A sparkling diamond

Remembering Flora Batson, the boundary-breaking Queen of Song

Published April 16, 2024

In 1864, 160 years ago today, a singing star was born in Washington, D.C. Flora Batson would come to be known as “The Double-Voiced Queen of Song,” for her impressive soprano-baritone range, and “the colored Jenny Lind” after a highly regarded Swedish opera singer. But her music career started in Providence, R.I., where she moved at age three after her father succumbed to Civil War wounds.

Transplanted to New England, it didn’t take long for her singing ability to show: “Up from the wood wagon and the ranks of poverty… Up from the farmyard of obscurity she flew like a lark,” wrote biographer Gerard Millar. She turned pro at 13, and even turned down a full-ride music scholarship from Storer College. That confidence paid off: For three months at an 1885 temperance revival in New York, she sang the folk song “Six Feet of Earth Make Us All of One Size” every night, moving attendees to tears and catching the eye of James Bergen, the white manager of the all-Black Bergen Star Concert Company.

Bergen signed Batson, and made her his leading soprano. He also married her in December 1887, quite the bold move in a time when most states had anti-miscegenation laws. Bergen continued as his wife’s manager, and in the fall of 1888 they undertook a wildly successful world tour. Who else can say they sang for Queen Victoria of England, Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, and Pope Leo XII of… uh, the Vatican? I bet you can’t.

Speaking of queens, the whole “Queen of Song” thing was not just a nickname. In concert, she actually wore the tiara bestowed upon her by the people of Philadelphia, a diamond necklace from the people of New York, and other diamonds from the people of Rhode Island. (One hopes she didn’t wear them when she met Victoria.)

Music critics loved her too:

  • “A sparkling diamond in the golden realm of song.” – San Jose Mercury
  • “It is worth going a thousand miles to hear her.” – Philadelphia Tribune
  • “Miss Batson, by her marvelous voice, has a divine mission to aid in breaking down the stubborn walls of prejudice.” – Boston Transcript

That last one proved somewhat prophetic. After Bergen died in 1896, Batson continued touring the country and the world with her duet partner (and eventual biographer), bass singer Gerard Millar. He described the return trip from an Australian tour, on which she refused the steerage tickets offered by her management team. After a dispute, Millar wrote, “Flora Batson came back to America first class cabin, and not as a steerage passenger.”

Batson died in December 1906, two days after her final performance at Bethel A.M.E. Church in her adopted home of Philadelphia. No word on whether she wore that tiara.

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