A Florence Price Mystery Solved (Part Two)
A significant discovery adds a new piece to the puzzle of Florence Price’s student experience as a woman of color on Boston’s cultural scene for the first time. This two-part blog series details ongoing research for a volume on Florence Price written by Samantha Ege and Douglas Shadle for the Master Musicians series. Read the first part here.
Few direct traces of when Florence Price studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston between 1903 and 1906 remain today, but we do know that she was very successful. The 1906 catalog indicates that she was the only graduate to earn two degrees that year, and concert programs show that she was an active performer on piano and organ.
More relevant to this story, the programs also shed light on her experiences as an African-American student. In his second year, 1904-1905, two programs correctly listed his hometown as Little Rock, Arkansas. The following year, however, she was listed as a resident of Puebla, Mexico (“Pueblo”). No conservatory record explains this change. And, to my knowledge, only one surviving document – a 1967 note written by one of his daughters, Florence Robinson – speaks directly of it. “My grandmother didn’t want my mother to be a Negro,” Robinson explained, “so when she took her to Boston, she rented an expensive apartment. with a maid and made my mom say her birthplace wasn’t Little Rock, it was Mexico.
Something prompted the change of hometown—what exactly, we may never know. His family had certainly not moved to Mexico. But Robinson clearly linked him to Price’s living environment in Boston, connecting his experiences with those of previously displaced African-American students like Fannie Barrier Williams, Maud Cuney and Florida Des Verney.
Price’s address in Boston had eluded biographers until I visited the Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas in January. One afternoon I was working in a relatively unprocessed collection who had suffered weather damage in the dilapidated rural house where he was found in 2009. And here it is: the address. Box 1B, Folder 24, labeled “Publication Information,” contains several letters from 1952, the year before Price died. Buried among them is a small envelope addressed to “Miss Smith” of 31 Batavia Street with a postmark dated November 1905.
Boston city directory entries for 1905 and 1906 list a “Mrs. Florence I. Smith” at 31 Batavia – a generic enough name that it could be an unrelated person. But this Mrs. Smith was unmistakably Price’s mother, Florence Irene, who had bought an apartment there for herself. The envelope confirms this for the first time.
As the first part showed, Batavia Street was at the crossroads of an emerging artistic district and was ideally located for students. But it was also do not where most of the out-of-town students lived. After NEC moved from the South End in 1902, it contracted with private landlords to oversee women’s residences just around the corner from Hemenway Street. The move, in fact, had been prompted in part by the administration’s aversion to running a dormitory. A delighted Charles Gardiner, chairman of the board, told the trustees in January 1903: “We have passed through the most remarkable and eventful year in the history of our Conservatory. We left the Franklin Square building, which we had occupied for 20 years, and by making this move to our current building, we separated the academic department from the dormitory forever.
Why, then, would Price live apart from her classmates? Although we have no definitive proof, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that, like his predecessors, Price first lived in a building sponsored by a conservatory, but moved to 31 Batavia in response to racism from other residential students. .
Price explained in a 1941 letter that she moved to the northeast precisely to avoid racial discrimination. “When I graduated from high school,” she wrote, “there was no opportunity open to me—a girl of color—to get a formal, inclusive education in a music lesson. His uncle, attorney J. Gray Lucas, had attended Boston University Law School in the 1880s, and his knowledge of the city might have informed his choice to seek there. And she was said to have been particularly drawn to the thirteen pipe organs in the new NEC building – “more than double the number of organs under any other roof in the world”, as the 1902 catalog boasted.
The new building also attracted a large student population from other southern states – those where segregationist laws had been in effect for more than a decade. In Price’s freshman year, she was the only student from Arkansas, while 96 others (or 15% of out-of-state enrollment) came from elsewhere in the South. Later catalogs show the total rose to 119 over the next two years, including four more from Arkansas. Meanwhile, enrollment from Mexico increased by one during the 1905-1906 school year. This student must have been Price.
If nine white Southerners left the conservatory after refusing to live with Cuney and Des Verney in 1890 – and these were only the most adamant fanatics among those who protested – it seems plausible that at least a handful objected to Price’s presence in one of the boarding houses. and tormented her. Without direct control over the homes, the conservatory could hardly intervene in conflicts. To counter this behavior, Price’s mother therefore insisted that she finish her degree with a new residence, a new family environment and even a paid servant. If the conservatory didn’t give her the environment she thought her daughter deserved, she would.
As historian Kira Thurman has shown in her recent book Sing like Germans, Black students (musicians or otherwise) routinely encountered racism from southern white students at predominantly white institutions despite unwavering faculty support. For many of these students, Thurman explains, the class-based politics of respectability influenced their responses to racist encounters. During the 1890 controversy, for example, Florida Des Verney told the World that she had “entered the conservatory with a determination to acquit myself in a manner that brings honor to my race” – an attitude that aligned with the values of Price’s immediate family, who were professionals in dentistry, law and the business. Price’s daughter found these attitudes distasteful, at least in retrospect, and accused her grandmother of completely denying their African heritage.
Impersonating Mexican (or “Spanish”) was not uncommon for relatively light-skinned people of African descent. In 1907, it became a central point of contention in Maud Cuney’s divorce from her first husband, who insisted that they avoid contact with black friends to maintain the public perception of Mexican ancestry – which historian Allyson Hobbs called a “chosen exile.” But Price, like her predecessors, faced an impossible dilemma in the absence of institutional intervention: how to deal with racist behavior while maintaining her safety and continuing her education. Price and her mother might have believed that enjoying colorism while asserting their social class was the path of least resistance. After all, Price completed his difficult studies in just three years.
Although 31 Batavia Street may seem like a minor detail in the life of a composer extraordinaire, it opens up new vistas for considering how the built environment shapes people’s lives. During the 1970s for-profit arson scandal, the cabal that started the fires blamed the behaviors of marginalized residents of the Symphony Road neighborhood – students, sex workers, immigrants, seniors, and more. – for their own victimization, forcing them to seek justice through community activism. The intersections of race and gender at the New England Conservatory offer a parallel case study in which institutional inaction led marginalized students—in this case, young women of color—to find solutions to problems that didn’t were not of their doing. “I can’t help it if I’m colored,” Cuney told the World in 1890, “and I will stay”.
Thanks to Samantha Ege (Lincoln College, University of Oxford) and Maryalice Perrin-Mohr (Archives, New England Conservatory) for their comments on drafts of this essay, and to the special collections staff at the Mullins Library at the University of arkansas.