Today, May 22, marks the 103rd anniversary of Sun Ra’s arrival to earth.
Sun Ra never spoke of birthdays, and he never claimed Birmingham as a birthplace. He arrived in Birmingham from outer space, he said, on May 22, 1914.
I’ve spent a lot of the last decade researching and writing about Sun Ra. I’m especially interested in his Birmingham roots, and in the way the city helped shape his music and persona. My book in progress, a history of Birmingham jazz, goes pretty far into all this, expanding on some of what I’ve written and released in various forms and forums so far. For now, for today’s anniversary, I thought I’d share or re-share the following:
+ excerpts from my book Doc, with Frank “Doc” Adams
+ brief footage of Doc Adams playing tribute to Sun Ra at Birmingham’s Bottletree Café
+ links to my series on Sun Ra’s Birmingham roots, published in the newsweekly Weld on the occasion of Sun Ra’s centennial
+ my radio interview with Robert Mugge, director of the landmark documentary film, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE
+ promotional materials for a series of Sun Ra Celebrations I hosted at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
+ and a few other odds and ends
First, an excerpt from Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, my book with the late & beloved Dr. Frank Adams (University of Alabama Press, 2012). Doc played in Sun Ra’s (Sonny Blount’s) early Birmingham band, back in the 1940s, and a chapter of our book together—Chapter Five, “Outer Space”—deals with those days. In the two quick excerpts here, Doc describes a few impressions of the bandleader:
Sun Ra lived across the street from the old Terminal Station in this rickety, raggedy house: I mean, it was terrible. But when you got in there, he was so full of what he was doing. He really believed in this outer space thing, and he talked about it all the time. He would say this was this and this was that, and he rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, till his band was just a jewel—I mean, it was just a jewel—and he had people in his band that weren’t great readers of music, but they could catch on quick. They had this complete musicianship about them.
I first heard, like most people in Birmingham, that there was this weird guy—there was always some talk about this fellow that lived near the Terminal Station, in this old, broken-down house. That’s back in the early thirties, my elementary school days. Nobody would say he was crazy, he just had a reputation for being different. In certain neighborhoods they knew he had a tremendous band, and he was a bandleader that nobody knew where he came from. He was just there.
In those days he was called Herman Blount, or “Sonny”: Sonny Blount. And you just couldn’t figure him out. Did he have a mother, or did he have a brother? Everything was a mystery about him. And we never heard of him eating any food—he survived on grapefruit. He would go to Mr. Forbes’ music store, the biggest music store in town, and look through all the new music that would come out. He would probably be eating on a grapefruit, and he’d take his pen out and a piece of manuscript paper and copy the music. He’d stand there for maybe an hour, and drip grapefruit juice on the music and write it out in hand—he never would buy the music. People would be standing back, waiting to be waited on, and, no, he wouldn’t move. Mr. Forbes would stand and watch him. When he finally got his music, he would say “Thank you” to the wall or something, and go on out. And everybody understood that.
You would say, because it’s segregation and everything, “Why don’t they stop you from going in the store?”
He’d say, “They like me.”
“Why would they like you, when you’re messing everything up?”
“They understand. That I’m a power. And really,” he said, “we are friends.”
He thought about white people that way. He said, “They are my brothers. They are my brothers, but some of them don’t know it yet.”
Blount’s band was real unique. Everybody in there couldn’t read music real well, but he could put them together: I admire Sonny for being able to mold his musicians together to do things that he did. His orchestra would consist of maybe three trombones or five, it didn’t make any difference—he wanted to know how you sounded and how you sounded, and all that kind of thing. If two bass players showed up, they were both on the job: he’d have two. Some of the musicians might have complained, because they’d have to split the money more ways, but Sonny wanted to hear what each one of them could do: how it all sounded together.
As I said, he lived in this rickety old house, and his whole world was in that place. It was a wooden frame building. As far as we got, and anybody got, was the front room, and that was where he had his bed and where he rehearsed. I think he took his meals in there. We understand that he had a sister or somebody, but nobody ever saw anybody there in the house. He would always be there, and he had these records stacked about five feet off the ground, these  records and all of those kinds of things, and he had his piano in there. I remember that the hallway was about to fall in—you could step down in a hole or something if you weren’t careful—and the furniture was in shoddy shape.
