A Legacy Unsung: The Ethel Harper Story, Part Two

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.

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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.

Ethel Harper Melody Girls
The Melody Trio. Ethel Harper is on the left.
Ginger Snaps
The Four Ginger Snaps. Ethel Harper is on the right, in the back.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Ethel Harper Pie
“The Pie of My Life,” 1978

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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.

 Click here to read Randy Bowles’s full post on Ethel Harper’s visit to Yakima, Washington.

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).

Ethel Harper Obit
Obituary, The Washington Post, April 1979.

I’m On My Way: Singing for Freedom, Singing for Change

When I was a teenager my concept of music changed forever. I became convinced that music could change the world.

It was the middle of the nineties but somehow I’d fallen in love with the folk revival of the sixties, and I may have gotten dogmatic about my revelation: music should change the world, I’d come to feel, or there was no use in making it. The whole purpose of music was to enact change, to bring people together, to combat injustice, to do good, to set the world right.

I’m a lot less dogmatic in my thinking now—or, really, I’ve widened my understanding of the ways in which music can do active good. I tend to think music is good, period. But I’m still shaped by that teenage revelation, which upended whatever I’d previously thought music to be. I’d always loved music, to be clear—I spent all the hours I could just browsing the CD stores—but I’d never considered it more than entertainment.

Before I was sixteen, I’d never considered music’s power or potential.

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I was in tenth grade when one afternoon my dad gave me a cassette tape of music by Woody Guthrie. I’m not sure where or why he got the tape, but I was delighted at the gift—I knew that Woody Guthrie had been a hero to some of my own music heroes, to Bob Dylan and others. Guthrie’s own music took some getting used to, but soon I was driving all over Montgomery with these creaky old songs—about Pretty Boy Floyd and the buffalo skinners and the Cumberland Gap—all pouring from the tape deck. At a used book store the same year I found a copy of Bound for Glory, Guthrie’s autobiography, which was then out of print. I bought it and consumed it.

I’m a high school English teacher now, and I’m always impressed by my students who manage to read for fun. I read voraciously as a kid, but once I hit high school all those assigned readings—Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice—seemed to occupy all my book time. I couldn’t wait to graduate, just so I could choose what to read again. Bound for Glory is the one book I remember picking out for myself and reading end to end, little by little, night after night. I read it in increments: I remember, lots of nights, reading three pages and waking up later with my face between the pages. Woody Guthrie’s prose had as much music as his music. And then there were his illustrations: there was that one awful one, the one with the kittens and the bullies, which I could never get out of my head.

As easy as that, Woody Guthrie got into my system. I sought out more of his music. Guthrie sang old songs, but he made up new ones too, sometimes made them up out of the old ones, refitting the tunes to the times. The songs he’s best remembered for now are all those that spoke some sort of message. Even “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the outlaw song, became by its final verses an anthem for social and economic justice. Even “This Land Is Your Land”—if you sang all the verses—did, too. And lately I’ve had in my head “Deportees,” Guthrie’s song for migrant laborers, written in 1948; the relevance of that song’s lyrics today is, on some days, overwhelming.

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Through Woody Guthrie I came to Pete Seeger. Still in high school, I’d started subscribing to Sing Out! magazine, and in the back of its pages they’d advertised Seeger’s own autobiography, newly published—Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies. I already knew Seeger’s music, and I sent for the book. I didn’t read this one from start to finish like Bound for Glory or any other ordinary book but skipped around all over it like Seeger wanted you to; I reread often my favorite parts and learned to play on guitar some of the songs interspersed, with lyrics and music, throughout the text. More than anything I think I studied the drawing on the cover, by Eric Von Schmidt: a sprawling, Sergeant Pepper­-style gathering of muses and ancestors. Pete himself stands in the front, tall and sinewy, dressed in a carpenter’s apron with a banjo slung over his shoulder; behind and around him stand all sorts of figures, musical, political, literary and otherwise. Mostly they’re musicians. There’s Woody and his son Arlo, Beethoven and Bach, John and Yoko, Shakespeare, Leadbelly; there’s Sacco and Vanzetti and José Martí, Rachel Carson, Paul Robeson, Cole Porter, even Charlotte and her web. I wondered how long it took to draw that picture. And I wanted to know who all those people were.

