Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, holds a one-cent coin from 1817 on Wednesday Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. The coin helped archaeologists confirm that a recently unearthed brick-and-mortar foundation belonged to one of the oldest Black churches in the United States. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — The brick foundation of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches has been unearthed at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia that continues to reckon with its past storytelling about the country’s origins and the role of Black Americans.
The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people. They initially met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating.
By 1818, the church had its first building in the former colonial capital. The 16-foot by 20-foot (5-meter by 6-meter) structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.
First Baptist’s second structure, built in 1856, stood there for a century. But an expanding Colonial Williamsburg bought the property in 1956 and turned it into a parking lot.
First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis, whose church now stands elsewhere in Williamsburg, said the uncovering of the church’s first home is “a rediscovery of the humanity of a people.”
“This helps to erase the historical and social amnesia that has afflicted this country for so many years,” he said.
Colonial Williamsburg on Thursday announced that it had located the foundation after analyzing layers of soil and artifacts such as a one-cent coin.
For decades, Colonial Williamsburg had ignored the stories of colonial Black Americans. But in recent years, the museum has placed a growing emphasis on African-American history, while trying to attract more Black visitors.
Reginald F. Davis, from left, pastor of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist, and Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, stand at the brick-and-mortar foundation of one the oldest Black churches in the U.S. on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. Colonial Williamsburg announced Thursday Oct. 7, that the foundation had been unearthed by archeologists. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
The museum tells the story of Virginia’s 18th century capital and includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed buildings. More than half of the 2,000 people who lived in Williamsburg in the late 18th century were Black — and many were enslaved.
Sharing stories of residents of color is a relatively new phenomenon at Colonial Williamsburg. It wasn’t until 1979 when the museum began telling Black stories, and not until 2002 that it launched its American Indian Initiative.
First Baptist has been at the center of an initiative to reintroduce African Americans to the museum. For instance, Colonial Williamsburg’s historic conservation experts repaired the church’s long-silenced bell several years ago.
Congregants and museum archeologists are now plotting a way forward together on how best to excavate the site and to tell First Baptist’s story. The relationship is starkly different from the one in the mid-20th Century.
“Imagine being a child going to this church, and riding by and seeing a parking lot … where possibly people you knew and loved are buried,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist. She is also board president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is aimed at preserving the church’s history.
Colonial Williamsburg had paid for the property where the church had sat until the mid-1950s, and covered the costs of First Baptist building a new church. But the museum failed to tell its story despite its rich colonial history.
“It’s a healing process … to see it being uncovered,” Harshaw said. “And the community has really come together around this. And I’m talking Black and white.”
The excavation began last year. So far, 25 graves have been located based on the discoloration of the soil in areas where a plot was dug, according to Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology.
Gary said some congregants have already expressed an interest in analyzing bones to get a better idea of the lives of the deceased and to discover familial connections. He said some graves appear to predate the building of the second church.
It’s unclear exactly when First Baptist’s first church was built. Some researchers have said it may already have been standing when it was offered to the congregation by Jesse Cole, a white man who owned the property at the time.
First Baptist is mentioned in tax records from 1818 for an adjacent property.
Gary said the original foundation was confirmed by analyzing layers of soil and artifacts found in them. They included an one-cent coin from 1817 and copper pins that held together clothing in the early 18th century.
Colonial Williamsburg and the congregation want to eventually reconstruct the church.
“We want to make sure that we’re telling the story in a way that’s appropriate and accurate — and that they approve of the way we’re telling that history,” Gary said.
Jody Lynn Allen, a history professor at the nearby College of William & Mary, said the excavation is part of a larger reckoning on race and slavery at historic sites across the world.
“It’s not that all of a sudden, magically, these primary sources are appearing,” Allen said. “They’ve been in the archives or in people’s basements or attics. But they weren’t seen as valuable.”
Allen, who is on the board of First Baptist’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said physical evidence like a church foundation can help people connect more strongly to the past.
“The fact that the church still exists — that it’s still thriving — that story needs to be told,” Allen said. “People need to understand that there was a great resilience in the African American community.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2016. Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley
(RNS) — A century and a half ago, nine young men and women embarked on a trip from Fisk University, establishing a tradition of singing spirituals that both funded their Nashville, Tennessee, school and introduced the musical genre to the world.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871. They since have continued to sing so-called slave songs such as “Down by the Riverside” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and stood on stages from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Musical director Paul Kwami has led the group since 1994 and sang with it when he was a Fisk student in the 1980s. Then and now he views the songs as not only expressions of the religious beliefs of enslaved people, but also of the original singers and the ones who continue to sing today.