Always it was very crowded. I remember that whenever we had a singer, after he set the drums up, the singer would have to be out in the hallway, and he would call that person in whenever they would do a vocal number. The saxophones would be up against the wall over here, and the trumpets would be somewhere back in there. But you didn’t think about it. There was never any talk about anything but the music. He had a wire tape recorder, and he had a shortwave radio—I don’t know how he got it—and he could get music out of New York, like from the Savoy. He would have all these wild players on there like Don Stovall or something, man. They were playing bop before bop was even heard about! He’d listen at night to that, and he’d play that back for you. It was the craziest music, but he would say, “That man’s not crazy. You just aren’t able to understand it yet. He’s trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what to do. He’s just trying to tell you he’s free—okay? So listen at it.” And if you listened long enough, you’d get it.
He would say he came from outer space—and, “I was born with x-ray ears; I can hear all these things you humans can’t hear yet.”
Next, here’s a brief clip of Doc Adams at Spaceship Saturn’s tribute to Sun Ra at Birmingham’s Bottletree Cafe in 2013. Doc spoke briefly about his time with Sun Ra, then played the strangest solo set I ever heard him play. Finally he was joined onstage by SI Reasoning, LaDonna Smith, and Davey Williams, all seen here. Doc was utterly enchanted by the Bottletree that night.
Next, from 2014, my four-part series on Sun Ra’s Birmingham roots. “The Magic Citizen” was published in the local weekly Weld and is still available online at the links below.
This project developed out of my work with Doc Adams, and anticipates the book I’m working on now. One of the greatest thrills of writing this new book—which I swear is getting close to finished—is the chance to expand on this story and uncover important pieces of Sun Ra’s early years. So stay tuned.
From 2012 to 2014 I organized, with the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, an annual Sun Ra Celebration. The events were a mix of film, poetry, reminiscence, and live music. In 2013 we showed the great film, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, and I had the opportunity to interview the filmmaker, Robert Mugge, on my radio show, The Lost Child. Mugge gave a gracious, funny, and eye-opening interview, which I still remember very fondly. This episode of The Lost Child includes, besides our interview, a few short audio excerpts from the film, plus excerpts from Sun Ra’s 1988 show at Birmingham’s The Nick.
+ Backing up: as a teenager, Sonny Blount played in the Ethel Harper orchestra. Harper was a teacher at Birmingham’s Industrial High School; when she left Birmingham to pursue her own career in entertainment, Sonny Blount took over the band. Recently on this blog I sought to shed some light on Ethel Harper’s story, drawing from her papers at the Morristown, New Jersey, library, and other sources. You can read part one of that story here.
+ And here’s a couple of advertisements from Sonny Blount’s Birmingham years, both from the mid-1940s:
Okay, that’s it for now. But also this: as I compile these links I’m happily and heartily reminded of the many friends, artists, scholars, fans, concert-goers, filmmakers, musicians, writers, bootleggers, and others who’ve contributed a great deal to my own ongoing understanding of Sun Ra, his music, his mythos, and his bio. Thanks to one and all.
See you around.
Outer space is a pleasant place A place that’s really free There’s no limit to the things that you can do There’s no limit to the things that you can be Your thought is real And your life is worthwhile
Tonight I had a half hour to kill so pulled off my shelf, randomly, a book I hadn’t opened in years: The Incompleat Folksinger, a collection of columns, essays, liner notes, and other odd writings from Pete Seeger.
In my last house the book lived on a very high shelf — lived, in fact, on top of my biggest bookcase — and I never made the effort to pull it down. Recently, when I moved my books and shelves in with Glory and Norah, I got wild and put some books that had been long out of reach where they might be more easily and impulsively grabbed. So tonight my eyes landed on this book I hadn’t spent any real time with since college.
I opened to somewhere in the middle, and the first thing I read was this — a column Seeger wrote for Sing Out! magazine in June of 1968. It began with a parable:
A farmer once left a tall can of milk with the top off outside his door. Two frogs hopped into it and then found that they couldn’t hop out. After thrashing around a bit, one of them says, “There’s no hope.” With one last gurgle he sank to the bottom. The other frog refused to give up. In the morning the farmer came out and found one live frog sitting on a big cake of butter.
Here is Pete Seeger’s moral:
It pays to kick.
* * *
Really, that’s all I set out to share tonight. But here are three short postscripts — a memory, an internet search, and a gratitude — if you care to read on.
