Voices for Freedom

It’s a shame that two brilliant classical voices that used their talent to uplift their race and pioneer in the art form of the American musical are so largely unsung. But that is the case with Anna and Emma Hyers, known professionally as the Hyers Sisters. Classical voice prodigies who were destined to break color barriers in opera houses around the world in 1870s, they instead used their platform to promote the humanity of their people.

Soprano, actress, musical scholar, filmmaker and St. Louis native Susheel Bibbs sheds light on their contributions to their people and as early architects of what evolved into the American musical with her short film “Voices For Freedom – The Hyers Sisters Legacy.”

Bibbs, a graduate of Sumner High School, will return to St. Louis for a special screening of the film and post-screening discussion next Friday (March 20) at the Missouri History Museum. The film originally aired on PBS in 2017, was met with acclaim at several film festivals, including the famed Cannes Film Festival. The film won the 2017 Grand Festival Award at the Berkeley Video Film Festival.

At a time when minstrel shows intentionally dehumanized African Americans through entertainment – operating as the entertainment counterpart to the racial terror that was imposed on black people – the Hyers sisters mounted shows and musical experiences that exclaimed our humanity.

“They fought the minstrels’ ridicule. And what were their weapons? Charming musical stories of black life that asserted black dignity without black face,” soprano Denyce Graves said in the opening scene of the film. “Anna and Emma Hyers stood up to become voices for freedom.”

Part documentary, part reenactment with performance snippets sprinkled throughout, the film details the Hyers Sisters’ remarkable story. The reenactment portion begins with Bibbs as Delilah Leontium Beasley, a reporter for the Oakland Tribune, who becomes the first African American woman to be published regularly in a major metropolitan newspaper.

Beasley meets with Anna, the surviving Hyers sister. She is living in obscurity by the early 20th century. Beasley meets to discuss the sister’s careers for an upcoming book. They start from the very beginning.

The Hyers sisters are still children (Anna is 12 and Emma is 10) when they make their debut on the classical voice concert circuit. Initially met with fierce racism, their natural gifts made them all the rage in just a few short years.

“Newspapers all across the country heralded them as great operatic artists,” Bibbs said as she discussed the sisters during an interview portion of the film – which also includes snippet reenactments of pieces performed by the sisters as a duet and later as the main attraction of the Hyers Sisters Opera Company, which was managed by their father, Sam Hyers.

The San Francisco Chronicle referred to them as “rare natural gifts” when the paper wrote about the sisters in 1869.

And in 1871, St. Joseph, Missouri’s Daily Herald called the Hyers sisters “a rare musical treat.” Their company was the first repertory company to receive national acclaim and the sisters were moving towards realizing their dream of breaking racial barriers in the biggest opera houses around the world. Instead, they changed course to use their art to combat a larger issue – the dismantling of Reconstruction and the explosion of negative stereotypes to justify the racial terror imposed on the newly liberated African Americans.

“When there was a secret deal to put Rutherford B. Hayes into the presidency and they pulled the troops from the south and the protection of African Americans, all hell broke loose,” Bibbs said. “The only images that they had were the images put forth by Zip Coon and Jim Crow.”

The Hyers sisters responded by shifting from classical opera to producing shows to counter the narratives of the minstrel shows – and became pioneers in the American musical art form while doing so.

“They left their dream and they came forward and for 20 years they were the sole providers of a new image of African Americans as humans,” Bibbs said. “As having a story and as claiming the American dream, the Hyers fought the mockery with music.”

Their company brought the first African American lead performers and the first integrated casts on stage. And they created stories – which fused classical voice and popular spiritual music with rich narratives of the African American experience – that put the minstrel stereotypes to shame. Their company served as the anti-minstrel show. And through their productions, they boldly displayed resilience, talents, resourcefulness as well as their commitment to their race.

“What’s really significant and inspiring is that these responses that African Americans made to this time of terror has left us with wonderful gifts that we can still witness and still utilize,” historian Susan Anderson said in the film. “The culture of African Americans is predicated on a fierce faith – faith in a higher power and a kind of militant optimism that their efforts could rescue American democracy from white supremacy.”

“Voices For Freedom – The Hyers Sisters Legacy,” will screen at the Missouri History Museum as part of its Women’s Day programming at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, March 20. The event will feature a performance and discussion by filmmaker Susheel Bibbs. For more information, visit www.mohistory.org or call (314) 746-4579. 

The film will also air locally on The Nine Network at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 22 and at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 29.

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