Batson, Flora (1864–1906)

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Batson, Flora (1864–1906)

African-American concert singer known as the "Double-Voiced Queen of Song" because of her range from baritone to high soprano. Born in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 1864; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1906; raised by her mother, Mary A. Batson, after her father died of Civil War wounds; educated and studied music in Providence, Rhode Island; married James G. Bergen (her manager), on December 13, 1887 (died around 1896); married Gerard Millar.

Flora Batson—declared "Queen of Song" and "probably the greatest ballad singer in the world"—was raised by her mother in Providence, Rhode Island, following her father's death when she was three. After attending school and studying music, she began singing in church and local concerts in Providence and Boston. Early in her career, she performed temperance work for two years. Her rendition of "Six Feet of Earth Make Us All One Size," repeated for 90 successive performances in New York City's Masonic Temple, is said to have moved audiences to tears.

Batson joined the Bergen Star Concert Company in 1885 and, under the management of James G. Bergen, won international fame. Bergen, a white promoter of black talent, hailed Batson as his greatest discovery, and the couple later married. After her first major appearance in Steinway Hall in New York City on December 8, 1885, followed by her debut in Philadelphia, Batson's big break came when the company's leading soprano was unable to perform in a tour of the South. Batson stepped in and was so impressive that she soon took over as the company's prima donna.

Remarkable for its unusual range, Batson's voice, "showed a compass of three octaves," wrote one critic, "from the purest, clear-cut soprano, sweet and full, to the rich, round notes of the baritone register." Including operatic arias as well as ballads in her repertoire, her appeal was universal, even cutting across color barriers. At a concert in Philadelphia in 1887, Batson was declared "Queen of Song" and was presented with a crown of jewels to mark the occasion. At a subsequent concert in New York City, she was presented with a diamond crown and necklace. Devoted fans in Providence provided matching diamond earrings.

Her numerous worldwide tours were highlighted by appearances before England's Queen Victoria , Pope Leo XIII, and Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii. She also gave concerts in Fiji, India, China and Japan. After the death of her husband, she toured Africa and Australia with basso Gerard Millar, whom she later married. He also became her manager and wrote the biography, Life, Travels, and Works of Miss Flora Batson, Deceased Queen of Song, which was published after her death. As her popularity waned, Batson joined touring companies and sang in vaudeville. Later in her career, she preferred church concerts and charity performances. Her last concert at a Philadelphia church was before a standing-room only crowd.

suggested reading:

Cuney Hare, Maud. Negro Musicians and Their Music. 1936. Reprinted. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1974.

Millar, Gerard. Life, Travels, and Works of Miss Flora Batson, Deceased Queen of Song. T.M.R.M. Company, 190?. Held by the Library of Congress, the Music Collection of the Boston Public Library, and Brown University.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts