|Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page from Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
Talent knows no color barrier, so much so that it has often provided African Americans a path to knocking down racial barriers. In the case of Sissieretta Jones, Lillian Evanti, Hazel Scott, and Lena Horne, their talent opened doors on stages around the world and paved the way for countless black entertainers to come.
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in January 1868, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones began formally studying music at the Providence Music Academy in Rhode Island at the age of 14. She is believed to have completed her training some years later at Boston’s renowned New England Conservatory of Music.
With her New York opera debut at Steinway Hall in 1888, Jones’ talent was quickly recognized. She toured overseas and became known as the world’s “first Negro prima donna.” Her voice and striking presence led to comparisons with Italian soprano Adelina Patti — considered the premier diva of the day. Jones was nicknamed “Black Patti” — which she resented for obvious reasons — but as Miss Jones proved to all, a woman of color was capable of giving world class performances.
Though racism kept her from performing on America’s most renowned stage, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she did perform at the White House, and gave a command performance before England’s Royal Family. In June 1892, she became the first African American to take the stage at Carnegie Hall, and by 1895 she was the highest paid black entertainer in the world. By showing the world that a black woman could perform classical opera, Jones laid the ground work for future entertainers, including Lillian Evanti.
Lillian Evanti was born Lillian Evans on August 12, 1890 in Washington, D.C. She graduated with a music degree from Howard University in 1907. Thirteen years later she left America for Europe. There she became the first African American to sing with professional opera companies in Nice and Paris.
Evanti spoke (and sang in) five languages and critics praised her commanding coloratura soprano. In the 1930s, Evanti returned to Washington, D.C. to perform in the city’s premier theater, the Belasco, one of the few major venues that permitted performances before integrated audiences. The Washington Post called her appearance a “home-coming triumph.”
In 1932, the director of the Metropolitan Opera asked her to audition. The Opera’s board of directors, however, refused to allow Evanti to join the company, a decision based solely on her race. That, however, did not prevent her from performing in front of tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden and other substantial venues. It would take 23 more years before an African American female, Marian Anderson, would actually perform at the Metropolitan Opera, thanks in no small part to the trail blazed by Lillian Evanti.
A gifted musician and performer, Hazel Scott is an American Jazz legend who used her talent to fight against racist stereotypes and attitudes.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad on June 11, 1920, Hazel Scott was a child prodigy. After moving to New York City, Scott was given a special exemption to enroll in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music when she was only 8 years old — half the normal enrollment age of 16. By the time she was in high school she was hosting a radio show on WOR and performing in the evening.
Before long, Scott was the premier entertainer at New York’s Café Society, the city’s first fully integrated club. An accomplished pianist, she also played trumpet, and saxophone — the latter in a stint with Louis Armstrong’s All Girl Band. She spoke seven languages, appeared in a handful of movies, and married New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a celebrity in his own right.
Scott didn’t shy away from fighting for civil rights. Included in her performance contracts was a clause mandating that the venues be fully integrated. In addition, she was an outspoken critic of the stereotypical roles offered to black actresses.
In June 1950, Scott was wrongly linked to communist-leaning organizations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In September, Scott voluntarily appeared before the committee. Though she gave a rousing defense of her patriotism, and no ties to communist groups were found, the stain of the HUAC damaged her career. By the time she was able to make a comeback in the early 1960s, jazz’ popularity had been eclipsed by rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Jazz critics and aficionados consider her critically acclaimed 1955 album, Relaxed Piano Moods, one of the most important jazz recordings of the twentieth century.
Lena Horne’s life was a remarkably powerful story of the triumph of the spirit. Born in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1917, she became a performer at the famous Cotton Club at 16. Stardom wasn’t far behind. In 1943, her sultry, moody rendition of Stormy Weather, from the film of the same name, became her trademark. Horne would win multiple Grammy Awards for singing, and Tony Awards for her performances on Broadway. By 1945, her voice, her beauty, and her electric stage presence had made her the highest paid African American entertainer in the nation.
