Thursday, June 02, 2011

“The Current is Much Stronger”: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Black Art and Literature During the 1920s and 1930s, Part II

The following essay, posted in two parts, will appear soon in the upcoming Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., "The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience," due to come out later this year.

If white Texas lacked a vibrant artistic tradition in the early twentieth century, Afro-Texans in the 1920s and 1930s spawned a vital creative outpouring that encompassed not just novels, folktale collections and poetry, but also nurtured one of the most important blues and jazz music scenes in the United States. Deep Ellum, a collection of pawnshops, liquor joints, nightclubs and gambling dens east of downtown Dallas at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, became a well-known (to African Americans) performance venue for such musical heavyweights as Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Aaron “T-Bone” Walker and the legendary songwriter and composer Robert Johnson.

Johnson recorded thirteen of his best-known songs, such as “Love in Vain” and “Me and the Devil Blues” over a two-day period at the Warner Brothers Film Exchange building at 508 Park in Dallas in June 1937, the year before his death at age 27. Because of new technology, blues and jazz artists from around the country could be heard in Dallas on 78 rpm records. One of the earliest producers of so-called “race records,” the Okeh label, advertised heavily in The Dallas Express. But even without a gramophone, black and white residents and visitors to Dallas could enjoy the same artists live at a number of music clubs lining the Deep Ellum district.

If authors like Brewer and Tolson depicted a world in which racial antagonism created unbridgeable distance between the black and white worlds, Deep Ellum became one of the few places place where white and black cultures openly nourished each other and even blended. Deep Ellum became "the gathering place of blacks from all over the country, for Mexicans fleeing oppression in Mexico, for Jews who established businesses and poor whites looking for 'action,’" wrote Robert Prince, a local historian from the nearby State-Thomas district.

"The white-owned stores on Elm served both black and white patrons," Dallas music historians Alen B Govenar and Jay F. Brakesfield wrote in their monograph Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged. . " . . . The black music played in Deep Ellum was also a force in the development of Western swing . . . Deep Ellum, then, was a crossroads, a nexus, where peoples and cultures could interact and influence each other in relative freedom."

Performers in Deep Ellum sang of an irredeemably corrupt world. “If you go down on Deep Ellum/To have a little fun/Have your fifteen dollars ready/when that policeman comes,” warned the ballad “Deep Ellum Blues.” The police, according to the song, were not there to protect black men and women but to engage in corrupt shakedowns. For blacks in Dallas, the presumption of innocence represented a pleasant fantasy; racial biases haunted any African American caught in the Kafkaesque Texas justice system.

“I wonder why they electrocute a man at the one o'clock hour of night?” asked Blind Lemon Jefferson, a frequent performer in Deep Ellum. A native Texan, Jefferson then answers the question posed in “’Lectric Chair Blues” with a cold bluntness:

Because the current is much stronger,
when the folks has turned out all the lights

By the 1930s, many black homes in Texas still lacked electricity, but the white man made sure the juice would be there when it came time to kill black convicts. Another blues legend regularly played in the hot Deep Ellum music scene, Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Leadbelly.) Leadbelly first encountered a jazz band in Dallas in 1910, and he became a regular performer at speakeasies, nightclubs and other music venues there beginning in 1920. Sent to prison three times during his adult life, he gained more experience than he wanted with the separate and unequal systems of justice offered blacks and whites in America. In an old European folk song recast within the black lyrical tradition by Leadbelly, “Gallis [Gallows] Pole,” a condemned black man is saved from hanging only through bribery. The narrator pleads with members of his family for money:

Mother did you bring me silver?
Mother did you bring me gold?
What did you bring me mother,
[To ]keep me from the gallis pole?

In his notes for the song, Leadbelly wrote, “In the olden days when you put a man in prison behind the bars in a jailhouse if he had 15 or 25 or 30 dollars you could save him from the gallows pole because they were gonna hang him if he don’t bring up a little money.” Lynchings, the “sudden” death of blacks in police custody or while being pursued or arrested, and white juries’ greater readiness to send black defendants (as opposed to white defendants) to Death Row, represent only the top of a lengthy menu of ways white Dallasites murdered black residents.

According to a 1927 report by the Civic Federation of Dallas’s Interracial Committee, 66 percent of Dallas’ black residents lived in buildings lacking bathtubs, water and toilets. With most neighborhoods closed to blacks due to segregation laws, just under a half-million African Americans crammed into the 3.5 square miles set aside for them, families doubling and tripling up in rental units which became flashpoints for tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and other contagious diseases. Such suffering provided deep source material for Dallas’ blues performers.

