Emma Azalia Smith Hackley was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1897. She was the oldest daughter to Henry and Corille Beard Smith. At 3-years-old she moved with her family to Detroit, where she learned how to play the piano, violin, and French from her mother. He completed high school and got a teaching certificate a year later. She taught elementary school in Detroit from 1887 to 1894.
She later married a successful poet, playwright and attorney-activist Edwin C. Hackley. Hackley became the first graduate of African descent of the University of Denver Music School in 1900. However, the school was not aware that she was #Black. After the couple completed their studies they moved back to Philadelphia in 1901, and #Emma Hackley became a well-known concert singer. She began devoting herself to uplifting people through her voice of spiritual and classical music.
She soon became known as the “Vocal Teacher of Ten Thousands” because of her organizing various concerts and folk festivals throughout the country. She even included the Deep South when organizing programs and concerts. She educated Black people in Classical music regardless of where they were located. Hackley founded and directed the Vocal Normal Institute in Chicago between 1912 and 1916. She remained active in the Washington Conservatory of Music, the National Association of Negro Musicians, and many similar organizations until her death in 1922. A private school of music in NYC was built in her honor and the E. Azalia Hackley Memorial Collection of Negro Music, Drama and Dance in the Detroit Public Library was named in her honor.