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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
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James Horton

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HEDRICK SMITH: July 28, 1999. We're talking with professor James O Horton, George Washington University social historian professor. Jim, let me ask you, what made the African American community in Washington so special. I'm talking about that community particularly in the early decades of this century.

JAMES HORTON: Well you know at the beginning of the 20th century, black Washington was a special place. It was a special place in large part because it was a substantial black community. But a substantial proportion of that community was in fact middle class. The federal government provided the opportunity for employment that a few blacks would have other places. And lots of blacks came into this area from various parts, mainly of the south but also from the north, to take part in the occupational opportunities presented by federal government. So you've got a large middle class black community here and that large middle class black community was influential far beyond the bounds of Washington DC, and became, in some ways, a center of African American life for the whole nation. For African Americans it was an important center of community life.

SMITH: What about other things such as educational institutions, Howard University. The schools. The tradition of freedmen that predates but also then follows the civil war. Economic opportunities you've mentioned, but what about some of the other elements, how important were they to this community we're talking about?

HORTON: Washington DC was an important cultural center for African Americans. It was a place where you could get a college education. I mean, Howard University was a major educational institution for black Americans, not only in the city but around the country. Washington had a broad array of secondary education possibilities, a broad array of social clubs and organizations so that it provided the opportunity for a community experience. That was in many ways unique. Paralleled for example by New York perhaps and Chicago. But Washington was still a very special place for the cultural formation of social life, and of African Americans. As I say for the nation as a whole, not only just in this specific locale.

SMITH: When you look at Washington early in this century and maybe even the tail end of the 19th century, other people tell us that there really was quite a bevy of stars. I mean you had Paul Lawrence Dunbar the poet, Mary Church Terrell, Duke Ellington, General Davis, Dr. Charles Drew, that if you look across a variety fields that you found top people. Not to leave out the faculty at Howard, John Hope Franklin and Ralph Bunche and others later on. Was there something about this community that made it a fertile ground for the nurturing of talent?

HORTON: Well I think one of the important things about Washington DC is that it had this major educational institution, and Howard University became a magnet for lots of people who came here to participate as students, to participate on the faculty, participate in Washington, in Howard university hospital. And so that was part of the cultural core that became a magnet to draw lots of important African Americans to this place. The other thing is that by the beginning of the 20th century Washington already had a tie, an important tradition of the development of African American social and cultural life that went back even before the civil war.

So if you look back in the decade before the civil war, the vast majority of black people who lived in this city were free. And being free they were able to start the formation of important community institutions and important community life. That just expanded, exploded, you might say, as we moved into the decade of the civil war and beyond. African Americans were part of the political process, very early in Washington DC. And for a period of time right after the civil war, African Americans were voting in Washington DC and having important political influence. Plus the fact that the federal government offered opportunities of employment and cultural experience that you didn't find in other places, made Washington just a central place. A place where people went seeking opportunity and to use the skills they had. Washington does become this kind of Mecca that draws people from a variety of places, on the East Coast, from the South, from the Midwest. You get the formation of a community. And you get a kind of a critical mass.

Once you get the numbers of people able to form the institutions and establish a widely known cultural and social life, then that acts to draw more people to this area. So Washington really feeds on itself in terms of possibilities for the establishment of African American community and community life.

SMITH: Where does this African American community in America fit in the course of American history. We've heard a lot about the Harlem renaissance and it's blossoming in the 20s and 30s and so forth. Where does this community we're talking about here in Washington fit, as you move from pre civil war through the end of the 19th century into the 20th century. Is it simultaneous or does it precede the Harlem renaissance? Particularly since that's such a social landmark in the history of African Americans.

HORTON: People talk about the Harlem renaissance and often because of the name they see that as something that it was located almost exclusively in New York. But of course the Harlem renaissance is a name given to a kind of broad renaissance that knows no geographic boundary. You could argue very persuasively that Washington was an important center of the Harlem renaissance. In fact there was a great deal of communication between blacks in various parts of New York and Washington. There was a great deal of going back and forth and a great deal of cultural interaction as well as social interaction. The Harlem renaissance went on not only in Harlem, but in Washington as well, again, Howard University serves as an important center. The music scene here in Washington was quite extraordinary. The theater possibilities were quite extraordinary here in Washington DC. And this fed from the fact that you had a large black middle class population and so these people could support these kinds of cultural activities. So that helps to explain why Washington DC becomes an important center of the Harlem renaissance.

