Here’s Martin Luther King, speaking in Memphis, 1968, about Birmingham, the power of song, and the unique “transphysics” of the Civil Rights Movement:
I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we know about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.
That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take them off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…
That comes from my favorite of King’s speeches, the one he delivered the night before he was killed, the one commonly known, now, as the “Mountaintop” speech or “I Have Seen the Promised Land.” I often share with my students the last couple or so pages of that printed speech. Almost none of them have heard it before: usually the only of King’s writings they’ve been exposed to is the “I Have a Dream” speech — and, even then, most only know those four words, I have a dream, and just a little bit of their context.
In one of my college freshman classes, we were encouraged to buy our own copies of the massive A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speechesof Martin Luther King. I don’t know if any other book I’ve read had such an impact on me; I encourage my own students — and now also you — to get their (your) hands on a copy, to read (for starters) the rest of this extraordinary final speech, and to encounter, in page after page, Martin Luther King not only as icon but as philosopher and theologian, as poet, radical, and chronicler of his time.
Here’s the very end of that “Mountaintop” speech, but you need to find the whole thing:
And speaking of Birmingham and jail and Bull Connor and song:
Here’s something local singer-activist-hero Mamie Brown Mason told me a few years ago, recalling her own time in the Birmingham jail. In 1959, Fred Shuttlesworth recruited her and another singer, Nims “Bo” Gay, to lead the music for the mass meetings that fueled the growing Birmingham movement; they created the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which would soon find a prolific songwriter and dynamic director in Carlton Reese. Members of that choir were among the first protestors arrested in Birmingham (in May of ’63, the jail would be flooded with marching schoolchildren), and Mason remembers singing freedom songs and leading prayers in the jail cells all day and night. On Sundays, prisoners were allowed to worship in the chapel, where there was a piano — and where the foot soldiers, as they often did, remade an old song to fit the specifics of their movement. Here’s how Mamie Mason tells the story:
I said, “Carlton” — Carlton was in jail also — I said, “Carlton, that’s a nice piano.” He went to the piano. And the chaplain used to always ask one of the regular prisoners to lead the songs. She started leading the song “I Shall Not Be Moved”: “Just like a tree planted by the water.” So I took it from her and said, “Go and tell Bull Connor, we shall not be moved” — and I was making that up right then. Making a song about Bull Connor — in his jail!
“We sang to him a lot,” Mason says of Bull Connor, and laughs. “What else can he do? We’re in jail! What else can he do to me — for singing about it?”
A couple of weeks ago I got my hands around this great little artifact: a drinking glass from Bob’s Savoy, for many years the beating heart of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue North.
Under segregation, Fourth Avenue, between 15th and 18th Streets, was a thriving business and entertainment center for African Americans in the Magic City. It was home to restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, funeral parlors, hotels, poolrooms, and theaters, along with the offices of Birmingham’s most elite black professionals. The seven-story “Colored” Masonic Temple stood at the corner of Fourth and 17th Street, housing meeting spaces, hotel rooms, and a library, and hosting in its second-story ballroom a steady stream of swanky gala dances.
No place was more central to the scene than the Little Savoy Cafe, or Bob’s Savoy, located just across the street from the stately Masonic lodge. Its remarkable cast of characters ranged, through the years, from Sun Ra to Willie Mays, and its tables served as setting for impassioned political conversations that helped lay the groundwork for the city’s civil rights movement.
Bob was Bob Williams, one of Fourth Avenue’s most prominent and popular figures (“We know of no guy in town who has more honest-to-goodness friends than Bob,” remarked local columnist J. B. Sims in 1944). He cut an imposing figure, dressed in tuxedos and (often) a Shriner’s fez, cigar clamped almost permanently in his mouth. He was a tireless promoter of Birmingham’s black businesses and fraternal societies, an avid champion of local sports, a chief patron of the city’s distinctive jazz scene. Bob was a well-known advocate for African American rights in the city, a civic pioneer who condemned legal segregation and devoted himself with passion to black opportunity and community.
