MYRTLE HART, HARPIST

The Henry Hart project has come a long way since the main article, entitled "Henry Hart (musician)" appeared in Wikipedia in 2007. At that time, many questions remained open. One of them was particularly intriguing: what became of Henry and Sarah's daughter Myrtle, the harpist? She had been described in The Chicago Daily News as "the only colored harpist in the world."

The 1920 census shows that Myrtle, with husband John Fry and family, lived in Chicago. Eighty-nine years later, a librarian at the Chicago Public Library found, with the help of an index of The Chicago Defender, a few articles about Myrtle's daughter Frances. One of these mentioned Frances's daughter Judith. Soon after reading that article, I was able to find Judith's phone number and called her. It was an amazing experience for both of us. Aside from our mutual interest in her grandmother, we quickly discovered that we were both born in the Chicago area and lived on or near the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. As youngsters, we both attended Christian Science Sunday Schools and were members of swim teams. We have both taught English while overseas.

Subsequently, we communicated by phone and emails. I asked Judith, who prefers to be called Judi, for some information about herself and her mother, Frances F. Albritton (1912-2005). Judi lives in Chicago. She was graduated from Roosevelt University with a degree in psychology, did social work for several years, and then taught for forty years. Her social work from 1962 to 1967 was as a tenant relations aide in the world's largest public housing development. Her teaching includes English as a second language - she is also fluent in Spanish.

From 1972 to 1976, she taught for the U. S. Army in Heilbronn, Germany: junior high English, Social Studies, and Girl's P.E. (As a girl, Judi was a competitive swimmer at the Wabash YWCA in Chicago.) From 1978 to 2002, at the William Howard Taft High School in Chicago, she worked with special education students, and later taught at the Lawrence Hall Treatment Facility and the Beasley Magnet School.

Judi writes, "My Mom, an amazing woman. She was one of the most outstanding teachers in the Chicago system. She would receive all kinds of awards. She would teach students in our home in the evenings and during the summer free of charge. She wanted those children who were slipping further and further behind to have a chance, and she knew there was only one way to do it..."

After Judi's father died, her mother retired at age 65 and joined Judi in Germany. Returning to Chicago, her mother taught at St. Edmund's Parochial School. When she died, she had fullblown Alzheimer's - as did her mother, Myrtle.

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Memories of My Grandmother, Myrtle Hart
by Judith Albritton Simmons

Now about my Grandmother Hart, as we called her. She was born in [Indiana], the second eldest of the children. She was married to my grandfather - John Fry - a captain in the army. He was one of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. If I remember correctly, he served in WWI. He lived with my Mom and Dad for a while, and he suffered from depression. He did indeed own a hotel that he lost - the main reason he went into a deep depression. My Mom told me that he would seclude himself for days at a time. If I remember correctly, I was one year old when he died.

Grandmother Hart's final surname was MacKinlay. Her husband was William MacKinlay, the conductor of the Boston Colonial Theatre Orchestra. She changed my Mom's brother's name from John Fry to William MacKinlay, Jr. I'm not sure if he was adopted.

An interesting aside - my Grandmother sent Uncle Billy to Chicago to have my Aunts Will and Brownie tell him he was not white. He promptly had a nervous breakdown... [These Aunts were Myrtle's sisters William and Clothilde. Regarding the name Aunt Will, at the time of her birth, Henry and Sarah Hart had several daughters but no surviving sons. "My great grandfather said that he didn't care what sex the baby was, it was going to have a boy's name - thus William Henry - nicknamed Willie."]

Uncle Billy looked like he could have been the brother of the movie star Jackie Cooper - who was one of the original "Our Gang" kids. My Gran lived with my Uncle Billy at 61 Russett Road in West Roxbury, MA.

My Gran's stage name was Louise Kavanaugh. When she was on hiatus, she'd come to Chicago to stay with us. I remember her being dropped off at our building toting her harp.