Even when blacks fell ill in Dallas, they could not be assured that they would receive life-saving medical care. In her autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues", the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday tells the story of her father’s illness. Himself an accomplished musician, Clarence Holliday came down with pneumonia during a tour of club dates in North Texas in 1937 and died as he traveled from hospital to hospital looking for one that would admit black patients. “And it wasn’t the pneumonia that killed him, it was Dallas, Texas,” Billie Holliday said. Holliday later said that she decided to record her famous, mournful jeremiad against lynching, “Strange Fruit,” because of the institutional murder of her father in Dallas.

Few singers in his era were as outspoken or direct politically as Leadbelly. This real-life singer-songwriter built such a reputation for toughness that he became the central character in tall tales Brewer included in American Negro Folklore. His songs often took the form of musical journalism, peppered with pungent social commentary, as in his classic commentary on segregated Washington, D.C., “Bourgeois Blues”:

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs 

We heard the white man say'n
I don't want no niggers up there 

Lord, in a bourgeois town
. . . Gonna spread the news all around 


Home of the brave, land of the free 

I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie 



. . . Well, them white folks in Washington they know how

To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow 

Lord, it's a bourgeois town 
. . .

I got the bourgeois blues 

Gonna spread the news all around

Songs like “Bourgeois Blues” constituted a call to action, made by a hard-as-nails ex-convict who survived several near-death experiences fighting and clawing his way through poverty shacks and the racist Texas prison system. Leadbelly’s work is available to audiences today largely because of the recordings made by white folklorists and musicologists John and Alan Lomax. Meanwhile, the Dallas theater scene of the mid- and late 1920s came the closest to producing the collaboration of white and black artists that Harlem Renaissance writers like Alain Locke hoped for as a means of creating a movement for social justice.

In Dallas, the white arts community had moved well past the population as a whole in its receptivity to African American art and awareness of the hardships facing blacks. In its debut 1923-1924 season, the Little Theater staged "Judge Lynch," a one-act play written by Dallas Times Herald entertainment editor John William Rogers, Jr., concerning an innocent black man unjustly hanged by a mob after being accused of committing murder during the theft of a watch. In 1929 and 1930, a white high school English teacher in Dallas, Kathleen Witherspoon, authored a play about racial injustice called "Jute."

The script concerned the title character, a mixed-race young woman, secretly the offspring of one of the most powerful white people in a small Georgia town, Judge Richardson. Jute’s sexually promiscuous behavior with the white men in town leads to her expulsion. Written in dialect, the play lapsed into condescension and stereotype at times, but remained a searing critique of sexual double standards and the hypocrisy regarding interracial sex in the Jim Crow era, a time when white men assumed a right to erotically exploit black women while black men risked their lives if they looked in the direction of a white woman.

In April 1930 the Oak Cliff Little Theater put on a production of "Jute" with an all-white cast that included Witherspoon playing the lead role in blackface. In the first months of 1931, the Dallas Negro Players staged the same play with an all-black cast. Black theatrical groups struggled for financial survival in the 1920s and, like white production companies in the city, folded during the Great Depression. But groups like the Negro Players represented the increased interest in art and literature inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. "Jute" remained a popular choice for local audiences. However, as Dallas Morning News theater critic John Rosenfield noted, when the Oak Cliff Little Theater tried to stage this play about racial intolerance again four years later, this time with an interracial cast, producers “ran into a stupid but stubborn invocation of the Jim Crow law” and the revival had to be cancelled.

Black art in Dallas during the pre-World War II era reached an apotheosis with the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition and the construction of the “Hall of Negro Life” at the city’s Fair Park. Businessman and Dallas civil rights leader A. Maceo Smith won a $100,000 appropriation from the state legislature to build an exhibit hall celebrating black history. The state withdrew its financial support, however, when Smith refused to back down after endorsing a black candidate, Ammon S. Wells, running in a special election for the Texas House.

The state Legislature passed a $3 million appropriation for the Centennial in April 1935, with not a penny reserved for the Hall of Negro Life. However, with the Centennial taking place during the Depression, many local businessmen worried the event would be a financial flop and that the fair would need the support of local blacks. A white oilman, Walter D. Cline of Wichita Falls, agreed to win federal support for the Negro Hall if African Americans successfully sold $50,000 worth of bonds backing fairground construction. The bonds sold, and the United States Congress passed a $3 million package for the fair, including $100,000 for the Hall of Negro Life.