Bob’s Savoy sold chicken dinners, its specialty, for 35 cents; a bowl of beans or stew for 15 cents; and steak for 75. In a single year, reported Birmingham’s Weekly Review, Bob supplied his diners with more than four tons of chicken — not to mention all the other menu items or the constant flood of drinks. (“The atmosphere will soothe you. The drinks will groove you,” the ads ran; one customer claimed the Savoy sold more alcohol, in a given year, than any other Alabama business.) “Special cut rate meals” were available for students and office employees. And out of the back of the place a woman called “Messy Bessie” ran a sort of bootleg operation: “Anything you needed,” the musician Frank Adams laughed, whether strictly legal or not, “you could send for Messy Bessie and get it.”
In 1974, two decades after Bob’s shut its doors, an article in Black Enterprise magazine recalled that “Not all the black restaurants and nightspots of those years were as unpretentious and inexpensive as the Little Savoy, or as truly black.” Every year, Bob hosted more than one hundred banquets and meetings for any number of causes, hosting black business leaders and civil rights groups, along with an array of sports and entertainment celebrities. Visitors of all social classes found their way to the Little Savoy. A writer for the Chicago Defender marveled at the scene in 1943: “It’s the only place we have ever been into where people walk up to your table and say ‘We’ll give you six-bits or a dollar on your bill if you’ll save your table for us.'”
Hailing Bob’s as the “Largest Negro owned cafe” in Birmingham “and without doubt one of the finest in the nation,” another of the Defender‘s correspondents outlined the namesake restauranteur’s climb to fame. “Bob’s rise in the business world is almost like [a] fairy story,” writer David Kellum began. In 1932, Williams had arrived “penniless” from Chicago [other sources say New York]: he’d come South for an aunt’s funeral but stuck around. “For four years he worked for $10 a week at the Elks club, then one day an idea struck him. He had observed that the Negroes of Birmingham did not eat after 10 o’clock in the evening and so with a partner he opened the Little Savoy where he featured Southern fried chicken.”
That initial effort faltered, and Bob — whose connections stretched in all directions — appealed to “Chief of Police Brown, whose friendship he had acquired over a period of years. Brown paid his rent and gave him sufficient money [with] which to re-open his business.” (The specifics of that arrangement are not entirely clear, but other observers noted that Birmingham police ate free at the Savoy, anytime they wanted.)
“Bob’s business grew by leaps and bounds until his chicken bill alone averaged $1,000 a month,” Kellum continued. Today [in 1948] Bob’s Savoy does a gross business of $125,000 yearly.”
The Little Savoy served, too, as headquarters and hangout for the Birmingham Black Barons, the city’s Negro Leagues baseball team. The Black Barons conducted their business, celebrated their victories, mourned their losses, picked up their mail, and gathered for carpools at the Savoy. Williams made the cafe into an all-purpose hub for black Birmingham’s sports culture: he sponsored amateur basketball, football, and baseball teams and sold tickets for all the big games. He hosted packed-out after-parties for every local championship and promised local boxers free chicken dinners for scoring knock-outs in their first round. His place became hangout for every black celebrity athlete who lived in or came through town: Satchel Paige, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson.
And then there was the music.
Frank Adams played at Bob’s as a teenager in the early 1940s, a member of Fess Whatley’s celebrated local band. In our 2012 book, Doc, Adams remembered: “Bob’s Savoy had international recognition. It was a huge place. They had beer and alcohol in there, and usually they would have a band. People would get off on Friday night, and they’d come in there — Friday, Saturday — they’d stay in there and drink beer and beer and beer. From all parts of Birmingham — Fairfield, Bessemer — they would come into town.
“See,” Adams continued, “this was the town. Fourth Avenue was just the heart of everything. You had all these barbershops; you had all the poolrooms and everything; and Bob’s Savoy was just the center. It was the centerpiece where everyone would go to be entertained. Any time at night, you’d see people crowding into Bob’s Savoy. Bob was a popular person and people always liked him. We would play in there sometimes in Professor Whatley’s band, and of course you couldn’t hear, because of the beer bottles and everything. But they always tried to have some kind of a band in there.”