My paternal grandmother gave us a magnificent Steinway baby grand piano. When Grandmother Hart came to visit us and saw it, she treated it like she had given birth to it. She never, never played the harp for us - only the piano. She would play sometimes for four hours straight.

I have wracked by brain about how my Gran met Wm. MacKinlay - and about their marriage, but I don't think I ever knew. What I do remember was that my Gran loved him but was so secretive about everything.

About my Gran living in NY - again because she passed for white - my Mom protected her and never shared anything with us because we were just too young to understand.

My Gran had to pass in order to play in the big symphony orchestras. She hated this so much - the professional need for passing and the difficulties this posed for her private life.

I had a good laugh about my Gran being graceful. [Here, Judi has recently read the 1895 article when her Gran was eighteen years old; the article is reproduced below.] I have wonderful memories of her, as she would "flow" when she walked. Almost as if dancing. I used to love getting into bed with her in the morning. She would squeeze me ever so gently and say, "I love you, my beauty." And would follow with, "Now, who are you? Are you Francie?" Francie was the name she called my Mom. As I got older I began to surmise that she called me Francie because she spent so little time with my Mom, and she was trying to make up for that. Also, she chose to have my uncle live with her because he looked more Caucasian than my Mom. It was nonsense. My Mom was fair, and had beautiful hazel eyes!

Gran's favorite nourishment was Pepsis and Hershey bars...she was feisty, and spoke with a lilt in her voice - almost like she was singing. She wore these hats that were huge. All of them were black, invariably with a bird or two, many feathers, bows, and netting. When she got really forgetful, she'd put on her hat while still wearing her bathrobe and slippers. Often the neighbors would bring her back, saying she was standing on the corner asking for someone to drive her to 61 Russett Rd.

When she was committed - it was awful. My uncle put her there because she was so difficult to keep up with. He took her out when they broke her arm trying to restrain her. This created much anxiety for my Mom.

As she aged, she was miserable because she wanted to play her harp and/or the piano. She was not just a wonderful harpist, she was a magnificent pianist.

I visited Boston one year...and went to lunch with my Gran, and it was bitter/sweet. She seemed so scrambled about so many things. She talked to me about having played for the Ziegfeld Follies, and how beautiful the girls were. She told me about filming the movie, "The Great Ziegfeld."

There are many published accounts of racial passing - about the personal and professional reasons for it and about the consequent strains within families and social groups. It is clear from Judi's account that when Myrtle became Louise, these strains ran deep.

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Full text of the article
IS GIFTED HARP PLAYER
in Chicago Daily News, July 23, 1895

This article, along with a picture of Myrtle Hart seating at her harp, shown in the Wikipedia article entitled "Henry Hart (musician)", has three introductory headings: (1) Chat with Miss Myrtle Hart, the Only Colored Woman Who Performs on This Instrument; (2) SHE WAS AT THE BRITISH EXHIBIT; and (3) Comes from an Indiana Family, All the Members of Which Are Musical. The remainder of the article is quoted here.
Miss Myrtle Hart, the only colored harpist in the world, is in Chicago.

She came here with her father, Prof. Henry Hart, took part in a musical program at Quinn Chapel last night, and returned this evening to Wawasee, Ind., where she and her father and sister nightly furnish music for the entertainment of the guests at Wawawee Inn, a pretty summer resort.

Miss Hart is an Indiana girl, born in Evansville and raised and educated in Indianapolis, and although last night was the first night she had ever played before a colored audience in Chicago, it was not the first time she had been heard here, for she played in the British exhibit at the World's Fair and the costly instrument upon which she performed last night at Quinn chapel was exhibited by its manufactures in the Columbian exposition.

All the members of the family are musicians, and the father, Prof. Henry Hart, is one of the best-known colored violinists in the United States. Besides, he performs upon several other instruments, and was his daughter's first teacher on the harp. After acquiring a general knowledge of the harp from her father, Miss Hart came to Chicago and studied for three years under Edmund Schuecker [correct spelling Schuëcker], formerly professor of the harp at Leipzig, Germay, and is now harp soloist in Theodore Thomas' orchestra.