SMITH: Does it generate a lot of stars of its own?

HORTON: Washington DC certainly does generate a lot of stars of its own. Duke Ellington is one perfect example. These people go out of Washington and become part of the Harlem renaissance at large. They go to places like New York and they go to places like Chicago and they bring with them part of what Washington was. What created them in Washington DC. So Washington becomes in some ways a theater for some of the cultural community building that is going on in other substantial black communities elsewhere in the country.

SMITH: If you take somebody like Duke Ellington and you look at the way he evolved, his career, his strengths, his talents, where do you see the influence of this community in Washington shaping Ellington as a person, as a star and all the things that he became?

HORTON: Well, Ellington's reputation is one of a very dignified, very cultured character. He brings his personality to his music. And his music is well structured. His music is sophisticated. His music is what people called at that time 'high brow'. Well, part of what you're talking about here is the fact that Ellington comes out of a middle class Washington background. Now let me clarify this. Obviously his father held a position that in the wider society you might call working class. But within the black community, he had access to and was influenced by moneyed people in the larger white community. He developed tastes that were certainly beyond those of working class people. It's out of that socialization that Ellington comes. So when Ellington brings that background to his music, his music reflects that kind of sophistication. And it's interesting that that kind of sophistication in music migrates to New York, up the East Coast.

SMITH: So let me ask you again, how do you see Ellington reflecting the influence of Washington as a community and its values?

HORTON: Ellington is known for his music, which is very sophisticated, very well structured. At the time people refer to his music as high brow music. Well, this comes, I think, out of the very structured, in terms of class structure, African American society in Washington. He comes out of a background where even though his father was working in an area that you might call working class, he was working in the most sophisticated parts of white society. His tastes were developing in very, very sophisticated ways. That was a part of middle class Washington. That was a part of Howard University middle class, sophisticated cosmopolitan Washington.

Ellington is shaped by those forces. Ellington grows up in a community that certainly places a great deal of value on doing things properly, on being dignified. You know being dignified in a southern city in the early part of the 20th century is one way of protecting yourself. Protecting yourself from the variety of insults and slights that you're likely to meet as a black person in the early part of the 20th century. And part of that is reflected in Ellington's manner, here is a man who is protecting himself in a very effective way. That dignity, that sophistication, that part of what Ellington is as a person finds its way into his expression of his personhood in his music.

And so you get that kind of sophistication in the particular music that Ellington designs. And that, I think, is a very important part of understanding the kind of cool jazz, the kind of sophisticated jazz, that Ellington is noted for.

SMITH: Let's take Ellington's father for a moment. J.E. Ellington. What is it that Duke Ellington picked up from his father and that his father picked up from Washington that shows through in Ellington's ultimate persona?

HORTON: For a period of his life, Duke Ellington's father was a butler and he served in some of the most elegant homes in Washington. In fact for a period of time he served in the White House. He knew about fine wines. He knew about the proper way of doing things. He was impeccable in his manners. These are the kinds of things that he conveyed to his son. These are the kind of things which were important as this young boy is growing up in middle class black Washington, the kind of Washington that has as its center a world class educational institution, Howard University. These are the manners that served to identify a person of worth and standing and this is the way Duke Ellington is socialized. So that when you see his music being created, it is being created by a personality socialized in this way.

It is certainly true that Duke Ellington's music is an expression of Duke Ellington's personality, which of course is shaped by the social and cultural forces, not only of his family but of the society as a whole in the city in which he grew to maturity.

SMITH: Now you referred earlier to and I want to pick up on this to cool jazz. Talk for a moment about the way music moved in America, and how it moved from Washington to New York. How does music move?

