Our plan this week, after featuring William Henry Johnson, one of the heroes of World War I and a member of the famed Hellfighters, was to showcase one of the brave Black women who served during that war. In the past, we’ve profiled Kathryn Johnson and Addie Hunton, but never Helen Curtis, who was often mentioned along with Johnson and Hunton. In fact, they cited her in their book but we have been unable to locate a photo of Ms. Curtis.
It was during this pursuit that we stumbled on another Helen, this one Helen Hagan, who was a pianist and often performed in France for the Black soldiers. According to a comment from Johnson and Hunton’s book “Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces,” Hagan was a crowd-pleasing entertainer. “The soldiers had seen every variety of entertainer sent to France,” they wrote. “They had heard some of the very best American and foreign pianists, but none had received the ovation from the colored soldiers given to Miss Helen Hagan, the only colored artist sent to France. Everywhere she was received by tremendous crowds of men with rapturous applause, and her wonderful talent was never put to better use nor more deeply appreciated.”
She was dubbed the “darling of the doughboys,” according to an article in the Pittsburgh Courier. Her 1912 passport application described her as a 5-foot-2 music teacher with an “olive” complexion.
Only a scant bit of information is available on Hagan’s early years, though she was born Helen Eugenia Hagan in 1891 and died in 1964. She apparently was part of the Proctor Party formed by the request of Gen. Pershing and accompanied Joshua E. Blanton, who taught spirituals to the soldiers and the Minister Henry Hugh Proctor, who delivered sermons and led the soldiers in folk songs. Hagan returned to the U.S. in August 1919 on the Nieuw Amsterdam. She probably resumed a position she had prior to the trip to France as chair of the music department at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, now Tennessee State University.
In 1920, she married John Taylor Williams of Morristown, N.J. but in a letter to W.E.B. Du Bois there is an indication they were divorced by 1931. In that letter or another, she complained about the difficulty of getting her concerto performed, which is the only surviving composition entitled a “Piano Concerto in C Minor.” Meanwhile, her career as a pianist got a jump start in 1921 when she became the first African American pianist to present a solo recital in New York. Ten years later in The Crisis, it was stated she was the first Black woman to be appointed to the chamber of commerce in Morristown. Ever involved in a flurry of activity, she continued performing and at the same time began pursuit of a graduate level degree at Teachers College at Columbia University. She began teaching at Bishop College in Texas in 1933 as well as private piano lessons in New York City.
It should be noted that she received the Samuel Simons Sanford Fellowship for her concerto. Horatio Parker, dean of music at Yale University, hailed the concerto for its originality and movement. He said she demonstrated not only pianistic talent for rate promise but also clearly marked ability to execute musical ideas of much charm and no little originality. In a review in the Iowa State Bystander, she was regarded as “truly a master in her art.”
Hagan died in March 1964 and is buried in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery next to her parents.