“There are songs like ‘Ain’t-a That Good News,’ which is a song that talks about having a crown in heaven, having a robe in heaven,” said Kwami, a member of a nondenominational Full Gospel church in Nashville. “Well, they’ve never been to heaven, but then they’re singing about heaven — that’s an expression of faith.”
Kwami, a native of Ghana, in West Africa, talked with Religion News Service about how the ensemble began, who should sing spirituals and which of the songs are his favorites.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Jubilee Hall at Fisk University on Oct. 29, 2020. Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers won their first Grammy in 2020 for an album that celebrates almost a century and a half of music. What does that say about the endurance of the group and the music that they have sung for so long?
The album was actually produced on the (university’s) 150th anniversary. But then, of course, it is the Fisk Jubilee Singers who won the Grammy, which actually makes me realize that people still recognize who the Fisk Jubilee Singers are. And people still appreciate the music. Additionally, people realize Fisk Jubilee Singers are artists and do not limit themselves to just Negro spirituals. There’s versatility in our choice of music when we have celebrations.
How do you define spirituals, and differentiate them from other forms of African American music sung in Black churches and beyond?
The Negro spirituals are songs that were created by the slaves during their time of slavery. But when we talk about music like jazz or blues or gospel, those genres of music came long after the Negro spirituals were established. And some people even say these other forms of music were birthed out of the Negro spirituals.
When we talk about the Negro spiritual and, say, gospel music, the performance styles are completely different. Gospel music simply deals with church music with a lot of instrumental accompaniment, clapping, a lot of improvisation. But with the Negro spiritual, even though there may be some improvisation, it doesn’t involve a lot of improvisation. Traditionally, Negro spirituals don’t call for instrumental accompaniment.
When the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing, the music is a cappella. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers transformed the Negro spiritual into an art form or concert spiritual. And because of that, clapping, for example, is not recognized as part of a performance of Negro spirituals.
Spirituals are known for their layers of meaning, some of which were hidden to slave masters. Can you give an example of one that is often sung by Fisk Jubilee Singers that reflects that?
One we often sing is “Steal Away to Jesus.” (One) meaning is that we will run away to the North — because we’re stealing away to Jesus — and Jesus was referring to a place of freedom.
When George White, a music professor and Fisk’s treasurer, decided to have singers from the school perform the spirituals for white audiences as fundraisers, was his idea supported by many or was it controversial or both?
To leave Fisk with a group of students to go on a tour, singing to raise money — that was opposed. The administration at Fisk at that time did not believe he would succeed. They thought this was more of an experimental adventure because no one had ever done that. He was not sure of how audiences would receive Black young people singing so he taught them to sing Western (and European) classical music with a hope that would be more attractive to the various audiences. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were also not willing to sing the Negro spirituals because those songs were very sacred to them. But eventually, they started singing the Negro spirituals to the delight of their audiences.
The spirituals were “concertized” for performance for these fundraisers. Do you think anything was lost as the songs moved from the field where slaves had labored to concert halls where people paid to hear them sung?
I don’t think anything was lost. I read a quote by one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, and in this book he transcribes some of the songs they sang. I look at the melodies and they’re the same melodies we sing except the arrangements may be different.
How were the singers received at a time when slavery had just ended and African Americans were not welcome in many venues that were segregated?
Originally, they were not well received. There are accounts where people would go into the concerts, listen to the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing and not even give donations. There are accounts of Fisk Jubilee Singers going into hotels and hotel owners, realizing they were Black people, turned them away, wouldn’t give them a place to sleep or food to eat. There was a time when George White was able to purchase first-class coach (train) tickets for them but they were refused admittance into the first-class coaches because of the color of their skin. There is a painting somewhere that someone depicted them looking more like animals on stage singing. So they did go through those types of experiences as they went on their first tour. But I always say the young Fisk students who went out to raise funds for the university kept their focus on their mission and also were able to sing their songs and win the hearts of many people.
There have been debates over whether white people singing spirituals is a form of cultural appropriation. And I wonder where you stand on that issue.
As a musician I don’t agree with that because growing up in Ghana, we were taught songs like the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” The performance of music, I don’t believe should be limited to one specific culture. Because music, rather, brings people together. I would rather encourage people of every culture to learn music of other cultures.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang with The Erwins, a Southern gospel group, in February, including the song ” Watch and See.” How often do the Fisk singers sing music other than spirituals and is that generally well received, or are they criticized for not sticking with the music tradition for which they’re known?