HORTON: Starting in the early 20th century and accelerating at the period of the first World War, lots of African Americans are moving from rural southern homes to northern urban areas. They're moving, in a large part, seeking jobs. With them they bring a variety of their cultural forms. One important part is music. And you can trace this migration. I mean if you look at the kind of music that becomes popular in Chicago in the teens, it is the kind of music that literally has migrated with the people up the Mississippi River, from the south, from New Orleans. The kind of Louis Armstrong hot jazz that people are bringing with them from their southern homes in the western deep South.

If you look at the kind of music that is migrating up the East Coast, it is different. Some of it starts in South Carolina. The Charleston, of course, starts in the city of Charleston and is brought from the city of Charleston. But that music that comes up the East Coast, that passes through Washington and is influencing Duke Ellington, is a different kind of music. And by the time it gets to New York it's more a cool jazz. It's more structured jazz, it's more sophisticated jazz. And the sophistication that Duke Ellington brings to his music is very influential in the formation of the kind of sophisticated jazz that we see popular in Harlem and in Washington and in places in-between on the Eastern sea board.

Again here's a reflection of the fact that cultural forms reflect the society and the people that bring those cultural forms. And if you look at the kind of society and the people that come out of New Orleans and the kind of jazz that comes out of New Orleans you can see how Chicago jazz is shaped by that cultural expression. And if you see the kind of jazz that comes out of the East Coast, and especially up through Washington DC. This is where Duke Ellington becomes so very, very important, his personality helps to shape some of this cool jazz.

Now of course as the 20th century goes on they then intermingle, so Harlem jazz and Chicago jazz influence one another. But I would argue even today there is an important distinction to be made between the kind of Dixieland jazz that we think of as New Orleans jazz and the kind of cool jazz and bebop that we think is more east coast and especially new York and Washington jazz.

SMITH: Is it important that Ellington winds up in the world of big bands and orchestrated music, and if so, is there a Washington cultural role in this?

HORTON: Well, I think that Ellington's move into big band jazz does express something of his sense of the need for organization, the need for structure. Now don't get me wrong. It has been said, at least, that Ellington sometimes is writing some of his music right up to the moment of performance. But still, he writes a kind of music that is structured in such a way that you can have a large number of people who are playing in improvised styling, cause that's what jazz is, but still in a far more structured way than the traditional Dixie land out of New Orleans, which is also improvised but less structured in its improvisation. The other thing that is important, the larger your orchestra, the more you're going to need to have the parts written down, the parts understood.

You know if you only got a few people playing, they play off one another, and there is a certain amount of that even with a large band. But the larger the band, the more important that there be structure. Otherwise you can get just plain chaos. You know, sometimes improvisation can lapse over into chaos. And one of the things that's important about Ellington is he never let that happen. I mean, he has large bands and intricate parts and they played together. Part of that was because he designed his music so that each part would compliment the other, and there would be minimal clashing of parts.

But that also is a part of his sense that there was a proper way of doing things. There was a proper structure that things had to have. And in a very real way you can see the man expressed in his music.

SMITH: Was Washington, the Washington that Ellington grew up in, was that a northern city or a southern city?

HORTON: The Washington that Ellington grew up with was a southern city with some northern characteristics. Its northern characteristics, I think, are obvious because so many northern blacks came into Washington for a variety of reasons, some to work with the government, some to go to Howard University, some to teach at Howard University.

It was a southern city in that it was highly segregated. The fact of life is that corridor between 6th and or 7th and 16th street on U street, that was a very middle class commercially successful district, but it was distinctly African American in a way that you seldom got in northern cities. In Washington, not only were the people who lived in these areas black but the people who ran the businesses were often black.

Now you know what's interesting in Harlem, you've got lots of people who lived there who were black, but it would be possible to live in Harlem and see very few black owners of businesses, especially large businesses. That was less true in Washington. I think that Washington and the Southernness of its city is expressed in the segregation which was obvious in Washington, DC.