Postscript 1 (on the subject of Seeger):
One weekend when we were in college, maybe in 1998, my friends Lilah and Christo and I drove down to Beacon, New York, for the Clearwater Festival. When we pulled up, the first thing we saw was Pete Seeger, bent over and stirring chili. My heart may have exploded. This is the defining image I’ll always have of the man: not with a banjo, but with a big pot of chili, an equally appropriate symbol of the values he espoused.
When I got a chance I approached him and tried to tell him what his music had meant to me. He discouraged me from being so excited to meet him. I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t help it. Lilah or maybe Christo took this picture. I had lots of hair back then and we’d been in the car for an hour with the windows rolled down; once the photos were developed I was embarrassed at how preposterous my hair looked. But I’ll share it with you, now, these 19 or 20 years later:
Postscript 2 (on Seeger, continued):
It seems The Incompleat Folksinger is out of print — so I’m glad I held on to my copy. I’ve noticed lately that several books I cherished in my late teens and early twenties aren’t currently in print. They will be again, I’m sure. Meanwhile, this one you can still find pretty easily, used.
Postscript 3 (on the subject of kicking):
When I read tonight about the two frogs I thought: I’m grateful to a number of friends whose indefatigable kicking inspires me every day. I’m trying to learn to be more like them, and more like that second frog.
It’s been longer than usual since I’ve posted something here, and this one will be brief: just a link to my Mother’s Day playlist, and a question for you.
First, the playlist: Last year on The Lost Child I broadcast this two-hour Mom Day special. You can stream it at the link anytime. It’s full of mother-themed blues, gospel, lullabies, classic country, southern soul, swing, ska, bluegrass, & more — plus some listener dedications, shouts-out, and remembrances.
On this year’s Mother’s Day show, which aired yesterday, I featured a different sort of mom songs, with music from these three albums: Songs My Mother Taught Me, a collection of historic recordings from civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, released in 2015 by Smithsonian Folkways; Songs My Mother Taught Me and More, Ralph Stanley’s 1998 tribute to his mom and the clawhammer banjo style she taught him; and Songs We Taught Your Mother, the great 1961 reunion of three 1920s blues women — Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, and Victoria Spivey — backed by some of that earlier era’s legendary instrumentalists. Not exactly mother songs, that last one, but close enough — I’ve always loved that album title.
At any rate, the Fannie Lou Hamer and Ralph Stanley albums got me thinking (here’s the question I promised above): what songs did your mother teach you, or sing to you? It strikes me as an important category of human experience, the songs passed down from mothers. Since yesterday I’ve started brainstorming a project based on this theme; if anything comes of it, I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I invite and strongly(!!) encourage you to post your own answers to the question in the comments. I’ll get us started:
My mom has a beautiful singing voice. When I was a kid I remember it was not uncommon after church that someone in the next pew would come up after the service and compliment her singing. My dad always brags on her voice, and on her piano playing. At Christmas at our house we always have gathered around the piano and sung carols, often with company. At our Christmas parties my parents make guests act out the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and (in costume, with props) “We Three Kings.” But our shared family favorite may be “In the Bleak Midwinter.” There’s also the “Cradle Song” version of “Away in a Manger,” another melody we love to sing. I have always believed Christmas carols are the most beautiful songs.
I have an especially fond memory also of bedtime when I was very small, when my mom would sing me to sleep. What I mostly remember was “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” My mom would sing them a cappella and end on these wonderful, pure, soaring high notes. I am grateful for those memories and for the care she took in singing by our beds.
What about you? Did (or does) your mom sing to (or with) you? Are there songs you learned from her or associate closely with her? What are your mom songs? Please let us know in the comments.
Postscript: On Mother’s Day we’re inundated with images and sentiments pertaining to the occasion. I know my radio show (and today’s post) in some small way contributes to the annual barrage. And I know I’m very fortunate, personally, in the mom department. But on Mother’s Day my heart goes out especially to those for whom the holiday isn’t easy –including some very good friends of mine. There are lots of reasons this weekend can be hard. So if you’re celebrating today, please don’t forget to support and uphold those friends who might not be sharing in the celebration.
Tonight I’m donating a drawing apiece to two auctions going on around town, both of them for very good causes.
At TrimTab Brewing Company from 6 to 9 there’s a Beer Tasting and Silent Auction Benefiting the Public Interest Institute. This institute sends UA law students on summer internships with nonprofits and government orgs committed to social justice and the public good; tonight’s fundraiser directly supports participating students, since the gigs are unpaid. The students are doing important and inspiring work; in the past they’ve spent their summers with groups like the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, Alabama Possible, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Kampala, Uganda. Tonight’s fundraiser is one of the many important and exciting projects spearheaded by my inspiring wife, Glory.
