to working in both a “wet canteen” (one that serves alcohol) and a “dry canteen” (one that doesn’t). Her duties ranged from making 750 doughnuts  (when she had never made them before) to singing for the troops. Living in rough conditions, the 5-foot-4 Buck toured the region of the American St. Mihiel campaign and described the devastation there as well as at Verdun. She also mentioned visiting fellow Stevens Point resident Lt. Lyman Park (this new book includes a letter from Park) and others from Battery E, 120 Field Artillery):

I went to Mauvage the entraining point and stood in the mud to my ankles in the rain and gave them hot coffee, waiting until the train pulled out, waved them good-bye . . . (242).

Sara Buck’s father was train engineer Melzar W. Buck. She graduated from Stevens Point Normal School and the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. Buck taught music in Saginaw (MI), Grand Forks (ND), and Stevens Point. In 1926, she married Clinton W. Copps, part of a family firm of grocers; he died of tuberculosis in 1931. They had one child, Stephen. Buck died in 1978 and is buried in Forest Cemetery in Stevens Point. Her grandson is LaCrosse physician Stephen Clinton Copps.

Yale Daily News on AEF pianist Helen Hagan.


Helen Hagan, by Eugene Hutchinson

The Yale Daily News’ Nitya Rayapati interviewed me about the grave-marker effort for pioneering composer-pianist Helen Hagan (Yale 1912), the only black performing artist sent to World War I France. After a generous contribution by the Yale School of Music, the crowd-funding campaign is just $245 shy of the goal of $1500.

Update, 3-25-16. The grave marker effort has surpassed its fund-raising goal, reaching a total of $1605. Thanks to all who so generously contributed. A dedication ceremony is envisioned for fall 2016.

Grave marker effort for the AEF’s Helen Hagan.


Hagan in YMCA uniform

Since my blog post on Helen Hagan (1891-1964)—composer, pianist, and AEF entertainer—I was stunned to learn that she lies in an unmarked grave in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. Please consider joining the effort to obtain a marker for her grave that will recognize her achievements, and spread the word.

• Listen to Hagan’s Concerto in C Minor

Update, 3-25-16. The grave marker effort has surpassed its fund-raising goal, reaching a total of $1605. Thanks to all who so generously contributed. A dedication ceremony is envisioned for fall 2016.


Helen Hagan, black pianist for the AEF.


Helen Hagan, by Eugene Hutchinson

After earning her bachelor of music degree from Yale in 1912 and studying in France, pianist Helen Eugenia Hagan (1891–1964) entertained black troops in France in spring/summer 1919—one of the 19 black US women with the YMCA (that included Helen Curtis, Addie Waites Hunton, and Kathryn Johnson) who served abroad during or just after the war. Hunton and Johnson’s Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces (1920) refers to Hagan as “the only colored artist sent to France” (p. 153), and the Pittsburgh Courier dubs her “the darling of the doughboys.” (Her 1912 passport application describes her as a 5-foot-2 music teacher with an “olive” complexion.)

As part of the “Proctor Party” formed by request of General Pershing, she accompanied Joshua E. Blanton, who taught spirituals to the servicemen, and Congregational minister Henry Hugh Proctor, who delivered sermons and led the soldiers in folk songs. Proctor wrote in Between Black and White (1925), “The transformation of these dejected men was almost instantaneous when they forgot themselves in song” (p. 158). Proctor placed the number of their total audience at more than 100,000 (p. 160); the entry on Blanton in Who’s Who in Colored America (1942) places the number at 275,000. (Blanton, a Hampton graduate, established the St. Helena Quartet to foster the preservation and performance of spirituals; he later served as principal of the Voorhees Institute in South Carolina.)

Hagan returned to the United States in August 1919 on the Nieuw Amsterdam.

Prior to her service in France Hagan had taken up a position in November 1918 as music director (meaning music dept chair) at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (aka Tennessee State University). She married John Taylor Williams of Morristown, NJ, in August 1920 (a 1932 letter from Hagan to W. E. B. Du Bois hints at a 1931 divorce). In October 1921, she became the first black pianist to perform a solo recital in a New York concert venue. In 1931 the NAACP magazine The Crisis stated that she was the first African American woman to be appointed to the chamber of commerce in Morristown. Still performing  in public, she pursued graduate-level work at Teachers College, Columbia University. Starting in 1933 she taught at Bishop College in Texas and also gave private music lessons in New York. Hagan died in March 1964 and is buried in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery next to her parents (a crowd-funding campaign to finance a grave marker has succeeded; a dedication ceremony is envisioned for fall 2016. Further details will be posted on the blog when available).


Helen Hagan in YMCA uniform. From Hunton & Johnson, Two Colored Women in the AEF

Although Hagan is credited with composing “songs, pianoforte pieces, violin and piano sonatas and string quartettes,” it appears that only her Piano Concerto in C Minor survives. American pianist Lola Perrin and the Greek pianists who compose the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble are working on transcribing and performing Hagan’s concerto (performed by Hagan at Yale in 1912). It was for this concerto that Hagan received the Samuel Simons Sanford Fellowship, with Yale Department of Music dean Horatio Parker lauding Hagan’s

brilliant performance of an original concerto (first movement) for piano and orchestra. Miss Hagan shows not only pianistic talent of rare promise but also clearly marked ability to conceive and execute musical ideas of much charm and no little originality. (Report of the President, 1908–09, p. 138)

As noted in an Iowa State Bystander review of a March 1915 Hagan performance in Des Moines, “Miss Hagan was truly a master in her art.”