I think one of the reasons we won the Grammy is because we sang with other people and the album consists of a variety of music that actually would not be classified as Negro spirituals. The album consisted of country music. We had some blues. We had gospel. We do want to be remembered as an ensemble that sings Negro spirituals but when there are occasions that call for us to sing other types of music and if it fits into our schedule, we are going to do so.
Do you have a favorite spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and, if so, which one and why?
I have a lot of favorite spirituals. One of them is ” Lord, I’m Out Here on Your Word.” I like that spiritual because it’s a song that helps me to be committed to my work. A line in the song says “If I die on the battlefield, Lord, I’m out here on your Word.” That is telling me that no matter what goes on, I am out to serve God. And I know he is a faithful God. And I have to be faithful to him as well. If I’m serving him, then no matter what’s going on, I trust him to provide whatever I need to succeed in my work.
Another is “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I love that song, again, because it gives me the idea that God takes care of us.
In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
Our rural and urban Black communities deserve better. Take the stories and biblical connections in Building a City on a Hill and use them to make a difference.
On May 30th, 1921, in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a blood-thirsty mob burned down a wealthy and prosperous Black community because of a false accusation.
Tulsa’s north side was a prosperous community, exclusively Black because Jim Crow law had prohibited Negroes from living in white neighborhoods, where it was said more than 3,000 Klu Klux Klan members resided in the area. At that time, there were countless all-Black communities like Greenwood scattered throughout the US. 60 in Oklahoma territory alone. Greenwood, however, was the jewel of Negro America. Though white Tulsan’s called it Little Africa, Booker T. Washington gave it the name we know today, Black Wall Street. And it was the wealthiest Black community in America where Black men and women came to pursue the American dream. It boasted Black-owned banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, churches, newspaper publishing, law offices, a bus company, its own school district where the average student wore a uniform with a suit and tie, a business college, a hospital with an entire Black staff and an internationally acclaimed surgeon, Black millionaires, which Greenwood was known to have had more millionaires residing there than the entire United States combined.
One of the only two airports in the state of Oklahoma was for the half dozen private airplanes owned by its Black oil tycoons. To top it off, the minimum wage and living standard of a resident of Black Wall Street far exceeded Tulsa’s average white citizen, but on May 30th, 1921, all that changed. Dick Rowland, a shoeshine boy, entered the Drexel building elevator to use only a few colored bathrooms in downtown Tulsa. On the top floor, Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, began operating the elevator when it lurched, causing Rowland to stumble. He bumped into Sarah, and she screamed. Rowland knew what Frederick Douglass had penned as the truth regarding the treatment of Black men in America. To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished.
In this case, when it came to a white woman’s accusations, punishment meant death, and knowing her scream was a likely death sentence, young Rowland ran away. He was later seized and apprehended with the intent of being lynched. Word of a Black man raping a defenseless white girl spread throughout the Tulsa area. Dozens and then hundreds of white men grew to a mob of over 2000 white men gathered at the County courthouse demanding justice. But justice for what? Sarah Page wasn’t assaulted, her clothes weren’t ruffled, and though her story wavered during questioning, she ultimately affirmed she was not harmed.
Moreover, she refused to sign a statement saying that she had been raped. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a false accusation of a Black man who needed to be put in his place — at the end of a rope. The Tulsa Tribune headlines screamed, “A Negro Assaults a White Girl.”
And later, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
With no basis and fact for the allegations of rape, the mob persisted in their demand for justice of a white girl who emphatically stated that no injustice had been done. Walter White of the New York Evening Post wrote, “Chief of police, John A Gustafsson, sheriff McCullough, mayor T.D. Evans and many reputable citizens, among them a prominent oil operator, all declared the girl had not been molested, that no attempt at criminal assault had been made. Victor F. Barnett, the managing editor of The Tribune, stated that his paper had since learned that the original story that the girl’s face was scratched, and her clothes torn was untrue.”
And there you have it, fake news. But the damage had already been done, and the wheels were set in motion. Armed Black World War 1 veterans were among the less than 100 members of the Greenwood community who came to prevent another lynching of a Black man, as thousands had been lynched since the generation of reconstruction. A verbal confrontation led to a shot being fired, triggering what would soon become the bloodiest racial conflict in American history. Some 500 members of the white mob were armed and deputized by city officials, and those who didn’t own weapons looted stores to obtain guns and ammunition along the way. Thousands of angry white men descended upon “Little Africa” as a few white families provided sanctuary to those fleeing from violence.