Since it’s a law thing, I drew some favorite legal figures:
Last night the power went out while I was drawing the next one, so I had to do it by candlelight.
I didn’t realize last night that I was mixing black and blue pens in the dark, but now I like the way the two colors came out together. “Pioneering Women of Rock and Roll” is for the Girls Rock Art Auction at Seasick Records and Crestwood Coffee tonight. Girls Rock Birmingham is a great local org. Here’s their exciting mission: “Girls Rock Birmingham helps girls build self-esteem and find their voices through unique programming that combines music education, performance and promotion; empowerment and social justice workshops; positive role models, collaboration and leadership skill building.” You can find out more at www.girlsrockbham.org.
To be sure, both events will have greater and hotter auction items than these two modest contributions. And both events will assemble great groups of people for a great good time. You might not even remember you’re supporting a good cause, just by showing up.
Finally, I must mention, too, one more incredible event, also happening tonight: an evening performance and art exhibit to benefit the Society for the Arts and Culture of South Asia, featuring Parvathy Baul—singer, painter, musician and storyteller from Bengal. That event is 7-9 at Tres Taylor’s studio in Avondale (right next to Saturn) and is bound to be an inspiring and memorable night. Call Lloyd at 205-317-8983 for more info.
Regrettably, none of us can be in three places at once. So let’s spread out tonight and each do our best to support art, social justice, education, and community in Birmingham and around the world.
A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniel’s wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berry’s books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”
A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berry’s reminders a comfort and encouragement. Here’s the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.
I promised to deliver Part Two of my Ethel Harper story last week but for a few days got derailed. Mostly I found myself wanting to dig deeper into Harper’s story than I already had, and my research and writing kept growing. I’m grateful to the staff of the Morristown and Morris Township Library for some last minute, long-distance help in going through Ethel Harper’s papers; with their help I was able to access some pages of Harper’s autobiography which I hadn’t thought to copy on my own trip to the archive a few years ago.
Ethel Ernestine Harper was a remarkable woman in every respect, and her story certainly needs to be told. It’s a story full of surprising turns, from Sun Ra to Broadway to Aunt Jemima, from pancakes and publicity stunts to social work and racial uplift. The Jemima connection—which this post explores at some length—is a fascinating and complicated one: late in life, Harper took great pride in her identification as Jemima, even as she worked with passion as an activist and advocate for issues of civil rights. In this and in other aspects of her career, the details of Ethel Harper’s experience defied expectation and over-simple classification.
If you missed Part One—which explores her Birmingham years, her Sun Ra connection, and her “Singing Schoolteacher” debut—you can read it here.
Here, now, is Part Two.
After her Apollo debut, Ethel Harper moved from one stage to the next. She joined a traveling revue, Connie’s Hot Chocolates of ’37, performing in a vocal harmony trio, the Melody Maids; it was in this group that she discovered a passion for harmony singing, and over the next few years Ethel Harper assembled, trained, and performed in a series of vocal trios. She appeared, too, in a string of Broadway productions, beginning with 1939’s Hot Mikado—a swing reworking of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, starring dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and an all-black cast. Later that year came Swingin’ the Dream, a similarly jazzed Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was an ambitious project with a remarkable cast: Benny Goodman wrote and directed the music; Lionel Hampton performed in the band; actress Butterfly McQueen starred as Puck; Louis Armstrong played the part of Bottom. It must have been, one historian writes, “one of the most fascinating bombs of all time”—the play was trounced by critics (it was, several said, more “nightmare” than dream) and it closed within two weeks of its opening.
Harper took the ups and downs of the stage life in stride. She continued to perform as a soloist, in harmony groups, and in lavish ensemble stage shows (the New York census in those days listed her as “singer—night club and theatre”). In 1942 came another big production, Harlem Cavalcade, an old-school vaudeville showcase produced by Ed Sullivan and one of the grand elders of Broadway’s jazz world, the composer Noble Sissle. That show introduced Harper’s most successful vocal group, the Four Ginger Snaps, who for the next five years toured the country, performed onstage and over the airwaves, entertained U. S. servicemen at dozens of benefit shows, and waxed a handful of records for the Victor label. When the group disbanded in 1947, Harper decided to seek a lifestyle more stable, if less glamorous: she put in the closet her wardrobe of high-fashion stage costumes and gowns and took a job as a waitress, singing for diners at the end of her weekend shifts and hiring a vocal coach, in the meantime, to help keep her voice in shape—just in case some other shot at the spotlight came her way.