Further resources

Rev. of Helen Hagan performance by Lucien H. White, New York Age, 27 Jan. 1916.

Letter from Helen Hagan to W. E. B. Du Bois, 25 Mar. 1932. “It has been a hard year, for the musician especially. Many of my concerto were cancelled….the pianist can no longer make a living in the concert field…”

Reply from W. E. B. DuBois to Helen Hagan, 29 Mar. 1932

• Listen to the first movement from Hagan’s sole surviving composition, Piano Concerto in C Minor (1912), performed by the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble. Video courtesy of pianist Lola Perrin, who transcribed the concerto.


Where is the film American Women in the War?


Frances Marion in uniform

Note: This post was updated on 4 Dec. 2016, primarily with additional information from the National Archives and the USC Cinematic Arts Library (host of the Frances Marion Collection). I am grateful to the National Archives’ Carol Swain and USC Cinematic Arts Library’s Edward Sykes Comstock for their assistance.

A puzzling question is the fate of the 1918–19 film American Women in the War, which sought to document U.S. women’s participation in World War I. Under the aegis of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), it featured longtime Mary Pickford collaborator Frances Marion as screenwriter,  according to this Jan-Feb 1919 article from Motion Picture World (emphasizing that Marion left her $50,000/year Hollywood screenwriting position for the assignment).

A draft of Marion’s autobiography in the USC Cinematic Arts Library indicates that she was receiving letters from actress-singer Elsie Janis (an old friend of Pickford) who was entertaining the troops overseas and urging her to come to France; it quotes Janis as writing, “Get out of that artificial Hollywood atmosphere and into life that is real, ghastly, forbidding, terrifying and magnificent” (129). Author and war correspondent Mary Roberts Rinehart endorsed Marion’s application to the CPI to become a war correspondent, and Marion was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Her 21 Aug. 1918 passport application indicates a departure date of 1 Sept. 1918, and the draft autobiography notes that she, along with black soldiers destined for engineering units, endured a perilous crossing to Brest on the Rochambeau, which she dubbed “an old tub” (130). Wrote Marion in her draft autobiography, “With my steel helmet, gas mask, Sam Browne belt and C [for Correspondent] insignia I started forth to record the activities of the Allied Women behind the lines” (133). Echoing Janis’s experience, she wrote, “In the weeks that followed I knew what it meant to be under almost constant fire, to suffer during the late autumn nights from cold that gnawed on our bones and to endure hunger when temporarily we were cut off by the enemy from food supplies” (133).

The draft autobiography also describes her unexpected encounter at Verdun with a Hollywood friend, Wesley Ruggles (then a lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and later the director of Cimarron, 1931). In piecing together information from the draft autobiography and the 1919 article, it seems that Ruggles and Douglas Fairbanks cameraman Harris “Harry” Thorpe filmed in Europe with Marion from October through at least November 1918. In the 1919 article, Marion stated that they obtained “50 percent of what we wanted and needed to make the picture complete.” The ship manifests housed at the Ellis Island Foundation indicate that Marion boarded the Baltic in Liverpool on 29 Jan. 1919 and docked in New York on 8 Feb. 1919.


Item from the Milwaukee Sentinel, 29 May 1919

Cari Beauchamp indicates in Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women in Early Hollywood that the film was released in April 1919 “as a fifteen-part serial” (445). But a Moving Picture World item of April 1919 indicates that Marion was in Los Angeles “last week” filming female war workers for adding to the footage shot in Europe. CPI publications are ambiguous about the film. The February 1918 CPI bulletin refers to Woman’s Part in the War as a film in development, but it is unclear whether this means the eventual Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe project or a film called Uncle Sam Says: A Girl’s a Man for A’That—The Story of Women in War Work that was produced by Paramount-Bray Pictograph. The 1920 official report of CPI chair George Creel refers to Woman’s Part in the War as an “early picture[],” and this certainly is not the case for the Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe film. His 1920 book on CPI, How We Advertised America, only mentions Woman’s Part in the War (again referred to as an “early feature[ ]”). The Uncle Sam Says film cannot be the same project, as this film is a one-reeler, and the footage shot in Europe for the Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe project was at least six reels. The 1919 Motion Picture World piece refers to the film under the title Woman’s War Activities.

Charles Hart, head of the CPI’s division of films, indicates in a Jan/Feb 1919 piece in Moving Picture World that he expected CPI operations to wrap up “within a period of two months,” and Creel’s letter to the president that prefaces the 1920 report is dated 1 June 1919. The Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe film does not appear in the National Archives catalog under the record groups for the Signal Corps, the CPI, or the Council of National Defense (the CPI’s successor). There is no listing for the film in the credits for Marion or Ruggles in the Library of Congress Copyright Office’s Motion Pictures 1912 to 1939. I have not found an announcement about the release of the film or any catalog record on the film, but the uncertainty about the exact title of the film complicates the matter.

An email exchange with the National Archives confirms that the film is not in its CPI collections but might be part of unedited Signal Corps footage. The National Archives is in the process of scanning these 500 titles and posting them on its YouTube channel.

Locating a print of the film and showing it in time for April 2017—the centenary of official U.S. entry into World War I—should be a major priority for the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or any of the state entities established to commemorate the war’s centenary.