For 24 hours, the mob looted, murdered, and raised the wealthiest Black city in America to the ground. Eyewitness testimony stated a dozen or more planes circled the Black area, dropping burning turpentine balls over Greenwood’s city and firing bullets at Black residents, young and old, gunning them down in the streets. It was the first and only time Americans used planes to attack and kill their own citizens, as it destroyed an entire city. Authorities engaged in a concerted effort to prevent help from arriving until considerable damage was done by cutting off communication, requesting help, blocking transportation ways of firefighters and ambulances, and even preventing the Red Cross from coming in earlier to help the injured and terrorized community.
“As they passed the city’s most traveled street, they held both hands high above their heads, their hats in one hand, as a token of their submission to the white man’s authority. They will not return to the homes they had on Tuesday afternoon, only the heaps of ashes, the angry white man’s reprisal for the wrong inflicted on them by the inferior race,” reported the Tulsa Tribune.
Following the massacre, insurance companies refused to compensate the residents though the city and its officials were found negligent in preventing it. Decades of silence about the terror, violence, and theft passed. There were no convictions for any of the charges related to the murders or violence. Not one white person was ever held responsible for these crimes, though dozens of Black men were indicted for inciting a riot. Government and city officials not only failed to invest and rebuild the once thriving Greenwood community but blocked efforts to do so and even actively sought to appropriate their land. The crime wasn’t acknowledged by the city or the state of Oklahoma for over 70 years, rarely mentioning it in the history books, classrooms, or even in private. Most residents grew into middle age, completely unaware of what had taken place. Even a report detailing Tulsa’s fire department’s history from 1897 to 2017 made no mention of the massacre.
And on that Memorial Day weekend, June 1st, 1921, Greenwood, Oklahoma, was brought to an abrupt end. Black wall street was wiped off the map. 300 African Americans murdered, possibly more. Thousands injured. More than 10,000 left homeless. Forty city blocks burned to the ground. And the few homes left were completely looted. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses amounting to the equivalent of more than $32 million in today’s money. Unbeknownst to most, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street wasn’t the only Black town to be ethnically cleansed in America. It wasn’t the only city forgotten, nor was it the only Black town no one was ever arrested, prosecuted, or where victims were never compensated. Time has passed, memories have faded, and survivors have died, taking the knowledge of not only how the cities were destroyed but arguably even more tragic, the knowledge of how these countless all-Black towns were built. Can a biblical blueprint be extrapolated from what we found? That is indeed our challenge, to cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate to turn our desolate neighborhoods into thriving communities and build them up by utilizing the keys to economic and societal development. Let us rediscover, let us reunite, and let us rebuild a new Black Wall Street.
But perhaps in no other time in American history did popular music more clearly reflect the political and cultural moment than the soundtrack of the 1960s – one that exemplified a new and overt social consciousness.
That decade, a palpable energy slowly burned and intensified through a succession of events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
By the mid-1960s, frustration about the slow pace of change began to percolate with riots in multiple cities. Then, in 1968, two awful events occurred within months of each other: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
At the same time, virtually everyone in the African-American community was directly connected in some way or another to the civil rights movement.
Every year, I revisit this era in an undergraduate class I teach on music, civil rights and the Supreme Court. With this perspective as a backdrop, here are five songs, followed by a playlist that I share with my students.
While they offer a window into the awakening and reckoning of the times, the tracks have assumed a renewed relevance and resonance today.
First made a hit by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, the song signaled a new consciousness and became the most covered of all Dylan songs.
The song asks a series of questions that appeal to the listener’s moral compass, while the timeless imagery of the lyrics – cannonballs, doves, death, the sky – evoke a longing for peace and freedom that spoke to the era.
“There are songs that are more written by their times than by any individual in that time, a song that the times seem to call for, a song that is just gonna be a perfect strike rolled right down the middle of the lane, and the lane has already been grooved for the strike.”
During a 1963 tour in the South, Cooke and his band were refused lodging at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.
African Americans routinely faced segregation and prejudice in the Jim Crow South, but this particular experience shook Cooke.
So he put pen to paper and tackled a subject that represented a departure for Cooke, a crossover artist who made his name with a series of Top 40 hits.
The lyrics reflect the anguish of being an extraordinary pop headliner who nonetheless needs to go through a side door.
