After the end of slavery, African-American leaders focused much of their attention on education, seeking to lift up their students and achieve a measure of dignity and respect that had been previously denied them. Teachers and students seeking to raise up themselves and the broader Black community looked to existing educational models, many of which emphasized German language, philosophy, and music. Increasing numbers of students, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois but also musicians like Clarence Cameron White, Felix Weir, Will Marion Cook, and Hazel Harrison, also began traveling to Germany to pursue their studies, hoping to accrue cultural capital that they could deploy to help their communities rise up in the face of a system that still denigrated them.
Bertha Hansbury was an important figure on the Detroit musical scene who sought out German study. After graduating from the Detroit Conservatory of Music in 1908, she studied in Berlin for a year. When she returned from Germany, Hansbury established a music studio in Detroit and in 1925 founded the first African-American music school in Michigan. She hoped “to give her people not only a place for the student class to attain cultural value” but also provide an opportunity for talented musicians and teachers to develop their talents when they might otherwise have laid them aside, “fearing there would be no future use for them.” The school was an important cultural institution for a time but was forced to close during the Great Depression. Hansbury continued to exercise a broader influence not least through her daughter, Ruth Mason. Mason became well-known as a disc jockey in Harlem and later helped develop the pathbreaking jazz label Blue Note Records, founded by her white German immigrant husband Alfred Lion.
In the postcard below, Bertha Hansbury stands at the left.
The label on the back reads:
“After her graduation from the Detroit Conservatory of Music, Bertha Hansbury studied in Berlin, Germany for a year. 1909.”
Source: “Bertha Hansbury and Her Colleagues in Berlin, Germany (postcard),” Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection, Detroit Public Library. ©Detroit Public Library.
Getting a musical education in Germany (1909) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.