Another band that played the Savoy was Sonny Blount’s group. In a few years, Sonny would leave Birmingham and become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most original, iconoclastic visionaries; in the early ’40s, he was an innovative, unpredictable favorite of Birmingham’s own homegrown jazz scene. In the summer of 1944, J. B. Sims’s column predicted big things for Sonny:
“One of the finest features I’ve ever seen exhibited in our town,” Sims wrote (a strong statement, coming from a popular ex-bandleader, himself, and a constant chronicler of the local scene) “was the very swelegant dinner given at BOB’S SAVOY last Monday night, by [promoter] J. B. BARKER on occasion of the first anniversary of the SONNY BLOUNT dance crew. We repeat, that we think that Sonny has one of the finest dance bands in the country and they should really go places. More power to ’em. . .”
National acts played the Savoy, too: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie. Some nights they’d play the Masonic Temple across the street, then head to Bob’s and play a second show upstairs.
In the early 1950s, trumpeter George Washington was a budding musician in Frank Adams’s Lincoln School band room; today he’s a veteran musician of the longstanding Birmingham Heritage Band. In those early school days, he worked across the street from Bob’s Savoy at Brock’s Drug Store. “I must have been twelve or thirteen,” he told me in 2016. “I was the delivery fellow. And I rode a bicycle all over Birmingham delivering medicine. But because I worked at the store, they knew me around here, so I could go in the Savoy. I’d sneak in when the big bands come — like B.B. King, Louis Jordan — you know, I’d sneak in … until they catched me, and they put me out. Dr. Adams played round there. And that was, I mean — that was the spot.”
The Savoy catered to all classes, but within its walls social distinctions nonetheless prevailed. As historian John Klima observes, the Little Savoy was “in every way an exact replica of the caste system that existed within Birmingham’s black populace”: steel workers and coal miners crowded the first floor, while visiting celebrities, athletes, and the social elite gathered upstairs amid more upscale accommodations. On occasion, touring black bands performed at Bob’s to exclusively white audiences. Willie Patterson of the Black Barons described the arrangement to historian Chris Fullerton: on those nights, he said, “The whites had to go upstairs … the Negroes came downstairs.”
One Sunday in May of 1951, a fire ravaged the Little Savoy. Many believed the fire was a racially motivated attack: the next day, in nearby Fairfield, another fire broke out, and the homes of four hundred black families were laid to waste — while, in the words of the New York Amsterdam News, “a whole company of Birmingham firemen stood idly by, less than 200 yards away.” The fire department refused to help until they’d received word from their boss: police commissioner, fire chief, and “arrogant exponent of white supremacy,” Eugene “Bull” Connor. Word from Connor never came, and for four hours the firemen watched black homes burn. (“I don’t know nothin’ about it,” Connor spat at reporters, while the fire raged on.)
Whether or not the two fires — the one in Fairfield, and the one at Bob’s — were connected, no one ever determined. The Amsterdam News simply added that, in the last two years, “There have been 9 bombings of Negro homes” in Birmingham. Given the Savoy’s significance to the black community, it wasn’t a great stretch to suspect arson.
The Little Savoy suffered $25,000 in damages but rebuilt and quickly reopened.
