A Florence Price mystery solved (part one)

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.

Composer Florence Price (1887–1953) has experienced an extraordinary resurgence on concert stages in recent years. Since January alone, dozens of orchestras in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and even Chile have performed her radiant music by her, while outstanding new recordings are capturing it for posterity. The pronounced interest is long overdue. Price, an African American woman, struggled to achieve a fraction of this recognition during her lifetime.

As her biographer Rae Linda Brown once noted, “the necessary evidence to write a detailed biography is surprisingly scant.” Indeed, even fundamental facts about Price’s life can be difficult to confirm. Yet a significant new find at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library, which holds most of Price’s manuscripts of her, puts in place a major puzzle piece surrounding her student experience of her as a woman of color at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

Price’s student address, 31 Batavia Street, had long eluded previous biographers. Called Symphony Road since the 1930s, the surrounding neighborhood comprises a pocket of streets and public alleys tucked between Symphony Hall and the Back Bay Fens. It’s also home to a fascinating, even scandalous history. In the 1970s, the neighborhood entered national headlines after its depleted residents uncovered a deadly arson-for-profit corruption scheme that had brutalized them for years. A few decades earlier, Babe Ruth was a frequent guest and even lived there for a time just after joining the Red Sox in 1914.

Beyond its proximity to the famed Symphony Hall, the neighborhood is also important in the history of American classical music, for it has housed students at the New England Conservatory since 1902, the year before Price matriculated there. At the time, the conservatory was one of only a few large musical institutions that admitted students of color, and providing safe housing for out-of-state residents posed perennial challenges. The conservatory went to great lengths to shield women from unwanted male callers, yet how to manage white women’s hostility toward women of color fell on the students themselves. Price developed multiple strategies for protecting herself, including living away from the main student residence. Though a seemingly minor detail, Price’s Boston address illuminates how race, gender, and the built environment converged to shape Price’s student experience of her.

31 Symphony Road, March 2022.
(Photos from the author’s collection.)

Race, gender, and housing at the New England Conservatory

Founded in 1867 by choral conductor Eben Tourjée, the New England Conservatory originally operated in rooms attached to Boston’s downtown Music Hall (now the Orpheum Theatre). During its early years, the director gave advice to out-of-state students about where they could live but offered no guarantees about the suitability of rooming conditions. By 1882, the spaces in Music Hall had become insufficient for growing enrollment, prompting the trustees to purchase and then renovate the South End’s sumptuous St. James Hotel (now the Franklin Square Apartments) into a space for residential education.

Touted in the 1882 catalog as “the largest and finest conservatory building in the world,” the renovated hotel became the central marketing tool for attracting out-of-state students. Tourjée believed that the potential drawbacks of living away from campus—dishonest landlords, unsanitary conditions, unreliable transit, and so on—had convinced many parents to avoid the conservatory in the past, whereas he could now maintain far more control over the conditions in an attached bedroom. “The great Building is not only admirably adapted for Conservatory use,” the catalog boasted, “but has every modern advantage for a model home.”

In addition to bedrooms for 550 students, amenities in the new building included a concert hall, a library, reading rooms, practice rooms, and parlors, all overseen by a “Preceptress.” The park in the adjacent Franklin Square offered a beautiful outdoor environment. These were exactly the features that would have appealed to Norris Wright Cuney, a prominent political figure from Galveston, Texas, and Anthony Des Verney, a wealthy cotton broker from Savannah, Georgia. Their daughters, Maud and Florida, wanted to pursue sound musical training in addition to an excellent general education—precisely what the conservatory promised.

The two women matriculated in September 1890 and moved into adjacent bedrooms in the dormitory. Within weeks, a few white students complained about having to share living accommodations with Cuney and Des Verney, especially the dining area, and ultimately petitioned for their outright removal. Cuney and Des Verney, meanwhile, protested that the other women routinely harassed them. The conflict entered public view when the Globe reported that the conservatory administration had sent letters to Cuney’s and Des Verney’s parents apprising them of the situation, declaring that “there seems no adequate solution save in the disposition of the parents of colored pupils to provide them a home outside the Conservatory.”