It was sheer chance that Ethel Harper found her way to Italy. One afternoon in 1954, she ran into an agent, Sam Gordon, walking down Broadway, “and out of a blue sky he asked me if I wanted to go to Europe.” Harper said yes, and two weeks later she was on the S. S. Homeland, bound for Italy, the female lead in the Negro Follies, a musical troupe of twenty-five singers and dancers. For two years she performed overseas, first with the Follies company, and then as her own solo act.
All along, for all her successes, one nagging thought dogged her: she knew she’d abandoned the classroom—and, she was sure, her true calling—for a path she deep down thought superficial and selfish. Harper had a passion for the theatre, and surely her voice could bring people joy; but her connection with children, she thought, was a gift straight from God, and she knew she’d cast that gift aside, abandoned the path the world had laid out for her. She could have returned to Birmingham to teach, but she’d fallen in love with New York, and she didn’t have the credentials to teach in New York schools. Still, every job she took out of the classroom—whether waiting tables or going on tour—brought back a familiar wave of anxiety. “I suppose it might be classified an attack of conscience,” she wrote: “I was fully aware of the fact that I should have remained in the teaching profession.”
It would take some time, but eventually she’d return to her original path. Midway through her memoir she interrupts the flow of chronology with this parenthetical aside: “I pledge my future,” she promises, “to the youth of today, because in their hands lies the heart of tomorrow’s world. I am deeply proud of the fact,” she adds, “that I did not stray too far from my chartered course; that of serving the youth.”
Harper arrived back in the U. S. with no clear plan for the future. But, once again, a chance encounter opened up a new and utterly unexpected chapter of her career.
She’d only been back in New York for two days when she ran into an old friend and mentor from the Hot Chocolates days, Edith Wilson, who was passing through town en route to an engagement. Wilson was a seasoned veteran of the stage, a blues and vaudeville singer and actress, a recording artist and radio star; she’d cut her first record, with Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds, in 1921, she’d toured much of the globe and sung in Broadway revues and road shows. She was “one of the girls,” Harper wrote, “who went to Europe along with Josephine Baker and made quite a name of herself in the theatre, but decided after many years in the show business to cast her lot with the Quaker Oats Company.” Now Wilson was playing the role she’d keep for nearly two decades, a role she thought was perfect, too, for Harper.
That role was Aunt Jemima.
For decades, Quaker Oats had hired black women to play the part of Jemima, the popular pancake box mascot: in 1893 Nancy Green, a former slave, had made her debut in the role at the World’s Columbian Expedition in Chicago. Green and her successors traveled the country, making and selling pancakes, singing old spirituals and the latest vaudeville tunes, and speaking to children and housewives; they dressed in the mythic garb of the plantation “mammy”—red-and-white checked hoopskirt, apron, and headrag—and announced their arrival, wherever they went, with Jemima’s trademark catchphrase: “I’s in town, honey!”
When she ran into Ethel Harper in New York, Wilson was en route to a Jemima promotion in Norwalk, Connecticut, and she convinced Harper to come along. Wilson had been one of the company’s most successful Jemimas, and she’d mentioned to job to Harper more than once before: as an educator and an entertainer, she’d said, Harper was ideally suited to the work. On previous occasions, Harper hadn’t paid much attention to Wilson’s pitch: but now, she wrote, “I was out of a job. This time I listened with an interested ear.”
Wilson outlined Jemima’s duties for Harper, took her shopping, bought her some clothes, and finally introduced her to the Quaker management. Harper watched Wilson in the role, and then she auditioned herself. She got the job.
But, Harper wrote, “There was one aspect which had me in a quandary—the Aunt Jemima costume. First, I had quite an investment in glamourous costumes; and second, I had some inhibitions about wearing a bandana on my head, which gave me quite a bit of uneasiness. This was due to the general attitude of my race toward the character of Aunt Jemima.” By the time Harper took the role, the Jemima character had been blasted by civil rights groups for the stereotypes it helped entrench in the popular imagination. Jemima’s history as an icon had been marked by a host of plantation-era clichés, by cartoonish dialect (“Here’s a Temptilatin’ Lunch Chilluns Love,” a typical ad proclaimed), and by plenty of romanticized Old South nostalgia; the character, critics complained, was demeaning, degrading, and essentially unredeemable.
