By Will Schneider ::
On April 22, 1867, two young African American sisters of Sacramento, California stood upon the stage and gave their first professional concert. At only nine and eleven years old, Emma Louise Hyers and Anna Madah Hyers, filled San Francisco’s Metropolitan Theater with 800 listeners. Their beautiful soprano and contralto voices won over the crowd. The following day the San Francisco Chronicle gave a commending review, “those who heard them last evening were unanimous in their praises” and called their talents “rare natural gifts.”
The sisters’ refined talent was remarkable given their young age, but their acceptance by white audiences was unprecedented. In the nineteenth century, American performers had a hard time finding an audience. As Eileen Southern wrote, “During this period, America generally ignored its own musicians, white as well as black, preferring to import its musical culture from Europe.” In addition to these difficulties, African American musicians also faced the challenge of racial prejudice.
Minstrelsy, however, was an exception to this trend. Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment among white audiences. White performers donned painted faces and used exaggerated dialects and mannerisms to portray and mock African Americans. These blackface minstrel performances were performed across the Nation. After the Civil War, many African American performers also began incorporating blackface minstrel tropes into their acts. They themselves wore blackface makeup and invoked racial stereotypes in their songs and mannerisms.
African American musicians were faced with a difficult choice. Natural born singers and performers could choose to either embrace the racist forms of entertainment or lose the opportunity to share their God-given talent. Some African American performers chose to embrace the stereotypes because it was the only performance option available to them.
This is what makes the debut of the Hyers Sisters remarkable. They were able to achieve national acclaim without embracing the racist tropes of minstrel shows. They performed popular concert music from Italian operas, earning themselves respect from the white theater community. However, they also retained their roots in African American music. Jocelyn L. Buckner, professor at Chapman University, claims, “the sisters identified themselves as versatile performers capable of performing well beyond the narrow stereotypes of minstrelsy, yet their ability to also perform black musical traditions, such as spirituals, served to underscore their identity as African Americans”
The Hyers Sisters are rightfully regarded as the first crossover artists in American music. Two years after their debut in California they performed in Boston, receiving similar praise from the press. One Boston critic called them “musical prodigies,” and claimed they were equal to “our better concert-singers.” In 1877, they founded the first African American theater company and produced three shows which starred Anna and Emma. These productions, based in San Francisco, were the first professional shows to feature a mixed race cast.
The success of the Hyers Sisters would be impressive today. What makes their story truly extraordinary is they achieved fame and respect from Black and White audiences alike in an era which forced African Americans to espouse racist stereotypes. They transcended the categories and expectations placed upon them, performing European and African American music to the celebration of audiences. To the African American performers who came after them, the Hyers sisters had proven that success could come without compromising integrity.
Want more? Check out:
- SFGate, “The Hyers Sisters,” 2008.
- Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971.
- Jocelyn L. Buckner, “‘Spectacular Opacities’: The Hyers Sisters’ Performances of Respectability and Resistance.” African American Review 45.3 (2012) p. 311.
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Will Schneider, Project Manager
Taylor Bailey, Contributor