In 1952, singer Del Thorne recorded for Nashville’s Excello record label a jumping little tribute to the Fourth Avenue scene. “Down South in Birmingham” was a musical postcard whose refrain exclaimed that “All the joints are jammed, down South in Birmingham.” Thorne encouraged outsiders to venture South, and she even gave a plug, specifically, to the Little Savoy:
Now, don’t go South and take the boys for fools, ‘Cause all of those cats have been to jive school You just walk in and fall in line And grab yourself a gal and have a good time
All the joints are jammed All the joints are jammed All the joints are jammed Down South in Birmingham
Now, don’t get drunk, take everybody for your friend ‘Cause if you mess up that might be your end Just drink enough to jump for joy You’ll buy all kinds of drinks at Little Bob’s Savoy
The South, Thorne’s record proclaimed—and Birmingham in particular—was hipper than you’d think. At least, hip had its outposts there. Certainly, things could be worse:
When you get back, tell them the fun you had The South ain’t the worst, and it’s not so bad Every place you go, the joints were jammed In the great Magic City called Birmingham
Another fire struck in 1958. This time, the Little Savoy closed its doors for good, and Bob moved on to other endeavors — in Detroit, in Philadelphia, and in Monrovia, Liberia, where he opened his own hotel. He exported to Liberia a piece of the Birmingham jazz scene, bringing with him in 1964 several local music stalwarts, including Newman Terrell, Melvin Caswell, and Walter Miller. All had been regulars at the old Savoy. Terrell and Caswell had belonged to Fess Whatley’s band before leading groups of their own. Before and after the Liberia gig, Walter Miller toured and recorded with Ray Charles — and he collaborated often, over the years, with Sun Ra, who he’d known since those first Birmingham days.
One more artifact: here’s an image from the J. L. Lowe collection of Birmingham jazz photos, housed in the archives of the Birmingham Public Library:
Left to right, that’s pianist John L. Bell, once known as “Birmingham’s Fats Waller”; Joe Guy, the great and tragic bebop trumpeter (he’d been both bandleader and lover to Billie Holiday and he played the house band, with Thelonious Monk, at the famous Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem); Chuck Clarke, a favorite local saxophonist and member of one of the city’s most prominent musical families; and drummer Cat Summerville. Summerville lived in the Masonic Temple’s fraternal hotel and played the burlesque shows upstairs in 18th Street’s Pythian lodge. Frank Adams remembered him as the city’s “champion drummer” and recalled that “He had a huge cat drawn on his drum”; George Washington also remembered, from his boyhood, Cat’s “huge, huge bass drum” and — on Cat’s head — the first conk, or chemically straightened hairstyle, he’d ever seen. In this photo, Cat’s drum skin features a drawing of Bob Williams’s Little Savoy.
I’m grateful to David from Manitou Supply Co. for spotting that glass from Bob’s somewhere in Pelham, Alabama, and thinking of me. He asked if “Bob’s Savoy” rang a bell, and I was thrilled to say it did. I’d scored a glass just like this several years ago on eBay, and I gave it to Doc Adams as a Christmas present. Ever since, I’d been hunting one for myself, even setting up a Google alert for Bob’s Savoy, hoping another would crop up for purchase.
No luck, until that message from David. So I’m happy, at last, to toast Bob Williams tonight from one of his very own glasses.
P. S. If you’ve got any personal or family stories (or memorabilia!) from Bob’s Savoy, let me know — I’m always on the lookout for more. And anybody know more about singer Del Thorne?
P. P. S. Sources for this history include multiple articles from the papers named above, as well as my many conversations with Frank “Doc” Adams. My interview with George Washington was conducted as part of the Alabama Folklife Association’s “Alabama Makers” project in 2016, with funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Any history of the Birmingham Black Barons baseball team (or its players) includes details of Bob’s Savoy: I consulted Alan Barra’s Rickwood Field and Mickey and Willie, as well as John Klima’s Willie’s Boys.
For Martin Luther King Day, an excerpt from my book in progress: the story of Birmingham’s “Salute to Freedom ’63” concert, a star-studded, integrated fundraiser from the height of the Civil Rights Movement…
In August of 1963, just weeks before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Birmingham played host to a special variety show, the “Salute to Freedom ’63.” Organized by the American Guild of Variety Artists and its president, Jewish comedian Joey Adams, the event was an unprecedented gathering for the city, presenting an integrated stage of artists to an integrated audience, with all proceeds going to the efforts of the movement. The line-up included an impressive variety: headliners included Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, the Shirelles, and Johnny Mathis, along with author James Baldwin, comedian Dick Gregory, and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. There were dancers, comedy, speeches—even a magician. The entire Apollo Theatre orchestra came down from Harlem, and Birmingham’s own civil rights singers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, led the audience in freedom songs. Under the direction of singer-composer Carlton Reese, the choir had become by now a rallying force in Birmingham’s mass meetings and marches, and the group’s signature songs—“I’m On My Way To Freedom Land,” “We’ve Got a Job,” and more—gave powerful voice to the struggle. The entire event was funded by donations and fueled by volunteers; with production costs all but eliminated, proceeds went to the upcoming March on Washington.
