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Black History Month: Sacramento Sisters Originators Of The First American Musical

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) - We have all heard of musicals, but do you know who created the idea to put music to theatrical plays? It was two young black girls from Sacramento who not only set the entertainment world on fire, they created the American musical.

The story of the Hyers Sisters is rarely told and in large part unknown by many. Two little girls from Sacramento in the late 1800s used their voice to pave the way for a shift in show business, changing how the United States viewed African Americans.

"What they wanted to do was highlight the dignity of African Americans," explained singer-filmmaker Susheel Bibbs.

Newspapers with their names in bold show a snapshot of their fame. Anna and Emma Louis Hyers grew up on 7th Street in downtown Sacramento near where the new state resources building will stand.

Their father, an amateur opera singer himself, owned a high-end barbershop on 2nd Street, in the area now known as Old Sacramento.

Susheel Bibbs has spent years researching the family, making multiple films highlighting their legacy.

"The little children, by the time they were 6, were prestigious singers. By the time they were 10 and 12, they put them on the stage with the parents in a performance that is no longer here called the Metropolitan Theater," Bibbs explained.

The Hyers Sisters debut performance was at Sacramento's Metropolitan Theater in 1867. From there, they quickly rose to fame.

The opera singers toured five years, before transforming their career into a different act. Instead of touring overseas as they always dreamt of, the Hyers Sisters decided to use music and humor to tell a different story. Their decision was prompted by the Political Compromise of 1877 when President Rutherford Hayes withdrew federal troops from Louisiana that ended the Reconstruction and prompted a deterioration of political rights for Black Americans.

"These are the first American musicals, not the first black musicals," Bibbs explained. "They talked about feelings on slavery and freedom and no audience had ever thought of African Americans thinking of those things or being real people."

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The Hyers Sisters produced and starred in seven "Comic Operas", the first known musicals for 20 years. Their performances marked the first time African Americans were on center stage and not in black face.

"They changed the whole tenure of American music theater, because after them, as I said, all the minstrel shows by African Americans didn't wear black face which is what they abolished," Bibbs explained.

Despite their massive contributions, very few people understand their impact. The Hyers Sisters retired as a duo in 1894. Emma Louis Hyers died several years later, Bibbs is not sure where she spent the final years of her life. After touring the world solo Anna changed her name to Madah Fletcher and came back to live in Sacramento. She died in 1925 and is buried in Sacramento's City Cemetery.

"This is a story of people who made a difference, who understood their community. It is also the story of how the black community passes their values to another generation and also how you weigh your values against your dream. They gave up their main part of their dream because of their understanding of their values," said Bibbs.

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