Given only 90 days before the start of the centennial celebration, work crews constructed a 10,000-square-foot exhibition hall. Exhibit organizers had to accept white contractors to build the hall, including a painter who splashed the interiors with bright red and green because, he said, black people liked loud colors and would need “something pretty to look at.” (Ironically, those colors would be associated with the African independence movement two decades later.) The original interior was redecorated with more subdued hues when the exhibit officially opened on “Juneteenth” (the anniversary of the date when the Union Army first implemented the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, on June 19th, 1865).

Disdained by some black intellectuals in Texas who wanted to distance their community from slavery, Juneteenth had long served as a black working-class celebration of freedom. The confluence of Juneteenth (a day that resembles July 4th parties with its family-oriented feasts and church services) and the intelligentsia-crafted exhibit, which depicted blacks since slavery as acquiring civilization rather than descending from noble cultural traditions, captured the class tensions intrinsic in the Harlem Renaissance. Opening day featured track and boxing events.

A troupe of black actors established supposed “high art” credentials with a production of “Macbeth,” and judges crowned a bathing beauty queen the “Cleopatra of the Centennial” -- perhaps a subtle way to inform audiences that black Africans formed part of the Egyptian royal family. Jazz great Cab Calloway performed his masterpieces while the Jubilaires choral group celebrated traditional black music such as spirituals drawn from the days of slavery. Event organizers did not segregate the celebration into mutually exclusive categories of highbrow and lowbrow art.

The hall’s organizers hoped to fill black patrons with pride and to educate white visitors. They knew they had to contend with a white-concocted master narrative that depicted Africans as living in the Stone Age until the arrival of the European slave ships in the 1400s and as having acquired the veneer of civilization due to the patient tutelage of their white masters in America. The emphasis on cultural progress since 1865, however, perhaps unintentionally demeaned African culture and the society that had been created by the slaves. Based on white reactions to the hall, however, it appears that the African American organizers of the exhibit knew their majority audience well.

Immediately at the front door, visitors encountered a sculpted plaster model of a black man "with broken chains from slavery, ignorance, and superstitions falling from his wrists." The folklore John Mason Brewer saw as essential to the black soul, this sculpture depicted as cultural baggage that should be thrown off as soon as possible. Pamphlets touted rising African American literacy rates while other exhibits displayed black inventions and bragged of the achievements of black leaders.

A series of murals along the walls of the lobby by New York artist Aaron Douglas, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, became the one point in the Hall where the black hope for the future did not at least partly imply a denigration of the past. Douglas’ work, inspired to a large degree by West African art, proved both eye-catching and subversive. His mural "Negro's Gift to America" portrayed African Americans as contributors to the nation’s music, art and religion. His previous paintings displayed a deep appreciation of the spiritual continuity of African religious ceremonies and the rhythms of African American spirituals, and the painter celebrated black popular culture. In the Hall’s murals, Douglas made the African and slave ancestors of 1930s Afro-Texans a felt presence, the protective guardians of an unbent black soul.

The painter used the slave past to advocate for black freedom in early 20th-century America. Alonzo J. Aden, a curator at the Hall of Negro Life, noted in a published description of the work that Douglas placed a woman in the center of one mural. Previously, Aden said, “the Negro woman has occupied the lowest position. Here she is given a place of honor.” The woman holds a baby in her outstretched arms in "a plea for equal recognition . . . The child is a sort of banner, a pledge of Negro determination to carry on . . . in [a] struggle toward truth and light."

Below the painting Douglas placed a banner with a roll call of great black artists, inventors and thinkers such as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, abolitionist leaders Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and Dr. Daniel H. Williams, an acclaimed African American surgeon from Chicago. “Into Bondage” depicted Africans facing the shore as a slave ship approached while “Aspiration” featured silhouettes gazing upward at a futuristic castle on a mountain summit, while below chained hands reach toward the sky.

William A. Webb, who took over as Centennial director from Walter Cline, did everything he could to obscure the exhibition hall. A man described as still fighting the Civil War, Webb demanded the planting of a cluster of cedar trees directly in front of the exhibit. Nevertheless, the hall drew more than 400,000 people during the course of the exposition, about 60 percent of them white. Whites often found the experience disturbing.

Earline Carson, a librarian who staffed the information desk at the Hall, remembered an angry fit thrown by one white woman from nearby Corsicana, Texas. "She advanced a few feet into the hall and was standing as one transfixed, looking all about her," Carson said. "All of a sudden she exclaimed . . . 'No! No! Niggers did not do this.'" Some visitors expressed even a new doubt about white supremacy. "Why if you were to give Negroes an equal chance, they would surpass white people," one woman declared.