I’ve always known how important Bound for Glory was for me. Only very recently (in the last couple of months?) have I realized what a role Pete’s book played in shaping those teenage years, and everything that followed.

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“Songs are funny things,” Pete Seeger said. “They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history.”

That’s the idea that intrigued me. Both Seeger and Guthrie devoted much of their lives to that idea: that you could change the direction of history with song. But for me nothing spoke more directly, more concretely to this notion than the songs that came from the Civil Rights Movement.

I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, but years after the movement. The city was still segregated, but I didn’t understand how much. There was history on every corner, but I didn’t know how to see, hear, or feel it. My introduction to these songs, like all those other songs before, was through compact discs, cassette tapes, and the printed page. Back in the sixties the Folkways record label issued several albums documenting the sounds of the movement as the whole thing unfolded, disseminating and preserving the songs, chants, and speeches of a revolution still in progress. Most of these recordings came from Guy and Candi Carawan, a couple of white musicians and activists from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee; they’d lugged to the mass meetings and protests their tape recorders and microphones and captured whatever they could on the reels. In Birmingham Bull Connor arrested them on the steps of the New Pilgrim Baptist Church—black people and white people couldn’t sing together in Birmingham—but after two days in jail they snuck back to the church. They recorded speeches there by Abernathy and King, and songs by the local choir. One singer, Mamie Brown, sang a fiery and powerful anthem, “I’m On My Way to Freedom Land.” I heard that song and others on a compilation called Sing for Freedom and was electrified and moved. There were professional, topical singers in those civil rights days, too—people like Seeger and Dylan spinning protest ballads from the headlines—but these songs weren’t those. The Folkways records were reports for the frontlines. The singers were ordinary people engaged in extraordinary acts, buttressed by prayer and by song. The songs weren’t made to be played back on somebody’s turntable or CD player, the way I was doing them.

These songs were the sound of the world changing.

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Here’s why I’m writing this essay, tonight.

Last Monday night I had an opportunity I will cherish forever. I met Birmingham’s original civil rights choir, the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the historic, local epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. This group formed in 1959 as the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, their mission to sing the songs that would fuel the mass meetings and marches of the rising movement.

The group’s director, Carlton Reese, died in 2002, and the choir renamed itself in his honor. They still perform today, singing the songs of the movement and sharing their stories. Several original members and local foot soldiers still sing with the choir.

I first head them in person a few years ago and have tried to hear them often since. To have them on my radio show was a dream come true. The show will air this Saturday, and I hope you can hear it.

There were lots of highlights that stand out for me from last Monday night. But what stands out the most was Mamie Brown Mason, telling her story and singing her signature song—“I’m On My Way to Freedom Land”—all these many years later. In about three weeks she’ll turn 87. She still belts out that song as fiery and as powerful as ever. And as far as I’m concerned, we need it as much as ever. We need all the songs, and all the singers, we can get.

Thanks in part to this choir, my teenage idealism’s still intact. The world has changed before—even here in Birmingham—and it can change again.

We’re all going to have to start singing.

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Postscript:

From 1963, here’s Mamie Brown singing the song described above. It first appeared on the record Birmingham Mass Meeting, 1963.

She adapted the song from an old gospel tune she’d heard back in Oreville, Alabama, “I’m On My Way to Canaan Land.” On a visit to the Highlander School in 1959, she reworked it into a freedom song. And that version has gotten around. It’s been recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Odetta, and it’s helped give voice to other protests beyond Birmingham. Mavis Staples recorded it in 2007 for her album of civil rights anthems, We’ll Never Turn Back. By now the song’s considered “traditional,” like it sprang up out of nowhere. I’m a huge Mavis Staples fan. But her version has nothing on Mamie Brown Mason’s.

Please note, this broadcast of The Lost Child will air from 9 to 10 a.m. (Central) on Saturday, December 17, on Birmingham Mountain Radio: 107.3 FM in Birmingham, 97.5 in Tuscaloosa, and streamable anywhere at http://www.bhammountainradio.com. It will air again on Tuesday, December 21. Finally, you can hear it on Saturday, December 31 from 10 to 11 a.m. (still Central) on Radio Free Nashville: http://www.radiofreenashville.org.