From the get-go, city officials attempted to undermine the event. The concert had been scheduled for Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium (the same site, a few years earlier, of the attack on Nat King Cole), but at the last minute the auditorium canceled, offering an unconvincing excuse: thanks to a double-booking “error,” the space had been scheduled to be repainted on the very day of the concert. The paint job, apparently a matter of some urgency, could simply not be postponed. Organizers regrouped, and the concert relocated to Miles College in Fairfield, just five miles from downtown Birmingham. Volunteers scrambled to ready the space: in 98 degree heat a plywood bandstand was erected and lit on the football field. Audience members paid $5 admission and brought their own seating from home, many traveling several miles on foot for the show, folding chairs in hand. Some 20,000 attended.
A.D. King—brother to Martin Luther King, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ensley, and one of the event’s principal organizers—declared the production “the first integrated show and audience in the history of Birmingham.” On stage, James Baldwin underscored the historical import of the moment: “This is a living, visible view of the breakdown of a hundred years of slavery,” he told the crowd; “it means that white man and black man can work and live together. History is forcing people of Birmingham to stop victimizing each other.” Martin Luther King sat beside the stage, leaning forward intently to hear the Shirelles and other acts perform. Even purely apolitical pop tunes—the Shirelles’ biggest hits included “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said (There’ll Be Days Like This),” and “Dedicated to the One I Love”—became charged with social significance when performed for the cause of freedom. All night long, the threat of violence hung over the event: organizers had received warnings of attack, and the city police force refused requests for protection. During Johnny Mathis’s performance, a section of the makeshift stage collapsed, severing an electric line, and the whole field went suddenly dark. For a moment, performers and spectators imagined they’d been bombed—the city had seen so many bombings already—but inspection revealed no other culprit than shaky construction. In the uneasy darkness, the movement choir broke into a freedom song, and the audience joined in, thousands of voices filling the air like they’d filled the churches, streets, and jails of Birmingham all through the past spring and summer. In half an hour the show resumed, the stage repaired and the lights re-connected. Salute to Freedom ’63 continued without further incident, the music and speeches lasting until well past midnight.
Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer, captured some extraordinary images from the concert, but they were never published. Fortunately, you can see them now, here. I strongly encourage you to check them out.
This excerpt belongs to my book in progress, on the history of Birmingham jazz. The chapter at hand looks at the role jazz musicians and other performers played in Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. More to come.
Every day this month, I am posting to Instagram and Facebook images from Birmingham’s important and unsung jazz history. Every day this MLK weekend, I’m posting images from the intersecting histories of Birmingham, jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement.
This May is huge for lovers of oral history, like me–and for anyone with an interest in American culture, identity, literature, music, history, social movements, or art–thanks to a couple of major releases, out now. First, a previously unpublished book from Zora Neale Hurston–Barracoon, the true story of the last survivor of the last American slave ship–finally hit the stands on May 8. And today(!!) the Studs Terkel Radio Archive has unleashed unto the world a new website with nearly 10,000 hours of radio interviews from 45 years of Terkel’s legendary Chicago radio show.
I am beside myself, and can’t wait to dig into it all.
