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
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).
Ethel Harper described a certain “bulldog tenacity” as her most distinguishing feature. She was independent, resilient, energetic and strong-willed, and she knew how to get things done. But she was also a bottomless well of generosity, full always of compassion and charity—for children and the elderly, especially. She was elegant and refined, full of grace, poise, and glamor. She had several careers, all successful—was an educator, an entertainer, and a civic leader—and her impact was broad, most notably in her adopted home of Morris County, New Jersey.
I went to Morris County a few years ago to learn more of Harper’s story. Her personal papers are housed in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, in the lowest level of the beautiful, old Morristown library. The papers include news clippings, speeches, original poetry, and an autobiography, self-published in 1970. I went there hoping to fill in some gaps in my research on the Birmingham, Alabama jazz story. Harper’s career started in Birmingham, and she was one of the few women to emerge from the fertile scene there. Indeed, if she’s remembered at all today, it’s likely for this curious footnote: her first band, Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys, included in its lineup a young player named Sonny Blount. Blount would emerge as the band’s star musician, eventually replacing Harper as the group’s leader; soon after that he’d move to Chicago and become Sun Ra—one of the most iconoclastic, inventive, and utterly unclassifiable figures in the history of jazz.
But Harper’s own history is interesting and illuminating in its own right. After Birmingham she’d perform on Broadway and in Europe, and she’d tour, broadcast, and record with a popular vocal group, the Ginger Snaps. In her later years, in Morristown, she’d become a tireless and respected champion of numerous social causes, a voice for both the youth and the aged, an advocate for education, black history, civil rights, and the arts. When she died in 1979, newspapers around the country (among them the New York Times and Washington Post) remembered her in their headlines for one of her longest running—and ultimately most controversial—roles: as Quaker Oats’ “Aunt Jemima,” a character she portrayed in live appearances through much of the 1950s. It was a character steeped in stereotype, but Harper had sought to bring the job a dignity and grace, even a kind of authority. In the 1960s Jemima was increasingly denounced as an icon of American racism, but Ethel Harper, a vocal proponent of civil rights, took a staunch pride all her life for her work in the role.
Last week, for International Women’s Day, the internet was full of images, quotes, and stories of inspiring women, some famous and others not. I found myself thinking of Ethel Harper, a unique and complex figure whose story has been all but forgotten but very much deserves to be told. This week on this blog I’ll try to tell some part of that story, as I understand it.
Here’s part one: on Birmingham, Sun Ra, and (as Ethel Harper was for a while called) the singing “Bama School Marm.”
Ethel Harper was born in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1903. At the age of nine she was orphaned and came to Birmingham from Selma to live with an adult brother and his wife. Her autobiography describes her anticipation for the “big city with the bright lights and big crowds,” a city that weighed in her imagination with a thrilling and terrible kind of mythological power: she’d been told the train as it pulled into town would pass right over the giant Sloss Furnace, and the idea of it haunted her. “I thought that to get into Birmingham,” she wrote, “one had to cross the fiery furnace on the train; if the furnace was open and the passengers could see the fire, all would be destroyed”—the train itself melted along with the iron, the passengers consumed in molten steel and flame.
As a new student at Industrial High School, Harper joined the school’s Dramatic Club; a performance with that group at the the upscale Jefferson Theatre downtown inspired in her the desire to spend her life on stage. In her earliest career, she’d balance her passion for the stage with an equal passion for the classroom: at the age of seventeen she graduated from the the State Teachers College in Montgomery (now Alabama State University), and she landed her first job at an elementary school in North Port, Alabama. Her salary there was $62.50 a month—“a small fortune”—and she picked up some extra income offering private music lessons on the side. North Port Elementary had a faculty of seven, and the teachers shared a range of duties. Harper took charge of the choir, “my first big adventure in the music field.”
Soon, though, she was back in Birmingham at Industrial High, the state’s largest high school for blacks and her own alma mater. There she organized the Girls’ Minstrel, an annual musical and theatrical showcase, one of the most popular events of the school year (there was a Boys’ Minstrel, too, and competition was high between the genders). At the behest of the superintendent of schools and to much local acclaim, she coordinated a thousand girls in an elaborate, costumed, and choreographed military drill at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Meanwhile, she pursued her own opportunities to perform.
Her memoir picks up the story: “Permission was given me by the principal of the high school to form an orchestra with some of the boys from the band department.” Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys “made quite a name for themselves, playing for social affairs through the state.” Harper fronted the group, acting as singer and emcee, and the band was a hit. It was the era of the fierce if friendly “jazz battle,” with local groups competing onstage for the acclaim of their fans, and Harper and her boys held their own, besting such popular Birmingham bands as Fred Averytt’s Society Troubadours, another collective of Industrial students. In the summers, Harper took the band on the road. “Miss Ethel Harper,” the Chicago Defender reported, “popular teacher of the Industrial high school, left Monday in a special chartered Greyhoud bus,” accompanied by “her newly organized rhythm boys orchestra whose ages range from fourteen to sixteen years…. Miss Harper,” the paper went on, “is to be commended. This is her second trip to New York. She worked last summer in a night club in Chicago.”