A Daily News reporter found Miss Hart very approachable just before her rehearsal at Quinn chapel yesterday. She said, "I have been playing since my babyhood--almost. In fact, I can't remember when I learned music. I first played the piano, then learned the harp. I play only by inspiration. I can do nothing unless inspired. All the members of my family are musicians--and girls, except my father and sister Willie. She's a boy. That is, we wanted her to be one and she wasn't, so we named her for one anyway. It's dreadful to be without a big brother. And say, there's one thing I wish you to add: Please say that I don't like the "new woman," hate bloomers and haven't read 'Trilby.' No, I don't believe the harp will ever become as popular as the piano, because it is too difficult to learn."

Nevertheless, the talented young woman is very much in love with her harp and has thoroughly mastered it. He playing is marked by brilliant execution, pure tones, and extreme delicacy of touch. Her fingering is graceful and easy. Her pieces last night were "Fantasie Brilliante," by Parrish Alvars, "Morceau," by Oberthur, and a harp accompaniment to a tenor solo by George Henderson, a popular colored singer. She gave as encores: "The Bohmemian Girl" and "The Last Rose of Summer."

Miss Hart is a beautiful and accomplished young woman, with scarcely enough negro blood to reveal her nationality. She is tall [her granddaughter recalls that she was actually quite short] and very graceful, and her eyes dance with girlish merriment. She has the kind of lips that nestling poets generally designate as "cherries" and her abundant mass of wavy brown hair is a light as the average blonde's.

The Hart family consist of father, mother and five daughters, one of whom is married and lives in Chicago. The family home is in Indianapolis. Prof. Hart is one of the wealthiest colored citizens of the Hoosier capital and is very influential there.

Documentation

Louise Kavanaugh MacKinlay did not leave much of a trace of her earlier identity as Myrtle Hart or Myrtle Fry. The earliest relevant document after her move to the eastern United States may be the Record of Marriage on August 10, 1926, in the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The record shows a mixture of fact and fiction:

Full Name of Bride: MYRTLE FRY (KAVANAUGH)
Surname After Marriage: MACKINLEY [correct spelling, MacKinlay]
Age: 39 [She was nearly 46.]
Race: [left blank]
Residence: NEW YORK, NY
Birthplace: CHICAGO, IL [correct birthplace: Evansville, Indiana]
Occupation: HARPIST
Number of Marriage: SECOND
Full Name of Father: HENRY KAVANAUGH [correct name: Henry Hart]
Full Maiden Name of Mother: SARAH SELDON [The first name is correct. However, according to Sarah's death certificate and also to Myrtle's 1907 application for marriage license, her mother's "full christian and maiden name" was Sarah Smith, born in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The surname Seldon was Sarah's mother's married name. In Evansville property records, her full name appears as Angeline Seldon. Angeline's maiden name was Angeline Mason.]

The same marriage record shows that the officiant was a Justice of the Peace, that the husband, William C. MacKinley (sic) was a widowed musician of age 61, residing at 61 Russett Road, Boston, having been born in New Brunswick, Canada.

The 1930 U. S. Federal Census for Boston City, West Roxbury District, District 13-511, page 68, shows that William (65), Louise K (43), and William (12), all white, resided at 61 Russett Road. In the row for William, Jr., under "Birthplace of Father", the "Illinois" is crossed through and above is written "Canada".

The 1930 Census shows Louise's birthplace as Illinois. However, it seems fairly certain that she (Myrtle) was born on March 1, 1877, in Evansville, Indiana. This date and location are written in her hand on "Application for Marriage License" (to John Luther Fry), dated October 20, 1907. (Possibly this is her only surviving signature as Myrtle Hart on an official document.) It appears that no official birth record for Myrtle Hart exists, as the state of Indiana did not keep such birth records until 1883.