The Hall of Negro Life stood as an island of integration, the one place where whites and blacks peacefully mingled. Otherwise, African Americans faced the usual humiliating hassle of finding restrooms and concessions open to them. Black critics, who saw the exhibit as collaboration with Jim Crow, also attacked the hall. In a letter to the Dallas Express, Charles H. Bynum, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High, dismissed officials associated with the hall as "Uncle Toms" who rationalized the "gross injustices" suffered by black visitors to the fair. Bynum argued that no exhibit should have been opened if it took place in a larger context of segregation. Ghettoizing tributes to black achievement in one building while African American visitors were reminded of their social inferiority by segregated restrooms, water fountains and ice cream stands represented a Pyrrhic victory at best, Bynum suggested.

The Bynum view of men like Smith, unfortunately, proved surprisingly durable. African American civil rights leaders in Dallas would languish in obscurity compared to their peers in other Southern cities, or would be accused of collaborating with their oppressors. Until the mid-1990s, Dallas’ African American community attracted little interest from historians. Neither black nor white art produced in Dallas drew much attention from national critics. The city’s black political leadership drew little comment, and what attention it received proved negative. Longtime Dallas journalist Jim Schutze’s 1986 book The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City didn’t label men like Maceo Smith “Toms,” but it did accuse that generation of black leaders of exchanging the fight for social justice for a promise of relative physical safety.

White Dallas in the 1930s had a less sanguine view of the black generation that fueled the city’s cultural flowering in the 1920s and 1930s. The Hall of Negro Life may have embraced the condescending white narrative of “Negro Progress” but it also became a venue where whites and blacks could find tributes to -- and the words of -- black radicals like W.E.B. Du Bois and singer Paul Robeson. Apparently the exhibit frightened not only the stray visitor from Corsicana. The Hall of Negro Life proved too dangerous to survive. What couldn’t be hidden by cedar trees had to be demolished. When officials announced the Centennial Exposition would continue in 1937 as the Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition, a wrecking crew tore the Hall down, the only original permanent structure that was immediately destroyed.

Deep Ellum, where in the early 20th century the most influential blues, swing and jazz musicians of the Southwest first found voice and an audience, fell victim to a combination of macroeconomics and urban planning that focused on the needs of affluent whites at the expense of the black and white urban working class. In 2010, the Warner Brothers Film Exchange, where Robert Johnson and Charlie Parker recorded, was across from The Stewpot, a resource center for the homeless. The Exchange was boarded up and facing possible demolition. (By late 2010, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas was attempting to buy the structure and said it would restore the old studio.) The Deep Ellum of the 1920s and 1930s eroded piece by piece until it became another urban ghost like the Hall of Negro Life.

The Great Depression drove the district’s big theaters out of business even as doctors’ and lawyers’ offices in the neighborhood shut down and relocated near the black middle-class mecca of State-Thomas. Unoccupied buildings lent a seedy character to the businesses that remained, while the advent of television in the 1950s changed entertainment habits for blacks and whites. The newly constructed Central Expressway, the first sections of which were operational by 1950, also sealed off the Deep Ellum district from the rest of downtown Dallas. By the 1970s, the district featured only vacant lots and empty warehouses, only to be gentrified first into a collection of music clubs and then a chic cluster of lofts, cafes and avant-garde art galleries. Developers in the 1980s even toyed with erasing the Deep Ellum name, which originated from local black and/or Jewish pronunciations of “Elm Street,” hoping to coin a whiter, more upscale moniker.

John Mason Brewer’s works remain, but they now reside primarily in seldom-inspected special-collections sections of libraries. Contemporary readers, black and white, have largely forgotten Brewer. The home where he grew up and where he spent much of his adult life, the John Henry Brewer and Minnie Tate House at 1108 Chicon St. in Austin, made the National Register of Historical Places in 1995, but remains vacant and has been sadly neglected, the remains decaying and splattered with graffiti.
In a city with as thin an artistic tradition as Dallas, one that seeks cultural prestige and lacks the aesthetic confidence even of its western neighbor Fort Worth, it would seem that civic leaders would memorialize the black creative output of the early 20th century. Instead, like much of the Dallas past, this period has been tossed in an Orwellian Memory Hole.

Perhaps there is a reason deeper than boredom with history. The physical erasure of all but the most wispy traces of Dallas’s artistic flowering in the 1920s and 1930s suggests that the movement was not the accommodating work of Uncle Toms but the blossoming of Texas black insurgency, an adamant revolt against the city’s crassly mercantilist values. Historian Harvey Graff recently suggested that Dallas is a city at war with its past. That war has left the city’s black artistic heritage literally buried under rubble.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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