Showcasing Cooke’s gospel roots, it’s a song that painfully and beautifully captures the edge between hope and despair.
“It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he croons. “But I know a change is gonna come.”
Sam Cooke, in composing “A Change is Gonna Come,” was also inspired by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”: According to Cooke’s biographer, upon hearing Dylan’s song, Cooke “was almost ashamed to have not written something like that himself.”
The Supremes were the Motown act with arguably the broadest appeal, and they paved the way for other black artists to enjoy creative success as mainstream acts.
Through their 20 top-10 hits and 17 appearances from 1964 to 1969 on CBS’ popular weekly live program “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the group had a regular presence in the living rooms of black and white families across the country.
“It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
Of course, these five songs can’t possibly do the decade’s music justice.
At a moment when there is a longstanding heated debate over how artists and pop culture figures should engage in social activism, the life and career of musical legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington offers a model of how to do it right.
Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. His tight-knit black middle-class family nurtured his racial pride and shielded him from many of the difficulties of segregation in the nation’s capital. Washington was home to a sizable black middle class, despite prevalent racism. That included the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer, three months of bloody violence directed at black communities in cities from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington D.C.
Ellington’s development from a D.C. piano prodigy to the world’s elegant and sophisticated “Duke” is welldocumented. Yet a fusion of art and social activism also marked his more than 56-year career.
Ellington’s battle for social justice was personal. Films like the award-winning“Green Book” only hint at the costs of segregation for black performing artists during the 1950s and 60s.
Duke’s experiences reveal the reality.
Cotton Club to Scottsboro Boys
Ellington first rose to fame at Harlem’s “whites only” Cotton Club in the 1920s. There, the only mingling of black and white happened on the piano keyboard itself, as black performers entered through back doors and could not interact with white customers.
Ellington quietly devoted his services to the NAACP and its racial equality activities in the 1930s. Whether it was demanding that black youth have equal entrance rights to segregated dance halls or holding benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black adolescents falsely imprisoned for rape in 1931, Ellington used his growing fame as a prominent band leader for a greater good.
In our literary and historical research on African American entertainment, Ellington’s ability to travel and perform across national boundaries stands out.
After success in Harlem’s night spots, Ellington composed, recorded and appeared in film shorts like 1935’s “Symphony in Black” as himself. He traveled the world with his orchestra, at first performing in the U.K. in the 1930s. Later, Ellington continued to perform on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a “jazz ambassador” in the 1960s and 70s. Audiences in such places as India, Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia and Zambia were given the opportunity to hear and dance to Ellington’s compositions.
However, not even international popularity ensured that hotels would host Ellington’s all-black ensemble during a tour in the U.K. in June 1933. Members scrambled to find boarding homes in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood when mainstream hotels turned them away on account of their race.
But when Ellington traveled in the South, he still had to hire a private rail car to avoid crowded, poorly maintained “colored only” train seating, or hotels and restaurants that refused service to black Southerners.
Northern or western engagements in the 1930s and 1940s often proved no better. While there were no “white only” signs on the doors of these hotels or restaurants, establishments enforced segregation by telling black customers to enter through back doors or purchase their meals to go.
Bassist Milt Hinton recalled that Ellington and fellow band leader Count Basie often stayed at black-owned boarding houses rather than risk being thrown out or ignored.
White band managers attempted to protect the black bands they managed from these racist practices, but this still did not prevent Ellington from being denied service in a Salt Lake City hotel’s cafe in the 1940s.
Once the civil rights movement of the 1950s began to fight for racial equality through direct-action techniques like mass protests, boycotts and sit-ins, activists in the early 1950s criticized the older Ellington. His subtle activism style had focused on benefit concerts, and not “in the streets” protests.
Ellington used his creative musical talents against racist beliefs that African Americans were inferior or unintelligent.
His diverse and wide-ranging catalog of music demanded the kind of serious attention and respect that had previously only been reserved for elite, white composers of classical music.
Songs such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” completely challenged what was then called “jungle music,” a negative term used to reference music inspired by the African diaspora. As a fusion of sacred and secular black culture, both the “Black and Tan Fantasy” composition and film combined the speaking traditions of black preachers with the humor and rhythms of black life.
This work shows his ability to infuse the blues into classical music and his commitment to tell the history of black America through song.
From the spirituals developed through the trials of slavery to the fight for civil rights and the modern rhythms of big band swing music, Ellington sought to tell a story about black life that was both beautiful and complex.