After a while, though, the school intervened. “It was with regret,” Harper later wrote, “that finally the Board of Education felt I must relinquish this activity because it was too strenuous along with my teaching chores. The boys in the orchestra remained together and some of them went on to become top musicians and today are members of some of our leading name bands.”
One of those Rhythm Boys who remained was the pianist and arranger Sonny Blount—Sun Ra—who was already distinguishing himself as one of the city’s most creative and promising musicians. As he would later tell it, the real reason Harper left was a bit more sensational than Harper herself let on: the school’s leadership simply wasn’t comfortable with a female teacher—young and glamorous, dressed in an evening gown and crooning sweet love songs—fronting a stage loaded full with her own male students.
“Well,” Sun Ra explained to brothers Peter and John Hinds for Sun Ra Research, “everybody talked about fifteen or sixteen fellows being up there under a woman. They talked about her because she was a schoolteacher … and it was a big scandal.” Harper herself was “very dignified,” Sun Ra said—nothing ever but pure professionalism—but “a lot of people were jealous of her.” The gossip mill churned, and “the fellows in the band got worried.” The upshot was that Sonny Blount found himself fronting his first band.
“Everybody was talking about her, so some kind of way, they voted to give me the band,” Sun Ra said. “And the next thing I know I saw my name out there—and I didn’t ask for it, they just said I was the person that should be the leader of a band.” He never wanted the job, he’d always insist; it was just part of a larger, transcendent design. “So my destiny in music was determined by other people—not me.”
“Change seems to be part of my destiny,” Ethel Harper wrote of the incident, echoing Sun Ra at least on that point—that a greater force was at work. The moment would mark the beginning of Sun Ra’s career as a bandleader, but it also marked the real beginnings of Ethel Harper’s own professional career. Her break with the Rhythm Boys—and with Industrial High School and Birmingham—presented more an opportunity than a setback.
Her ambitions anyway lay elsewhere.
In 1936, after twelve years in the classroom, Ethel Harper left Birmingham for New York. She took with her two students, Albert Phillips and William Keyes, both dancers. “I had made a promise to the boys’ parents,” she wrote, “to try and get them started in their chosen field of dancing.” She planned to spend the summer performing where she could, getting all three of them gigs; in the fall she’s continue her own education in the graduate program at Columbia University.
Again, though, destiny intervened.
Harper was beautiful, talented, and charismatic, and the local black press quickly took notice of her arrival in town. The New York Age announced matter-of-factly that “Miss Harper, who divides her time between teaching high school and leading a band, will try her hand at night club entertaining while in New York.” Her first week there she performed at the local Poosepahtuck Club, and a few days later the Age reported this gossipy tidbit (with a slight geographic inaccuracy): “Just because Ethel Harper … a singing chick from Montgomery, Alabama has come to town, Fats Savage, whom you remember if you’ve ever sipped a cocktail at the Poosepahtuck, went and rigged himself out in a brand new linen suit.”
How Fats and his suit came out went unrecorded, but Ethel Harper appeared several more times that summer in the papers. She performed next at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour, and she won: her rendition of “Without a Word of Warning” earned her a weeklong engagement at the theater, where she was billed “The Singing School Teacher from Alabama.”
Her background in the classroom made her something of a novelty—and good copy for the press. “Bama School ‘Marm’ Wins Amatuer Hour,” reported the New York Amsterdam News: “Miss Harper teaches English in Industrial High School, but in her leisure she dances and sings torch songs for the fun of it and within the walls of her own home.” “The piece de resistance of the night,” the New York Age reported of the Apollo show, “was the big timey singing of Miss Ethel Harper, a reformed school teacher from Alabama.” That paper, though, qualified its praise: Harper may have been good, but talent guaranteed little in the big time. “If she’s smart,” the paper concluded, “she’ll stick to her pedagogy as the existence of singers is for [the] most part precarious…. That night club songstress can sing but so do oodles of other people whom I know. No she isn’t likely to set the world on fire.”
That warning notwithstanding, the Apollo gig boded for Harper a greater financial success than any classroom might offer. For a week’s performances she netted $125; and “by comparison with my teaching salary of seventy-five dollars per month, one can readily see how I could be lured away from the world’s most honored profession”—even though, she was quick to add, all her life, “my love for children exceeded my love for the theatre.”
Ethel Harper called off her plans with Columbia. There were still bigger stages waiting.
Later this week on this blog—the Ethel Harper Story, Part Two: Broadway; Shakespeare in swing; Aunt Jemima; a civic life; more.
Follow the blog (see the right-hand column to follow) to receive the next installment in your inbox.