Ask Hamilton – Red Clay & Roland Hayes

Dear Hamilton,

Last October I attended the Red Clay Pow Wow and was captivated by the introduction to Cherokee culture.  I came away wanting to learn even more about the role Red Clay played in the history of that proud Native American people. What can you tell me about it? 

Sincerely, Curious


Dear Curious,

Yours truly has always been interested in the history of the Cherokee. In fact, the period in which Red Clay played a prominent role in the affairs of the Cherokee (1832-1839) is replete with intrigue, mystery, murder, theft, and deception. Now, Old Hamilton cannot begin to give you all the details of that turbulent time, but suffice it to say that the Cherokee were in the midst of upheaval, their people split over whether to sign a treaty that would cede their land to the state of Georgia or stand against the power of the government.

By 1832, the state of Georgia had pretty much quashed the political power of the Cherokee, taking away their sovereignty as a nation and forbidding the people to congregate in large numbers for any reason other than to sign the dreaded treaty. In response, the Cherokee relocated their capital from New Echota to Red Clay, in the extreme eastern corner of Bradley County, Tenn., near the state line.

From 1832 until the Cherokee removal of 1838, Red Clay was the capital of the Cherokee Nation and 11 councils were held there, each reportedly hosting up to 5,000 people. Red Clay is considered by many to be the originating point of the infamous Trail of Tears that ended, after an arduous trek and as many as 4,000 deaths, on a reservation in Oklahoma.

The Cherokee removal is all the more poignant considering that many Cherokee had adopted the Christian religion and been assimilated into the dominant population, owning successful businesses, publishing a bilingual newspaper, The Phoenix, and dressing in the prevailing style. The great Cherokee Sequoya, who had taken the name “George Guess,” had also developed an alphabet that made it possible to write the Cherokee language.

Today, the Red Clay site is preserved as a Tennessee state park that encompasses 263 acres, including hiking trails, picnic areas, an amphitheater, and the eternal flame of the Cherokee Nation. Another point of interest at Red Clay is the Blue Hole Spring, a source of water for the tribal councils held at the site, which forms a deep pool and flows into Mill Creek.


Dear Hamilton,

My son is a student at UTC and participates in the university’s music program. Recently, I attended a performance on campus at the Roland W. Hayes Concert Hall. Who was Roland Hayes and what is his connection to Chattanooga?



Dear UTC Dad,

American lyric tenor Roland Hayes was born on June 3, 1887, to former slaves in the town of Curryville, Ga., not far from Calhoun. His father died when he was only 11, and his mother moved the family to Chattanooga—hence his connection to our city.

Young Hayes did what he could to help his impoverished family survive. He knew by heart many of the spiritual songs that African American slaves had sung for generations, and sang in church and on the streets for spare change. He also worked in an iron foundry. During one choral performance at church, organist and choir director Arthur Calhoun was impressed with the young man’s voice and offered to provide some lessons.

Roland Hayes worked as a servant and waiter to further his musical education and enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville at the age of 20. At Fisk, his talent continued to be readily apparent, and Hayes became a member of the renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. When he relocated to Louisville, Ky., Hayes sang in men’s clubs and got a job singing at a silent movie theater, but had to stay off stage so that those attending would not know he was African-American. They would only hear the pleasing sound of his magnificent voice.

While he was in Louisville, the Fisk Jubilee Singers requested he act as principal tenor for the Jubilee Singers’ upcoming concert tour in the Boston area. When the tour was over, Hayes decided to stay in Boston, honing his skills and working as a page for a life insurance company to raise enough money to rent a performance hall and promote his own concert.

The industrious and supremely talented tenor managed to develop quite a following and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York prior to embarking on a European tour. In 1920, he was invited to perform in London for King George V of England. Hayes toured Europe a number of times and became well-known for performances of what he called “Aframerican” religious folk music.

As the 1920s waned, Hayes was the highest-paid tenor in the world with an annual income estimated at $100,000. He and his wife, Helen, had one daughter, Afrika, and the family purchased the 600-acre farm in Curryville where Roland’s mother had worked as a slave and he had been born decades earlier.

Despite his fame, a regrettable incident occurred in Rome, Ga., in July 1942. Hayes’ wife and daughter took seats in the “whites only” section of a shoe store and were thrown into the street. When Roland confronted the clerk, he was beaten by police and both he and his wife were arrested. Soon afterward, the Hayes family left Georgia forever.

In later years, Hayes continued to perform. He played at Carnegie Hall again in 1962 at the age of 75 and spent his last years as a teacher and advocate for young singers and musicians. His final performance was in Cambridge, Ma., in 1973, and he died at the age of 89 on January 1, 1977. In 1995, the city of Calhoun placed a marker near the site of the old auditorium where Roland Hayes had once performed. The site is now known as Roland Hayes Park. The Roland Hayes Museum opened in Calhoun in 2000.

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