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A Florence Price mystery solved (part two)

A Florence Price mystery solved (part two)

A significant find adds a new piece to the puzzle of Florence Price’s student experience as a woman of color in Boston’s cultural scene for the first time. This two-part blog series details research in progress for a volume on Florence Price written by Samantha Ege and Douglas Shadle for the Master Musicians Series. Read part one here.

Few direct traces of Florence Price’s time as a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston between 1903 and 1906 survive today, but we know that she was a high achiever. The 1906 catalog indicates that she was the only graduate to earn two diplomas that year, and concert programs show that she was an active performer on both piano and organ.

More pertinent to this story, the programs also shed light on her experiences specifically as an African American student. During her second year, 1904–5, two programs correctly list her hometown as Little Rock, Arkansas. In the following year, however, she is listed as a resident of Puebla, Mexico (“Pueblo”). No conservatory records explain this change. And, to my knowledge, only one surviving document—a 1967 note written by one of her daughters, Florence Robinson—addresses it directly. “My grandmother didn’t want my mother to be a Negro,” Robinson explained, “so when she took her to Boston, she rented an expensive apt. with a maid and forced my mother to say her birthplace was not Little Rock, but Mexico.”

Excerpts from Price (Smith) recitals, 26 Nov. 1904 and 5 Jan. 1906.
(Courtesy New England Conservatory Archives.)

Something prompted the hometown change—what exactly, we may never know. Her family certainly hadn’t moved to Mexico. But Robinson clearly linked it to Price’s living environment in Boston, thus connecting her experiences to those of previously displaced African American students like Fannie Barrier Williams, Maud Cuney, and Florida Des Verney.

Price’s Boston address had eluded biographers until I visited the University of Arkansas Mullins Library in January. One afternoon, I was working through a relatively unprocessed collection that had sustained weather damage in the dilapidated rural house where it was found in 2009. And there it was: the address. Box 1B, Folder 24, marked “Publishing 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.

Envelope addressed to Price (Smith) in Boston, Nov. 1905.
(Courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas Mullins Library.)

Boston city directory entries for 1905 and 1906 list a “Mrs. Florence I. Smith” at 31 Batavia—a name generic enough that it could be an unrelated person. But this Mrs Smith was unquestionably Price’s mother, Florence Irene, who had acquired an apartment there on her behalf. The envelope confirms it for the first time.

As part one showed, Batavia Street stood at the nexus of an emerging arts district and was ideally situated for students. But it was also not where most out-of-town students lived. After NEC moved from the South End in 1902, it contracted with private landlords to oversee residences for women just around the corner on Hemenway. The move, in fact, had been prompted in part by the administration’s aversion to running a dormitory. A delighted Charles Gardiner, president 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 have vacated the building on Franklin Square, which we had occupied for 20 years, and in making this move to our present building we forever separated the academic department from the dormitory.”

Why, then, would Price live apart from her classmates? Although we have no definitive proof, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that, like her predecessors, Price first lived in a conservatory-sponsored building but moved to 31 Batavia in response to racism from other residential students.

Price explained in a 1941 letter that she had moved to the northeast precisely to avoid racial discrimination. “When I graduated high school,” she wrote, “there was no opportunity open to me—a colored girl—for obtaining a formal and inclusive training in a course in music.” Her uncle, attorney J. Gray Lucas, had attended law school at Boston University in the 1880s, and his knowledge of the city might have informed her choice to look there. And she would have been especially attracted to the thirteen pipe organs in the new NEC building—“more than double the number of organs under any other single roof in the world,” as the 1902 catalog touted.

The new building also attracted a sizeable student population from other southern states—those where segregationist laws had been in force for over a decade. During Price’s first year, she was the only student from Arkansas, while 96 others (or 15% of the out-of-state enrollment) came from elsewhere in the South. Subsequent catalogs show that the total swelled to 119 over the next two years, including four more from Arkansas. Meanwhile, the enrollment from Mexico increased by one during the 1905–6 school year. That 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 resolute bigots 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 do little to intervene in conflicts. To counter this behavior, then, Price’s mother insisted that she finish her diploma with a new residence, a new family background, and even a paid servant. If the conservatory wouldn’t provide the environment she thought her daughter deserved, she would.

As historian Kira Thurman has shown in her recent book Singing Like Germans, Black students (musicians or otherwise) routinely encountered racism from southern white students at predominantly white institutions despite receiving unqualified support from the faculty. For many of these students, Thurman explains, class-based respectability politics informed their responses to racist encounters. During the 1890 controversy, for example, Florida Des Verney told the Globe that she had “entered the conservatory with a determination to acquit myself in such a manner as to be a credit to my race”—an attitude that aligned with the values of Price’s immediate family, who were professionals in dentistry, law, and business. Price’s daughter found these attitudes distasteful, at least in retrospect, and accused her grandmother of denying their African heritage altogether.

Passing as Mexican (or “Spanish”) was not uncommon for relatively fair-skinned people of African ancestry. In 1907, it became a central point of conflict in Maud Cuney’s divorce from her first husband, who insisted that they avoid all contact with Black friends to maintain the public perception of Mexican ancestry—what historian Allyson Hobbs has called a “chosen exile.” But Price, like her predecessors, found herself facing an impossible dilemma in the absence of institutional intervention: how to manage racist behavior while maintaining her safety and continuing her education. Price and her mother might have believed that taking advantage of colorism while asserting their social class was the path of least resistance. After all, Price completed her difficult studies in only three years.

Although 31 Batavia Street may seem like a minor detail in the life of an extraordinary composer, it opens new vistas for considering how the built environment shapes people’s lives. During the arson-for-profit scandal of the 1970s, the cabal who set the fires blamed the behaviors of the Symphony Road neighborhood’s marginalized residents—students, sex workers, immigrants, the elderly, and so on—for their own victimization, compelling 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 not of their own making. “I cannot help it if am colored,” Cuney told the Globe in 1890, “and stay I shall.”


Thank you to Samantha Ege (Lincoln College, University of Oxford) and Maryalice Perrin-Mohr (Archives, New England Conservatory) for feedback on drafts of this essay, and to the Special Collections staff at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library.

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