Alma Lillie Hubbard (1895-1970)

Another musician whose life and works helps us consider gender and the archival record is Alma Lillie Hubbard. Like Nickerson, Hubbard was an educator, music producer, actor and classically trained performer. Unlike Nickerson, Hubbard came from a much less privileged background. In her life story, we see the networks of people who, and neighborhoods that, nurtured working class African Americans and fostered one woman’s climb to the middle class. Like Nickerson, she too was a member of the B-sharp Music club but unlike Nickerson, she did not begin with the advantages of class and especially easy access to education or money.

Hubbard was born to an unwed sharecropper mother in Mississippi. Yet, this mother brought her as an infant to an aunt and uncle in New Orleans. One of the forces that encouraged their adopted daughter, Alma Lille, to love music was their church, the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. Called affectionately and tellingly Mother Wesley, the church had a constant stream of classes and events. The Church was located in the black section of the prostitution district, Storyville, a location that did not detract from Mother Wesley’s optimistic and earnest presence. Slaves had built it in the 1840s but after the Civil War, the African American parishioners sued for and won the right to have the church remain their own. Here all family members, but especially little Alma and her mother sang in choirs, led prayer meetings, and participated in outreach and benevolent associations.

From these activities grew further education. Hubbard’s most important contribution became concertized spirituals. As an adult, in her New Orleans years (until 1932), she was organist and choir director of her church and, musical director of the Jubilee choirs and quartets at Straight College and New Orleans University. Later, on Broadway and in Chicago, she was adviser and performer on such musical performances and theater as Green Pastures, Porgy and Bess, and Tambourines to Glory.

Hubbard’s trajectory also shows us how transmission can fail. Her work was almost lost to the historical record until historian Lynn Abbott in 1989 covered her New Orleans career in his extensive liner notes to a vinyl recording on New Orleans religious music from the 1920s, and until religious study scholar Rosalind Hinton wrote an extensive biography of her in 2001.

Why would archival records disappear? Barring disasters, one of the most prevalent reasons is the lack of first, someone in one’s family who collects papers left behind, someone unwilling to destroy papers, and someone interested in passing these papers onto a library or archives.