• In 1948 — back in the Jim Crow days — Gene Norman hired an assistant to promote a concert by the great African-American jazz singer Billie Holiday. The assistant received a telephone call by the entertainment editor of a newspaper, who asked, “What color is Billie Holiday? I can’t tell for sure from this mat you sent me, and you know, we don’t run pictures of colored people.” The assistant was stunned, and she let Mr. Norman handle the call. Mr. Norman told the entertainment editor, “The last time I saw Miss Holiday, sir, she was a lovely shade of soft purple with the most exquisite orange polka dots I’ve ever seen,” then he hung up the telephone.
• When African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson decided to move into a white suburb, she discovered that no one wanted to sell their home to her, so she asked a real estate agent for help. The real estate agent advertised that the Queen of Gospel wanted to buy a home, and a white dentist stepped forward and said, “I’ll be proud to sell my home to Mahalia.” She bought the home and moved in, but her white neighbors were unhappy and harassed her, although a Catholic priest went door to door, imploring them to show tolerance. Soon, the whites moved out, and the suburb became an upper middle-class African-American neighborhood.
• Singer Nat King Cole was black, and some white people didn’t like it when he moved into their neighborhood. They held a meeting with him and explained that they didn’t want “undesirables” in the neighborhood. Mr. Cole replied, “Neither do I, and if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” Some of the white people complained to the real estate agent who had sold Mr. Cole the house and asked, “Don’t you check out the people you sell to?” She replied, “I sure do. As soon as they walk in the door, I ask them, ‘Have you got the down payment?’”
• During his career, African-American actor/singer Paul Robeson spoke out for equality and justice. Because of Mr. Robeson’s outspokenness, the United States government persecuted him by making him testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and by revoking his passport. Near the end of Mr. Robeson’s life, another African-American actor/singer, Harry Belafonte, asked him if the fight for freedom had been worth the cost. Mr. Robeson replied, “Make no mistake — there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn’t worth it.”
• Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” was an anti-lynching song — the “strange fruit” of the title was a reference to corpses of lynched African-Americans hanging from trees. Some people, including her mother, worried that the song would stir up trouble for her, but Billie said, “Listen, I’m proud to be singing an anti-lynching song. Someday there’ll be a better world for our people.” Her mother said, “Perhaps, but you won’t be alive to see it.” Billie replied, “Maybe not, but when it happens I’m going to be dancing in my grave.”
• At one time in England, professional musicians attended musical parties at which they performed but at which a cord was strung across the room. The purpose of the cord, of course, was to separate the musicians from the guests. At one party, operatic bass Luigi Lablache was speaking with someone on the other side of the cord when suddenly and quietly he untied the cord and let it drop to the floor. Thereafter, no more cords were used at musical parties in London.
• During the Jim Crow days of legalized segregation, jazz singer Billie Holiday frequently had difficulty finding lodging while touring in the South. During a tour with the Artie Shaw Orchestra — Mr. Shaw and many of his musicians were white — Ms. Holiday got into one segregated hotel after having a red dot painted on her forehead. The hotel management thought she was from India and allowed her to stay.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved