Not until the discovery of pianist/composer Helen Hagan was I aware of Henry Hugh Proctor, who was so instrumental in Hagan’s sojourn and performance in France during World War 1.
Proctor was born on Dec. 8, 1868, near Fayetteville, Tenn. His parents were former slaves—Richard and Hannah (Murray) Proctor. His early education was sporadic since he had to help his family on their farm. As a teenager he began digging ditches, a labor that would allow him the wherewithal to pay his tuition at Fisk University, from which he graduated in 1891. Prior to his enrollment at Fisk, he taught at Pea Ridge and later in Fayetteville. Three years later he received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale University and was ordained into the Congressional ministry. And in this same year he married Adeline L. Davis, a student he had met at Fisk.
In 1903, he joined George Washington Henderson, then president of Straight University, a Black college in New Orleans, and together they founded the National Convention of Congregational Workers among Colored People. Proctor became the group’s first president. A year later, Clark University awarded him a Doctor of Divinity degree. When the race riot of 1906 convulsed Atlanta, Proctor, along with a white attorney, Charles T. Hopkins, helped to quell the ongoing tensions with the formation of the Interracial Committee of Atlanta.
His church was also indispensable during the riot as it provided a sanctuary and aid, and these amenities would continue beyond the tumult. Soon, the church was not only a place for religious services, but it housed a library, a kindergarten, an employment bureau, a gymnasium, a music room and a parlor. It was a multidimensional facility with a popular kitchen and pantry for those needing daily nourishment. And it promoted a number of outreach programs in housing and public assistance.
All of the church services were an extension of Proctor’s passion for self-determination, self-sufficiency, and self-development. To this end, he founded the Atlanta Colored Music Festival Associations, sponsoring concerts that were opened to Blacks and whites, that was in keeping with interest of mutual cooperation among the races and community harmony. In fact, this festival continues today and is part of the Atlanta Music Festival.
Proctor’s prowess and organizational skills gained national attention, and when World War I erupted, he was summoned to provide services for the Black American troops then deployed to battlefields in Europe, most extensively in France. It was in this capacity that he arranged entertainment and musical recitals for the Black soldiers that often featured Helen Hagan. Upon his return from overseas he was called to take charge of Nazarene Congregational Church in Brooklyn, and he would remain at this post for the rest of his life.
He summarized his life and dedication to the church in his autobiography “Between Black and White,” stating, “I saw this building rise from the foundation to capstone, and much of my life is built into its very walls.” Toward the end of the book of short sketches, he recounted a moment when he was about to take the position in Brooklyn.
“When I was about to leave the South, my people came to me and said, ‘Are you deserting us?’ My reply was, ‘No, never.’ Unless I had felt that I could have done more for my people in the North than in the South I should never have left the South. New York is the United States in miniature. It is the center of the commercial, political, educational, social and religious life of the nation. New York is the place to center any movement that affects the nation and the world. Just now there is underway in the metropolis a new organization known as ‘The National Conference on the Christian Way of Life,’ which proposes to restate the Christian conception in its application to the social problems of the day.”
In the book’s final sketch, Proctor reiterated his hope in racial equality, noting that the sporadic attempts at race harmony would soon materialize more readily and “The South will become the garden pot of the nation and the paradise…that required no prophet to stand on her hills and see the coming kingdom of interracial cooperation. The hills once red with blood of strife will glow with new light. Once the South takes up the example of the North, this section will rid itself of the curse of the Klan spirit, and we shall present to the world an example for the solutions of its greatest problem, the question of color. Three-fourths of mankind are colored, and there can be no world peace until this question is settled in the only way, that of the Golden Rule of Christ. Thus I see the rainbow of hope like a silken scarf spanning the shoulder of the dying storm of racial hate, blending into one every color under the sun, one race, the human, one language, the English; one religion, the Christian.”
Proctor was around long enough to assist in the application of these principles before his death in 1933 from blood poisoning. He was survived by his widow and five of their six children. He is buried in Atlanta.