Hurston and Terkel were two of the first writers I fell in love with, and there aren’t many artists whose voices and visions have made a larger impact on my own way of understanding the world. Both of them were devoted to sharing the stories of “ordinary” people, believing fiercely in the epic quality of everyday lives. Both advocated a grassroots, street-corner, front-porch, backstage approach to history, centering on those women and men who might otherwise be invisible, voiceless, marginalized, or forgotten. Both were champions of the spoken (and sung) word, the power of the human voice, and the hidden poetries of our day-to-day talk. And while both celebrated humanity in all its forms, with an eye always on the universal, both were uniquely and utterly American. A sense of place pervades their work–for Hurston it’s her native South (particularly Eatonville, Florida) and her adopted Harlem, while for Terkel it’s Chicago–but both artists capture in the sweep of their work a wide range of American experience, complete with all the complexities and contradictions, heartbreaks, struggles and beauty that that experience entails.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” tells the story of Olalule Kossola–or, as he was called in America, Cudjo Lewis. Born in West Dahomey, Africa (today’s Benin), Kossola was kidnapped in 1860 and illegally smuggled to America aboard the Clotilda, the last of the trans-Atlantic slave ships. He was enslaved for five and a half years on a south Alabama plantation; after Emancipation he and other survivors of the Clotilda established their own, independent community just north of Mobile, a place they called Africatown. Hurston traveled there in 1927 and 1928, and over the course of multiple visits she recorded Kossola’s story in his own words. Hurston was unable in her own lifetime to find a publisher for the book that resulted, and all these years later her original manuscript (edited by Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant) is finally seeing the light of day. It’s a slim book, but a major contribution both to the historical record and to the literary canon.
The bulk of Barracoon presents Kossola’s story in his own words, an approach Hurston believed was essential for the project: contemporary publishers urged her to rewrite the story in her own voice but Hurston refused, insisting that the narrative belonged to Kossola, in his terms. Hurston’s voice is itself a crucial piece of the work, though, as she frames Kossola’s storytelling with brief descriptions of her visits to his home. They eat peaches or watermelons or crabs together and talk; he tends to his garden; she drives him here or there or offers him a hand with his day’s work. Some days he is gregarious and warm; other conversations are tense and brief. Hurston observes the awful weight of heartbreak and homesickness that shapes Kossola’s life, and she honors his need, some days, not to talk at all. I’m only midway through the book, and already Barracoon is proving invaluable for its presentation of Kossola’s unique voice and experience–from Africa through slavery to Emancipation and beyond–but it’s a treasure too for anyone with an interest in Hurston herself: a creative force whose mission, process, and personality inform all aspects of this book.
Then there is Studs. Over the course of a long career he published numerous books of oral history, most famously the landmark Working (subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do)–a book which I first encountered as a teenager and which, like Hurston’s Mules and Men, had a huge impact on the sorts of things I’d one day want to write about myself. In other books Terkel tackled the subjects of race, death, class, music, the movies, the Great Depression, World War II, the American Dream, social justice, and more. But alongside all those remarkable books he was building an equally impressive body of work through his radio talk show, broadcasting for nearly half a century on Chicago station WFMT. Nearly 2,000(!) hours of these broadcasts are now available at the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which unveiled its new website today–and which promises many more hundreds of hours to come. The wealth of conversations here is staggering: Terkel talks to civil rights leaders, musicians, authors, historians, filmmakers, anthropologists, scientists, actors, activists, and a whole host of other culture makers. As in his books, he shares the voices of the unknown and unsung; but here he also speaks with an enormous cast of iconic personalities, engaging in conversation some of the most influential figures of the last century. I’m looking forward to listening to interviews with (for starters) Muhammad Ali, Dizzy Gillespie, and my cousins Cliff and Virginia Durr. Then there’s the 1965 interview with Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday; in it Wolfe discusses his just-published first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Additional interviews are still being added: I hope that soon we’ll be able to hear Terkel’s talks with Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, and others. There are, of course, lots of musicians here: like Hurston, Terkel had a deep love for music–in particular for blues, jazz, and folk song–and his work, like Hurston’s, is informed at every step by music. But take a look around the archive, yourself, and see what jumps out. There is plenty here to explore.
For years I’ve wanted somebody to write a good biography of Studs Terkel; of all the unborn books waiting to be written, this is the one I’m most eagerly awaiting. Hopefully someone out there will get on that soon. In the meantime, we can keep ourselves busy and inspired with this incredible archive, and with Hurston’s Barracoon. I’m grateful to every person who had a hand in bringing either of these projects into the world.
I think pretty soon it’ll be hard to imagine how we ever managed without them.
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.