In order to correct the information given in the 1930 census regarding William, Jr., it is helpful to consult his birth record in the Marion County (Indiana) Health Department. There, it is recorded that the son's full name at birth was John Luther Fry, Jr, born at 1223 N. Capitol Avenue, Indianapolis, on August 11, 1917. The address is that of Myrtle's parents.

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From The Freeman, (Indianapolis)
June 13, 1896

Prof. J. W. Cromwell, the popular concert manager, is endeavoring to arrange for the apearance here [Washington, D.C.] of Miss Myrtle Hart, the eminent harp soloist of Indianapolis, Ind. Miss Hart has given a number of recitals in the West, and her work has attracted much favorable comment.

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From The Freeman, (Indianapolis)
November 14, 1896

Miss Myrtle Hart, the only colored harpist in the United States, is to appear before a Washington audience in a harp recital at the Metropolitan A. M. E. church on Friday evening. Miss Hart is an Indiana girl, born in Evansville and raised and educated in Indianapolis. All the members of the family are musicians and her father, Prof. Henry Hart, is one of the best known colored violinists in the United States. Miss Hart studied three years under Edmond Schnecker [Edmund Schuëcker, 1860-1911], formerly professor of the harp at Leipsic [Leipzig], Germany, and is now harp soloist in Theodore Thomas' orchestra, of Chircago.
The above account is one more indication that Myrtle was born in Evansville (not in Indianapolis or Illinois, as recorded in later documents). The church referred to is now known as the National Cathedral of African Methodism. In 1896 the term "Prof" was often used to indicate a high level of respect, although the prof may not have been affiliated with a university. The orchestra in which Myrtle's harp teacher was soloist became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Theodore Thomas (1835-1905) is recognized as the founder and first music director of the CSO. (Note the similarity of this article to the 1895 article quoted above.)

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From Boston Daily Globe
March 16, 1905

Miss Myrtle Hart's Recital. Miss Myrtle Hart of Indianapolis, a colored harp soloist, gave a recital last evening at the Columbus [Avenue] African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church was crowded and the artist was cordially received. She was assisted by Dr. I. I. Roberts bass, Anna Ellis-Dexter and Georgetta F. Woodest sopranos, Genevieve Lee contralto, Margaret A. Henderson and Marjorie E. Grove piano.

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From The Chicago Defender
April 30, 1921

Mrs. Henry Hart and daughter, Miss Willie, of Indianapolis, Ind., are in the city for an indefinite stay as the guests of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Fry, 4065 Calumet avenue.

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From The Christian Leader
April 21, 1928 (page 508)

[A report from First Universalist Society of Salem, Massachusetts.] The group gathered on the tower of the church for a sunrise service....Miss Louise Kavanaugh of Boston, who has been with the Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera of New York, played on the harp. The congregation filled the church and the morning offering was over $1,300.

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From The Chicago Defender,
May 14, 1938

On Wednesday, the family of John L. Fry [Myrtle Hart's first husband], 72, 473 East Thirtieth street, were informed that he had died early that morning in the Nursing Home, 6312 Rhodes avenue, where he had been confined since suffering a stroke two years ago…

Mr. Fry was formerly a captain in the regular United States Army and saw service throughout the Mexican border disturbances.

He owned the famous old Keystone cafe and hotel once located at Thirty-first and State streets, and which served as a popular rendezvous for all railroad employees of that day.

A native of Baltimore, he was a prominent member of both the Elks and Hyram Lodge No. 14, A. F. and A. M., Chicago. Survivors are: a son, John, Jr.; a daughter, Mrs. Frances Albritton, both of the above address…burial at Burr Oak cemetery.