Throughout her life, Horne stood up for justice. During World War II, Horne refused to sing for segregated audiences of troops, nor would she perform when the troops were split with whites in front rows and blacks in back. On one occasion, disgusted that black GIs were forced to sit behind German POWs, Horne walked through the audience to where the black troops were seated and performed with her back to the German prisoners. It was emblematic of her life.
Horne was outspoken in her call for equal rights. Her friendships with Paul Robeson, along with W.E.B. Dubois, landed Horne on Hollywood’s blacklist for a period of time — a list of celebrities and entertainers who were marked by HUAC for alleged communist ties. Still, her talent was far more powerful than rumors and innuendo, and she performed in night clubs and toured to sell out houses. She was recognized as a screen star and her demands — that she never be cast in the role of maid, for example — put Hollywood on notice that African American actresses would no longer endure the stereotypes they had played for decades. When Halle Berry became the first African American to win the Best Actress Academy Award in 2009, she noted that her victory was for those women who came before her, including Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.
It is a tribute to the indefatigable spirits of these women that they are remembered not only for their tremendous gifts, but for their determination in the face of a society that pitted so much against them based solely on their color. African American actors, singers, and musicians today owe a debt of gratitude to this group of women for clearing a path toward equality.
1992 – Dr. Mae Carol Jemison became the first African-American woman in space. She was the payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor. Also onboard were Mission Specialist N. Jan Davis and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mark C. Lee. They were the first married couple to fly together in space. And, Mamoru Mohri became the first Japanese person to fly into space.
Black History … American History
Freedom Riders were groups of white and African American civil rights activists who participated in Freedom Rides, bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals. Freedom Riders tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina and other Southern states. The groups were confronted by arresting police officers—as well as horrific violence from white protestors—along their routes, but also drew international attention to their cause.
ACTIVISTS TEST SUPREME COURT DECISION
The 1961 Freedom Rides, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were modeled after the organization’s 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. During the 1947 action, African-American and white bus riders tested the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia that found segregated bus seating was unconstitutional.
The 1961 Freedom Rides sought to test a 1960 decision by the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional as well. A big difference between the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 Freedom Rides was the inclusion of women in the later initiative.
In both actions, black riders traveled to the American South—where segregation continued to occur—and attempted to use whites-only restrooms, lunch counters and waiting rooms.
The original group of 13 Freedom Riders—seven African Americans and six whites—left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their plan was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
The group traveled through Virginia and North Carolina, drawing little public notice. The first violent incident occurred on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. John Lewis, an African-American seminary student and member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), white Freedom Rider and World War II veteran Albert Bigelow, and another African-American rider were viciously attacked as they attempted to enter a whites-only waiting area.
The next day, the group reached Atlanta, Georgia, where some of the riders split off onto a Trailways bus.
BLOODSHED IN ALABAMA
On May 14, 1961, the Greyhound bus was the first to arrive in Anniston, Alabama. There, an angry mob of about 200 white people surrounded the bus, causing the driver to continue past the bus station.
The mob followed the bus in automobiles, and when the tires on the bus blew out, someone threw a bomb into the bus. The Freedom Riders escaped the bus as it burst into flames, only to be brutally beaten by members of the surrounding mob.
The second bus, a Trailways vehicle, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and those riders were also beaten by an angry white mob, many of whom brandished metal pipes. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connorstated that, although he knew the Freedom Riders were arriving and violence awaited them, he posted no police protection at the station because it was Mother’s Day.
Photographs of the burning Greyhound bus and the bloodied riders appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and around the world the next day, drawing international attention to the Freedom Riders’ cause and the state of race relations in the United States.
Following the widespread violence, CORE officials could not find a bus driver who would agree to transport the integrated group, and they decided to abandon the Freedom Rides. However, Diane Nash, an activist from the SNCC, organized a group of 10 students from Nashville, Tennessee, to continue the rides.