This winding locution suggested that the incident wasn’t the first of its kind, and indeed it wasn’t. Tourjée quietly dismissed Fannie Barrier Williams from the conservatory altogether in 1884, arguing that threats from white students to leave the school endangered its solvency. the Globe report about Cuney and Des Verney, however, immediately circulated in major national newspapers, leading local Black citizens to mobilize on their behalf. Members of the Colored National League, a civil rights organization, threatened legal action on the grounds that the conservatory received state funds and was thereby required to offer all services equally. The trustees ultimately changed course and allowed the two women to stay in the bedroom if they wished. Des Verney declined, completing her studies for the term while living elsewhere, while Cuney remained and endured, as she put it, “petty indignities” from other students for the rest of the year. At least nine students from southern states left because the trustees allowed her to stay.

The Batavia Street neighborhood and urban expansion

The controversy’s broader context involved the rapidly changing geographies brought on by urban expansion, population booms, and especially improved transit. The year 1890 witnessed the introduction of several segregated railcar bills in southern states, for example, which drastically reshaped mobility patterns. By the time Price matriculated in 1903, Batavia Street and the surrounding area had also experienced a dramatic transformation that, as musicologist Jacob Cohen has argued, shifted the center of gravity of classical music in Boston.

First laid in the mid-1880s by real estate speculators Ira Moore and Jesse Tirrell, Batavia initially offered a lower-cost alternative to the luxury homes available in the Back Bay to the north, as well as easy access to the Back Bay Fens park being developed by Frederick Law Olmsted just to the west. A map from 1888 shows an incomplete Batavia situated within an undeveloped area south of the Fens. The nearest notable landmark (not shown) is the 60-bed children’s hospital on the northwest corner of Huntington and Gainsborough. (This institution moved to Longwood Avenue next to Harvard Medical School in 1914.)

Meanwhile, population growth was straining the city’s transit system, causing traffic congestion along main thoroughfares that lowered the quality of life. The Harvard Bridge, finished in 1892, relieved some of this pressure by connecting Cambridge to Boston via Massachusetts Avenue, ultimately making the neighborhood around Batavia accessible from all directions. Directories from the 1890s list students from MIT and Harvard with addresses there, particularly along Westland Avenue.

Construction of a new elevated train, proposed in 1893, threatened to disrupt activity at Music Hall, home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since its founding in 1881. Although the project was ultimately scrapped in favor of the Tremont Street subway, orchestra executive Henry Lee Higginson purchased a plot for a new concert hall along Massachusetts between Huntington and St. Stephen—a location visible at the corner of Batavia. A detailed 1895 map shows that Jesse Tirrell owned a series of row homes along Batavia up to #33, with the rest of the land along the street owned by a land development company. (The children’s hospital and the eventual site of Symphony Hall are also clearly labeled.)

Soon after becoming director of the New England Conservatory in 1897, composer George Whitefield Chadwick urged the trustees to move out of the South End property because the dormitory was too expensive to maintain. Higginson suggested finding property near the proposed site of Symphony Hall, arguing that proximity to the orchestra would benefit students. Just a few months before the hall opened in 1900, the Globe remarked that it had “attracted the attention of investors and institutions as a most desirable location for large buildings for public purposes, being easily accessible from all points of Boston and suburbs.”

The conservatory trustees followed suit by purchasing a plot south of Gainsborough Street between Huntington and St. Botolph. Ground broke on the new building in 1901, and it opened for the fall session a year later. A new annual catalog boasted that “the building is directly in the art center of Boston, being located one block west of Symphony Hall and within a short walking distance of Boston’s famous public library, the Art Museum, and other public buildings of interest.” Indeed, by the time she arrived, it was ideally situated for a student like Price to absorb the city’s performing arts offerings in abundance, as the dozens of programs she collected attest.

Unlike the previous location, however, the new conservatory building did not contain a residence hall for women. Instead, the catalog noted, “young women coming from a distance to attend the Conservatory will find superior boarding accommodations in residences which have recently been completed and arranged for their exclusive benefit.” A map appended to the catalog shows that the new residences were along Hemenway Street (formerly Parker) along the edge of the Fens. How this new urban geography shaped Florence Price’s experiences de ella at the conservatory is the subject of part two.

New England Conservatory Catalog, 1902, A. New building, B. Dormitory, C. Symphony Hall. New England Conservatory Archives.

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