Helen Eugenia Hagan was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the daughter of John A. and Mary Estella Neal Hagan. She studied piano with her mother and then in the public schools of New Haven, Connecticut. Around the age of nine, she began playing organ for the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven.
She studied at Yale University with Stanley Knight and graduated in 1912 with a bachelor's degree in music, performing as soloist on her own Concerto in C Minor in May 1912 at a performance by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra conducted by Horatio Parker. In doing so, she became the first known African American woman to earn a Yale degree. She received the Samuel Simmons Stanford scholarship to study in Paris, with Blanche Selva and Vincent d'Indy, and graduated from Schola Cantorum in 1914. She returned to the United States as World War I began and began a career as a concert pianist, touring from 1915 to 1918. In 1918 she was music director (meaning music department chair) at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College. In early 1919 she left for France to entertain black troops of the AEF, along with Joshua Blanton and Rev. Henry Hugh Proctor, under the auspices of the YMCA. General John Pershing personally requested that Ms. Hagan entertain the troops.
In 1920 Hagan married John Taylor Williams of Morristown, New Jersey but continued her concert career (they divorced ca. 1931). She had a music studio in Morristown for at least a decade and was the first African American woman admitted to the Morristown Chamber of Commerce. She taught at the Mendelssohn Conservatory of Music in Chicago and pursued a Masters of Arts degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. In the 1930s she served as dean of music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. She also continued to work as a choir director and church organist. She died in New York City after an extended illness.
On September 29, 2016, a crowdfunded monument for Hagan's previously unmarked grave was unveiled at New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery, and the day was declared "Women Making Music Day" by New Haven mayor Toni Harp. The New Haven Symphony Orchestra's season opening concert that evening was performed in Ms. Hagan's honor.
Yale University's School of Music is having Helen Hagan's Concerto in C Minor re-orchestrated based on existing scores and planned to have the resurrected work performed by the Yale Philharmonia until the COVID-19 crisis led to postponement of the November 2020 concert.
The New Haven Symphony Orchestra is an active advocate for Ms. Hagan's legacy and encourages anyone who might be in possession of a score or manuscript of her music to please contact the Symphony, www.NewHavenSymphony.org.
- "Concert By Students in Department of Music at 7:30". Yale Daily News. XXXV (187): 2. 23 May 1912. Retrieved 20 February 2016.
- New Haven Symphony Orchestra archives
- Schiff, Judith. "A banner year for black students". The Yale Alumni Magazine. Retrieved 2018-09-23.
- Hagan, Helen. "Letter from Helen Hagan to W. E. B. Du Bois, 25 March 1932". W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
- "Along the Color Line". The Crisis: 274. August 1931. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
- Gellman, Lucy (29 September 2016). "Helen Hagan Gets Her Day". New Haven Independent. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
- Stannard, Ed (29 September 2016). "Monument Now Marks New Haven Grave of 1st Black Woman to Graduate from Yale". New Haven Register. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
- Smith, Jessie Carney (1996). Notable Black American Women (Digitized online by GoogleBooks). ISBN 9780810391772. Retrieved 19 December 2010.
- Sadie, Julie Anne; Samuel, Rhian (1994). The Norton/Grove dictionary of women composers (Digitized online by GoogleBooks). ISBN 9780393034875. Retrieved 19 December 2010.
- Walker-Hill, Helen (2007). From spirituals to symphonies: African-American women composers and their music (Digitized online by GoogleBooks). ISBN 9780252074547.
- Elaine C. Carroll, CEO, New Haven Symphony