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Preserving the black performance for posterity.

The E. Azalia Hackley Collection was established at the Detroit Public Library in 1943, when the Detroit Musicians' Association donated materials to serve as the nucleus for a special black music archive. The first of its kind in the world, the Hackley Collection--named for a Detroit music educator and performer--was quickly broadened in scope to include dance, drama, and other forms of the performing arts.

This year, the Detroit Public Library celebrates its 150th anniversary. Its Burton Historical Collection of materials relating to Detroit turns 100. And another special archive is rapidly approaching 75. This is how the latter was formed.

Music, dance, and drama have always played an important role in the culture of African Americans. They have been used to educate, entertain, and inspire people for centuries, yet--prior to World War II--there were very few places in the country that were documenting this rich history. In 1942, the Detroit Musicians' Association (DMA), a local chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians, decided it was time to take action in this direction. That year, they began to host a series of summer lawn concerts to raise money to make their preservation project a reality.

Eighteen months later, the DMA presented to the Detroit Public Library a collection of music, manuscripts, and books they had collected from individuals and organizations around the country. The first item to enter the collection, a copy of Margaret Bonds' musical treatment of Langston Hughes' poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," was donated by the Handy Brothers Music Company of New York. This and other materials would become part of the library's Music and Performing Arts Department.

Fred Hart Williams, who was then president of the DMA, explained why his organization wanted this collection, "which would worthily represent the Negro composer's contribution to American Music," to be housed at the Detroit library. The first reason, he stated, was because it needed to be "in a civic institution, where it would be carefully preserved and made available to scholars, researchers and musicians." The second reason was to perpetuate the memory of black educator E. Azalia Hackley.

Hackley, a former Detroit Public Schools music teacher, gained fame for tirelessly working to promote Negro music throughout the United States and Europe. She traveled extensively, presenting recitals and concerts to raise funds to support black musicians. And she was influential in her own right. When she lived in Philadelphia for a brief time, she came in contact with a gifted 12-year-old girl whom she would later tutor and mentor. This young girl grew up to become the opera star Marian Anderson. Hackley eventually came back to Detroit, where she died in 1922. She was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

When the Detroit Musicians' Association established the E. Azalia Hackley Memorial Collection of Negro Music, Dance and Drama, they wanted to make sure that her legacy would not be forgotten.

Building the Collection

Over the years, librarian H. Dorothy Tilly and her successor, Kurtz Myers, expanded the Hackley Collection in size and in scope to recognize African-American performers on the national and international levels.

Additions to the collection were made in a variety of ways. Donations were accepted and, to fill in gaps, direct purchases were made. Tilly and Myers also requested materials directly from music and theater companies, colleges, and motion picture companies as well as from artists. In fact, artists were invited to tour the Hackley Collection whenever they were in town. In one example, Myers was photographed with composer, lyricist, and pianist Eubie Blake in the 1960s.

As it stands today, the collection is comprised of five main elements.


Since its founding, the primary focus of the Hackley materials has been on music. The collection contains vintage songbooks and musical scores relating to African chants, Negro spirituals, minstrel shows, ragtime, jazz, gospel, opera, orchestral music, soul, and rhythm and blues. The Hackley also has an extensive vinyl records collection, encompassing everything from early jazz recordings to the "Thriller" album by Michael Jackson.

There are hundreds of pieces of well-preserved sheet music, based on Negro themes, that date back to the 1800s. The illustrations on the covers describe more than just the music inside; they are a historical snapshot of the portrayal of blacks during this period, with song titles such as "Little Alabama Coon" and "Mammy's Little Kinky Headed Boy." The contemporary sheet music includes the work of such performers as Harry P. Guy, a ragtime artist from Detroit, as well as Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.

As music progressed over the years, curators collected materials from new genres including hip-hop and rap. In 2005, the Detroit Electronic Music Archive was added to the collection to highlight the achievements of local black musicians Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson.

The Hackley also contains a rich array of materials from what is arguably Detroit's most recognized contribution to music: Motown. These items include photographs, posters, periodicals, brochures, programs, bulletins, and newsletters promoting every Motown act from the Miracles to the Jackson Five. There are also vintage TPs and 45s of that era from artists such as the Supremes, Mary Wells, the Temptations, and the Four Tops. A unique item in the collection is an original copy of a February 1964 Hitsville Bulletin that highlights Motown's top record producers Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier.


The Hackley is a repository for more than 4,500 images, dating from the mid-19th century to the present. Included are photographs of individual performers and groups, and still shots from black films and stage productions, as well as photos that document events of performing arts organizations. Most notably, the collection includes an original photograph of the first Fisk Jubilee Singers, a famous a cappella ensemble of students from Fisk University.

Researchers can also access images of notable black performers taken by renowned photographers Carl Van Vechten and Barbara Morgan. Additionally, two photograph collections are named after local Detroit jazz pioneers Leroy Smith and Theodore Buckner.

Posters and Programs

The collection's poster group includes a unique blend of local and national advertisements for African American-themed productions. Among these are publicity pieces for Detroit-area vocalists and choirs performing at local schools and churches. Another major segment is comprised of ads for plays and musicals by local black theater companies, such as Concept East and Plowshares Theatre Company.

When a patron wants to locate a song or find out what role an individual performed in a specific play or musical, he/she can find the answer in the program collection. Such venues as the Fisher Theater, Detroit Institute of Arts, and Detroit Opera House are represented here, as well as Wayne State University's Hilberry Theatre.

Vertical Files

Another voluminous source of information in the Hackley Collection is its vertical files. The files contain 275,000 items drawn from newspapers, magazines, playbills, pamphlets, and programs. These files were created in the 1940s, and have been added to ever since. Even though most of the black artists located in the files are musicians, there are also materials about performers from theater, film, radio, and television.

A majority of the subjects located in the files relate to Detroit, and include materials that detail the histories of the city's black nightclubs, record labels, radio stations, and musical events such as the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival.


Researchers from across the country come to the Detroit Public Library every year to view the original manuscripts in the collection. In addition to a significant group of Motown

Movie posters such as this--for a made-in-Michigan film--are another element in the collection. materials, the Hackley houses several other high-profile manuscript collections. These include the papers of piano prodigy and singer Sugar Chile Robinson, the late 19th-century scrapbooks of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the personal papers of Roland Hayes, the first black international concert artist. The Hackley also houses collections donated by black groups and organizations such as the Detroit Musicians' Association.

Sharing the Collection

As noted earlier, E. Azalia Hackley traveled extensively to promote an appreciation for her people's music. That mission continues today through a series of programs that brings visitors to the Detroit Public Library to experience the collection.

Every spring, the library honors the tradition of the fundraising performances organized by the Detroit Musicians' Association by hosting a memorial concert in Hackley's honor. Throughout the year, an evening lecture series called "Hackley After Dark" highlights the careers of black performers who are represented in the archive. Recent honorees have included Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, and Sidney Poitier. Lecture topics have also covered such broad subjects as the history of rap music, African Americans in motion pictures, and black theater in Detroit. And, during the Cultural Center's Noel Night celebration held each December, the public is invited to the library to view rare items from the collection. (Civic groups and organizations may take advantage of this opportunity throughout the year as well.)

In its 72 years of existence, the Hackley Collection has become one of the top research archives about the history of African Americans in the performing arts in the United States. And the Detroit Public Library is committed to continuing to acquire and preserve materials dedicated to this subject for the benefit of future generations.

Romie Minor is the curator of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts at the Detroit Public Library.
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Title Annotation:Detroit Public Library
Author:Minor, Romie
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:May 1, 2015
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