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From The Boston Herald
January 1, 1942

William MacKinlay, Musician, Is Dead Colonial Music Director Dies
W. C. MacKinlay, 76, Served 40 Years

William C. MacKinlay, 76, musical director of the Colonial Theater here for the past 40 years, died yesterday after a seven-weeks illness. His home was at 61 Russet road, West Roxbury.

During his many years in the theater he became widely known among stage stars and musicians and one of his most treasured possessions was a baton given him by Victor Herbert right after the latter had been guset conductor during the presentation of his "Mademoiselle Modiste" here some years ago.

Mr. MacKinlay was also well-known as a horticulturist. Experts had pronounced his gardens among the most beautiful in this section and his flowers had won many prizes, including cups, medals and ribbons, at flower shows in this part of New England.

Mr. MacKinlay played the violin and studied under Listemann, Franz Kneisel and Leanard. He was a former president of the Musicians' Relief Society and was one of the founders of the old People's Symphony Orchestra.

He was also active in Masonic circles and was a member of Prospect lodge, Royal Arch chapter and Joseph Warren commandery, Knights Templar.

He was a native of St. John, New Brunswick,and came to this country at the age of seven. Before he assumed the musical directorship at the Colonial, he held a similar post at the City Theater, Brockton.

Surviving are his widow, Mrs. Louise Kavanaugh MacKinlay, harpist in the Colonial Theater orchestra...

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From The Boston Globe
January 1, 1942

William MacKinlay, Musician, Is Dead

William C. MacKinlay, 76, violinist and leader of the Colonial Theatre orchestra 40 years, died yesterday at his home, 61 Russett road, West Roxbury.

Born at St. John, N. B., he came to Boston with his family at 7. He attended the Boston public schools and started his violin study under Bernard Listemann and Franz Kneisel. After studying for a time in Paris he returned to this country and became leader of the orchestra at the old City Theatre in Brockton. After several years he took over the leadership at the Boston Theatre.

He aided many a young musician along the road to success. He was one of the founders of the former People's Symphony Orchestra, was a former president of the Musicians' Mutual Relief Society and a member of Prospect Lodge, A. F. & A. M., and the Royal Arch Chapter of Roslindale and Joseph Warren Commandery, K. T.

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From The Boston Herald
January 2, 1942

MacKINLAY, In West Roxbury, Dec. 31, William C., husband of Louise K. MacKinlay of 61 Russett rd. Services at the Storey Chapel, Mt. Auburn cemetery, Cambridge. Saturday at 11 A. m. Relatives and friends invited.
As indicated by the above obituary, William C. MacKinlay was buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His grave lies within the MacKinlay family plot on Cuphea Path. A document kept at the cemetery bears the signature of Louise K. MacKinlay, wife. The distinctive "M" matches the M with which Louise signed as Myrtle Hart in the above-mentioned 1907 application for a marriage license to John L. Fry.

Louise K. MacKinlay died October 23, 1966. In December, her ashes were transferred from Forest Hills Crematory in Boston to a position near the marker for her husband William in Mount Auburn Cemetery. The death certificate shows that she was born March 1, 1877 [probably correct] in Illinois [not correct]. Next to "Name of Father" is recorded "Unknown Hart", this information having been given by Informant: William MacKinlay, Son, 61 Russett Rd - West Roxbury.

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Acknowledgments

Along with a great deal of gratitude to Judith A. Simmons of Chicago, I also thank Randy Abbott, Reference Library at the University of Evansville; Cynthia Fife-Townsel, Harsch Research Collection Librarian, Chicago Public Library; Charlotte A. Kolczyski, Reference Librarian, Music Department, Boston Public Library; Diane O. Ota, Curator of Music, Boston Public Library; Caroline Loughlin, Research Assistant, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the interlibrary loan librarians at the University of Evansville: Meg Atwater-Singer, Juanita Chappell, and Kathryn Bartelt.

Clark Kimberling
University of Evansville
April, 2010
(Added on June 24, 2010: two obituaries dated January 1, 1942 and a corresponding name in the Acknowledgments.)