Harper, meanwhile, was a woman who would come to take pride in both her work as Jemima and her work for civil rights. In the 1960s and ‘70s she’d defend Quaker Oats and Jemima against their detractors: the Quaker Jemima, she contended, transcended the clichés (in large part, indeed, thanks to Edith Wilson’s and her own performances). Living Jemimas like Harper addressed service organizations and civic clubs and raised many thousands of charity dollars. They did good work, Harper believed, and they could be played with dignity. Harper herself was glamourous, intelligent, and strong-willed, a woman of regal bearing; it’s impossible to imagine her “Jemima” as inarticulate and subservient.
Harper took the job clear-eyed about its challenges. “With the initial excitement over,” she wrote, “and my contract signed, I had to now get down to the business of conditioning my thoughts and my heart to give to this job the necessary dignity and interpretation of which I first could be proud— and, hopefully—those members of my race who had qualms about anyone who played this character could also be proud. This was not easy but, thank God, I was able to do just this with His help.”
Exactly how Harper pulled this off would “clearly be depicted,” she wrote, “in the following chapter” of her memoir. But there’s one problem: that next chapter is missing. I’ve seen only one copy of the book, the copy housed in the archive of the Morristown library, and its pages jump from 85 to 90, with all but two brief paragraphs of the promised chapter omitted. Whether all copies of the book lack these pages, or whether it’s a sad glitch in the one copy I’ve seen, I don’t know. But for now this intriguing and important piece of Harper’s story—and of Aunt Jemima’s—is lost.
Luckily the later pages of Harper’s book do include some descriptions of her day-to-day work as Jemima. “Aunt Jemima’s activities,” Harper explained, “centered around the following: singing, appearing on radio and television, in-person appearances in schools, homes for the aged and mentally retarded, working various county fairs, and serving on their panels of judges, for various competitions.” As Jemima, Harper worked with the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs and other civic organizations. She spoke to school children about nutrition and manners. And everywhere she went, she did what she’d always done, albeit now as Jemima: she sang. (On some occasions, she performed duets with a white actor who portrayed another grocery aisle icon, the Quaker Oats man.) For the illustrators who depicted Aunt Jemima on boxes of pancake mix, in advertisements, and elsewhere, Harper served as model. To children—who had seen her face on their breakfast tables, at the supermarket, in magazines, and on TV—Harper (whose real name, of course, the children never knew) was a full-fledged celebrity. They wrote her letters, and Harper—who still considered her rapport with children her greatest, most important gift—took pride in writing each child back by hand. She’d include a glossy photo signed, with love: “Aunt Jemima.”
Harper kept a strenuous schedule as Jemima. A few times a year she appeared at large-scale promotional events lasting up to six days, events designed to showcase a range of products by Quaker and other companies. Every time she was a star. On the first day of these promotions, she wrote, “Aunt Jemima would reign supreme. The day was declared Pancake Day and much excitement ensued.” Jemima’s arrival in a new town was hyped in advance, and locals took part in a contest to guess her precise means of transportation to their community. Jemima’s entrances were dramatic affairs, and her mode of arrival was different each time: she might come in a helicopter or riding a fire engine, might arrive by sea plane, by train, or by motor scooter. “The weirdest of all,” she wrote, “was being sealed in a cardboard box and carted by American Express. After arrival,” wherever she went, “there was a huge parade during which Aunt Jemima was welcomed by the Mayor and presented with the key to the city.”
An aside: searching the internet for more about Harper, I came across a fascinating blog post—written, years later, by one of the children who’d seen her perform, all those years ago.
Randy Bowles was a third-grader in Yakima, Washington, when Ethel Harper paid a visit to his all-white elementary school. The experience made a lasting impression on him, and in 2015—more than half a century later—he described the encounter in a detailed, illuminating, and heartfelt essay. He remembered that Harper—whose real name he learned much later—appeared as a celebrity, larger than life: a “remarkable woman” who took the schoolhouse stage “to thunderous applause” and “had us in the palm of her hand in no time, with her sweet, gentle, wise ways…. Obviously,” he’d later come to understand, “Aunt Jemima’s character was based on the racist stereotype of the docile, always-smiling ‘mammy.’ However, I didn’t see that at the time. I was only eight. What I perceived was an amazing human being.”