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, began negotiating with Governor John Patterson of Alabama and the bus companies to secure a driver and state protection for the new group of Freedom Riders. The rides finally resumed, on a Greyhound bus departing Birmingham under police escort, on May 20.
FEDERAL MARSHALS CALLED IN
The violence toward the Freedom Riders was not quelled—rather, the police abandoned the Greyhound bus just before it arrived at the Montgomery, Alabama, terminal, where a white mob attacked the riders with baseball bats and clubs as they disembarked. Attorney General Kennedy sent 600 federal marshals to the city to stop the violence.
The following night, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led a service at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, which was attended by more than one thousand supporters of the Freedom Riders. A riot ensued outside the church, and King called Robert Kennedy to ask for protection.
Kennedy summoned the federal marshals, who used teargas to disperse the white mob. Patterson declared martial law in the city and dispatched the National Guard to restore order.
On May 24, 1961, a group of Freedom Riders departed Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi. There, several hundred supporters greeted the riders. However, those who attempted to use the whites-only facilities were arrested for trespassing and taken to the maximum-security penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.
During their hearings, the judge turned and looked at the wall rather than listen to the Freedom Riders’ defense—as had been the case when sit-in participants were arrested for protesting segregated lunch counters in Tennessee. He sentenced the riders to 30 days in jail.
Attorneys from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization, appealed the convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed them.
RELIEF AT LAST
The violence and arrests continued to garner national and international attention, and drew hundreds of new Freedom Riders to the cause.
The rides continued over the next several months, and in the fall of 1961, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.
1815 – Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from the Island of Elba. He then began his second conquest of France.
1848 – The second French Republic was proclaimed.
1863 – U.S. President Lincoln signed the National Currency Act.
1870 – In New York City, the first pneumatic-powered subway line was opened to the public. (Beach Pneumatic Transit)
1881 – S.S. Ceylon began his world-wide cruise, beginning in Liverpool, England.
1907 – The U.S. Congress raised their own pay to $7500.
1916 – Mutual signed Charlie Chaplin to a film contract.
1929 – U.S. President Coolidge signed a bill creating the Grand Teton National Park.
1930 – New York City installed traffic lights.
1933 – A ground-breaking ceremony was held at Crissy Field for the Golden Gate Bridge.
1945 – In the U.S., a nationwide midnight curfew went into effect.
1952 – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Britain had developed an atomic bomb.
1957 – The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was established by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
1979 – “Flatbush” debuted on CBS-TV.
1986 – Corazon Aquino was inaugurated president of the Philippines. Long time President Ferdinand Marcos went into exile.
1987 – The Tower Commission rebuked U.S. President Reagan for failing to control his national security staff in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair.
1987 – The U.S.S.R. conducted its first nuclear weapons test after a 19-month moratorium period.
1991 – Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced on Baghdad Radio that Iraqi troops were being withdrawn from Kuwait.
1993 – Six people were killed and more than a thousand injured when a van exploded in the parking garage beneath the World Trade Center in New York City. The bomb had been built by Islamic extremists.
1995 – Barings PLC collapsed after a securities dealer lost more than $1.4 billion by gambling on Tokyo stock prices. The company was Britain’s oldest investment banking firm.
1998 – In Oregon, a health panel rules that taxpayers must help to pay for doctor-assisted suicides.
2001 – A U.N. tribunal convicted Bosnian Croat political leader Dario Kordic and military commander Mario Cerkez of war crimes. They had ordered the systematic murder and persecution of Muslim civilians during the Bosnian war.
2002 – In Rome, Italy, a bomb exploded near the Interior Ministry. No injuries were reported.
2009 – Former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic was acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia regarding war crimes during the Kosovo War.
2009 – The Pentagon reveresed its 18-year policy of not allowing media to cover returning war dead. The reversal allowsd some media coverage with family approval.