By Michael Corcoran
In the spring of 1897, renowned Austin pianist Edmund Ludwig (originally of Heidelberg, Germany), arranged a dual recital at the Millett Opera House on Ninth Street with pianist Maud Cuney, the head of the music department for the Texas Institute of Deaf, Dumb, Blind Colored Youth. But when Cuney discovered that opera house management required blacks to sit in the balcony, separated from whites, she urged Ludwig to cancel the contract and he did. With no venue available, the concert was held at the black blind school on Bull Creek Road. In attendance was an 8-year-old student named Arizona Dranes, who would go on to pioneer “the gospel beat,” with piano-driven recordings on OKeh Records in 1926.
Maud Cuney-Hare, her married name, left the Austin school after just two years and went on to an illustrious career herself, as a musician, folklorist and writer. Of light skin and European features (both her parents had white fathers and mulatto slave mothers), Maud could’ve passed as white, but didn’t, as her father taught her her to be proud of her ancestry. Cuney-Hare was briefly engaged to author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she met when she was a student at the New England Conservatory fighting eviction from the dorm when it was discovered she had African blood. Du Bois was at Harvard and a member of the black students group that came to her defense. She stayed in the dorm. Though the romantic relationship didn’t last, they remained friends and Cuney-Hare wrote an arts and music column for the NAACP publication, The Crisis, that Du Bois edited.
As a musicologist, Cuney was one of the first to explore the African roots of American music, and published the first book of Creole songs in 1921. Her landmark 1936 book Negro Musicians and Their Music was, sadly, released months after she died of cancer at age 61. She lived most of her adult life in Boston, aside from her two years in Austin music teaching at the blind school and a short stint at the present Prairie View A&M.
She was also married, from 1902- 1906, to a doctor 20 years her senior, and the couple went to live in Chicago. The doctor insisted that they try to pass as Spanish American, and she maybe went along with it at first, but that’s not how she was raised. Her red blood ran dark.
Her grandfather Phillip Cuney was a white slave-owner who had a bunch of farmland outside Hempstead, TX that he called “Sunnyside Plantation.” In order to make slavery seem acceptable, some owners developed an ideology that they were providers to a people who couldn’t make it on their own. Cuney had eight children with his slave Adeline Stuart, and raised them as his own. He freed Maud’s father Norris Wright Cuney at age 13 and sent him to school in Pittsburgh. When Norris returned to Texas after the Civil War, he settled in Galveston where he organized black longshoremen into a union and was elected alderman. Eventually, he would be elected chairman of the Republican Party in Texas. His politican fight against the “Lily White Republicans” (they called themselves that) is chronicled by Maud Cuney-Hare in Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People, a biography she wrote in 1913. The information on Cuney-Hare’s time in Austin 1897-99 comes from that book.
Here’s an entry on Cuney-Hare in the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Rensaissance.
And through the beauty of this free and instant digital age, the very rare and out-of-print Negro Musicians and Their Music can be found here in its entirety.