The complexity and contradiction of the Jemima legacy—and of Ethel Harper herself—was something Bowles only discovered as an adult. “Although Ms. Harper was a college graduate who had been a school teacher as well as a singer and entertainer, and had appeared on the Broadway stage, she was not dressed as a professional person for our visit. She was dressed as a plantation cook, wearing a red scarf and white apron. I recall she talked about eating a good breakfast, about always being good students, about displaying good manners, and minding our parents. I believe she sang a song or two.” After the performance, children were allowed to speak to Harper’s Jemima; and “I remember very clearly, how she gave me a big hug. I was so happy. I truly felt like she loved me—a little boy whom she had never before cast eyes on.” Bowles never got over it.
Just what, Randy Bowles later wondered, was the purpose behind Aunt Jemima’s visit to Yakima? “Was it an assembly meant to help us learn about nutrition? Was it intended to show us a ‘real black person’?” Whatever it was, what stuck with him always was an awe for this woman, an awe that all the contradictions only made more powerful. “I wish Ethel Ernestine Harper were alive today,” his essay concludes, “so I could thank her for bringing her message of love to Yakima, all the way back in 1957. It was a sincere message I took to heart. But I’m very sorry she had to appear as a mammy. I guess, had she been dressed like our principal, or like our teacher, there would have been no assembly.”
Ethel Harper finally settled in Morristown, New Jersey, where she became a leading contributor to civic life. She retired from the stage but drew from her lifetime of experience to affect change in a multitude of arenas. “As long as God has given me a voice,” she wrote in 1970, “I’ll use it to make a better world.”
Whoever Aunt Jemima might have been, Ethel Harper was a powerful personality, dignified, forward-thinking, and creative, opinionated and articulate. As Aunt Jemima, she’d preached a gospel of good nutrition, and the subject remained one of her concerns; she continued to present lectures on nutrition to groups of all ages. But in her retirement from performance she took on a number of responsibilities and concerns. She chaired the education committee of the local NAACP branch and the civil rights committee of the local League of Women Voters. For more than a decade she served as a field director to the Girl Scouts, the first black woman to serve locally in such a role. She re-entered the classroom at last—not as Jemima but as Ethel Harper, herself—teaching in public and parochial schools and in adult education programs. She developed and for a decade taught the county’s first curriculum in black history. And she coupled her service to the youth with an equal drive to serve the elderly: at sixty-nine, she became director of entertainment and outreach for Morris County senior citizens, and she served on the state’s advisory commission on aging. She delivered for Meals on Wheels and volunteered at area hospitals, and she conceived and moderated a topical talk radio show, “Youth Speaks Out; Age Speaks Out; Are You Listening?”
A few months before she died, she chartered out her achievements on a pie chart, the sections of her life arranged chronologically into slices spanning the years 1903 to 1978: “The Pie of My Life,” she called it, and it’s clear she took pride in each section. The final slice she labeled “Open for what lies ahead,” and in the space inside it she wrote just this: “Plan for future: Return to theatre as a monologist.”
Ethel Harper died in 1979. She left behind no spouse and no children of her own. She didn’t live to launch that theatrical return, but her legacy—particularly in the Morris County she’d made her home—was large. Newspapers around the country carried her obituary, all of them emphasizing in their headlines her career as Aunt Jemima. Most of the stories referenced also her work on Broadway and with the Ginger Snaps. None made mention of her role in Sun Ra’s career, and outside a reference to the Girl Scouts, few papers beyond New Jersey acknowledged her wide-ranging civic, social, and educational work.
Ethel Harper, meanwhile, had left behind a few characteristic parting instructions. “My final request,” she’d written in her will, “is that no one shall be overly burdened in my behalf.” Then, too, there was this: “I wish to be remembered for whatever good I have done; for whatever service I have rendered along the way.”
Notes & Further Reading:
All quotes from Ethel Harper, unless otherwise indicated, come from her self-published memoir, published in 1970 and housed among the Ethel Ernestine Harper Papers at the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center at the Morristown and Morris Township Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Click here to see the finding aid, which includes its own brief bio of Harper.
For a more detailed overview of the Ginger Snaps, click here.
Much has been written about Aunt Jemima’s complicated legacy. Michele Norris, in 2010’s The Grace of Silence, addresses her own grandmother’s career as a traveling Jemima (and Birmingham readers, by the way, will take special interest also in this book’s look into some of our city’s forgotten history). For more on Jemima, check out the definitive Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, by M. M. Manring (1998).