La Portean Hazel Harrison: someone you should know during Black History Month

 

La Porte County Historical Society photo

By La Porte County Historian Bruce Johnson

Hazel Lucille Harrison was born May 12, 1883, the only child of Hiram and Olive Jane Harrison. The family lived at 1306 Clay St. in La Porte. Hiram played the piano for First Presbyterian Church. Hazel showed exceptional musical talent and began taking piano lessons when she was 4 from Richard Peglow, who was from England and was organist at the church. 

By the time she was 8, Hazel was playing for local dance parties and making extra income for her family. She then came to the attention of Victor Heinze, famous German musician, who became her next piano teacher for many years, and she commuted from La Porte to Chicago for her lessons. Although she was homeschooled as a child, Hazel attended and graduated from La Porte High School in 1902. She continued to play for dance parties and taught piano to the children of many leading families in La Porte. 

In 1904, when 20 years old, Hazel Harrison performed as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany. It was the first appearance with a European orchestra of an American performer who had never studied outside the United States! Critics were most impressed. Sponsors volunteered to pay for her to continue to be trained by great European musicians and expanded her knowledge by visiting museums and art galleries. 

La Porte County Historical Society photo

When World War I began in 1914, Hazel returned to America, moved to Chicago, and performed on concert tours throughout the U.S. from 1920 to 1926. On June 13, 1925, Hazel Harrison, “one of the greatest living woman pianists,” returned to La Porte to perform a benefit concert at La Porte High School Auditorium to raise $7,000 to complete construction of the new A.M.E. Church on Brighton Street.

To make a living during the Depression of the 1930s, Hazel taught at the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama State College, and Howard University. During World War II, she was called upon to play for recitals to raise money for the war effort. From 1947 to 1950, Hazel toured the U.S. and played the music of German, Russian, Austrian, Polish, and even some black composers. She performed with the Minneapolis Symphony under Eugene Ormandy and with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony under Izler Solomon. 

Despite the immense praise as one of the greatest concert pianists of her time, Hazel was still denied access to many of the main concert halls in America because of her race. She retired from teaching at Howard University in 1954, and “the dean of native pianists” gave her Farewell Concert at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1954. She died there on April 29, 1969, at age 85.     

Bruce R. Johnson is an educator, historian, genealogist, lecturer, musician, photographer, and world traveler. He serves on numerous boards of directors, including the La Porte County Historical Society. Email him at mrjsc@csinet.net.

21 Responses to “La Portean Hazel Harrison: someone you should know during Black History Month”

  1. Jill Kitowski

    Feb 15. 2021

    What an interesting person she was. Great article!

    Reply to this comment
  2. David Long

    Feb 15. 2021

    Great article and great piece of research.

    Reply to this comment
    • Nichele O’Neal

      Feb 15. 2021

      My husband’s family were members at Community A.M.E (at Brighton and Ludlow) for over 40 years and I was not aware of this. I will be sure that this information gets put into the Presiding Elders hands that reside over this region so that her legacy will always be remembered there. Thank you sharing her story and writing this article.

      Reply to this comment
    • Pam

      Feb 15. 2021

      Bruce great article keep them coming!

      Reply to this comment
  3. Chucka

    Feb 15. 2021

    Clearly Hazel was an immensely talented pianist. Using her talent raising money for the war effort, teaching at prestigious universities, preforming in famous venues are amazing accomplishments. Thanks for sharing her story!

    Reply to this comment
  4. Mike Kellems

    Feb 15. 2021

    Great piece of La Porte history! Thank you for taking the time to research and share!

    Reply to this comment
  5. Mary Beth Simpkins

    Feb 15. 2021

    Fascinating article!

    Reply to this comment
    • Linda Roper Smith

      Feb 15. 2021

      Wonderful biography/history of a remarkable artist. Wish there were recordings of her works, Bravo Hazel! 🌹

      Reply to this comment
  6. lawman

    Feb 15. 2021

    very nice to see we had talented people and not just a serial killer. thank you

    Reply to this comment
  7. Myrna Russell

    Feb 15. 2021

    I really enjoyed this article – she was very talented!!

    Reply to this comment
  8. Richard Pate

    Feb 15. 2021

    My godmother, Viola Maddox, was one of the founding members of the AME Church on Brighton Street. She also played piano and I have some of her music books she purchased in Chicago.

    Reply to this comment
  9. John

    Feb 15. 2021

    Lawman: Nothing wrong with the serial killer. La Porte is quite famous for Belle Gunness, and she is an important part of our history, too.

    Reply to this comment
  10. Tom Stewart

    Feb 15. 2021

    Great article Bruce, it is truly amazing the different people that made national and international impact that came from LaPorte.

    Reply to this comment
    • Patricia Tardell

      Feb 17. 2021

      Enjoyed this story Bruce. Great history coming out of Laporte, I wonder if Becky knew of her talent? Thank you for all you do.

      Reply to this comment
    • Lisa Hunsley

      Feb 21. 2021

      Great story of this remarkable woman, very interesting..

      Reply to this comment
  11. Frank Zolvinski

    Feb 16. 2021

    Wonderful article for African American History Month. Thanks Bruce.

    Reply to this comment
  12. Tammy Jacobi

    Feb 18. 2021

    She is a great local artist to celebrate during Black History Month.
    Thank you Bruce for lifting up her gifts.

    Reply to this comment
    • June Hunt Hess

      Feb 20. 2021

      Thanks Bruce for the article. I don’t recall ever hearing her name. Are there recordings of her music anywhere? It would be wonderful to hear.

      Reply to this comment
    • Wanda Akins

      Feb 21. 2021

      I grew up in the New Community AME Church, that’s where I found my walk with Christ at, under leadership of the late Reverend XL Abraham from Gary Indiana at the young age of 12 years old. I was baptized in Stone Lake Beach in Laporte Indiana along with my brother Ronald Akins. That is AWESOME Black history to know coming from a church that I grew up in . THIS truly touched my heart .

      Reply to this comment
  13. Marguerite Edmondson

    Feb 20. 2021

    Bruce let me say ‘Thank you’ for highlighting the legacy that everyone needs to hear about. I am still deeply saddened that even at this time in History so much of our great legacies have been hidden for so long. Finally a light bulb has been turned on to the many talents that were lost in our History.

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