The kind of segregation, for example, that meant you could go downtown to buy a suit of clothes but you couldn't try that suit of clothes on. That was a kind of segregation which was hard to miss for even the most successful blacks. I would argue that that led to a kind of a repressed anger in the black community, repressed because you had very few opportunities and it was downright dangerous to express your anger in the white public. But certainly if you can imagine the doctor, the lawyer...The college professor who was black with degrees behind his name and all kinds of money in the bank, even a good place to live, but cannot try on a suit of clothes at his local department store. That's got to be anger producing. And the people who come out of that environment have to deal with that anger in some way.

Now I wouldn't argue that there aren't frustrating situations in northern cities as well, there certainly were. But often they weren't as readily confrontational. They weren't as blatant as you'd find in southern cities at the height of Jim Crow. In the height of Jim Crow it was a tough thing to be a black person in the south.

And if it was tough to be a black adult, think about how tough it was to be a black kid. Or to socialize a black kid in the south. How does one tell his son or his daughter that he is a person of worth, yet at the same time you've got to be deferent to certain other kinds of people who in reality may be people of lesser worth than you are. Now that's a hard thing to do.

SMITH: I want to try something else. You're talking about the pressures of segregation. I wonder if you look at the career of somebody like Ellington or like Dr. Charles Drew, somebody who came out of this community and then succeeded to an extraordinary degree that nobody could have any doubts or question about. Do you sense in them and the way they behaved this cost of segregation that you're talking about and then in the expression of it? In the way that Ellington behaves in his music or somebody like Dr. Charles Drew? Let's take Ellington first. You see acted out that suppressed rage.

HORTON: If you grow up in the south, if you are middle class and privileged, you live in a society which engenders a great deal of frustration and anger in you all the time. Especially when you leave the protection of the black community and go into the wider society. Now for a person like Ellington, one of the ways you deal with this is to present yourself to the world as a person of worth, a person who is dignified, a person who demands your respect. Now in some ways that kind of a sophisticated facade becomes a way of protecting yourself. One of the ways you protect yourself from the society that would dismiss you as just another second class, or below, black person. One of the ways you protect yourself from that is to make it very difficult to ignore the fact that you are really a valuable person.

And so part of that dignity, that sophistication with which Ellington presented himself comes out of this need to provide for a kind of protective coating in an outer hostile environment. And Ellington did that very very well. I think that we don't know enough about living in this kind of segregated society, which presumed that if you are a person with black skin you are a person of little worth. That presumption, how madding that presumption was to people who knew how false it was. Think about the parent raising a child in that environment. How do we tell our children that they're worth something when the society around them says in no uncertain terms, you're worth nothing. That's a difficult thing for black parents to do, especially in the early part of the 20th century southern environment when every part of life is segregated.

Well, what you do is you teach your child how to deal with public fronts, and to do it with sophistication. To do it with dignity and to not let the fact that other people think of you as worthless influence what you know to be true about yourself. Now we're talking about Duke Ellington. We're talking about the way in which this man can go through experiences that to many of us at the end of the 20th century are unimaginable, and still see himself as a dignified human being, as a person worthy of your respect. And who could demand that respect. You see that reflected in his music. I mean that's what Duke Ellington's music is about.

And I would argue that the reaction of his audience, black and white, to that music, is that there's something happening here that demands your respect that is out of the ordinary. And it seems to me that what we're talking about is the creation of an extraordinary person.

SMITH: One of the things that's interesting to us as we talk to people, particularly in their 80s and 90s, and to a certain degree people in their 70s, is a sense of nostalgia about this segregated period. No question that they disapprove of and reject segregation and Jim Crow, but if you listen to them talk about their lives, they'll often say we didn't feel that. We didn't' see that. Our parents protected us. We lived in this self contained, self-sufficient community. We had the Howard theater. We had Dunbar high school. We had Howard. We had the industrial bank, we had the Whitelaw and so on and so forth. Talk about that for a moment. Was it actually possible for people to have grown up not experiencing the slings and arrows of segregation in their personal lives, or are we seeing history through their rosy tinted memories?

HORTON: It certainly is possible for a person to grow up in a southern segregated city and to grow to maturity in the protective environment Washington's black community provided. Don't forget, this is a situation where down the street you have a lot about role models. You've got the doctor living down the street. You've got the dentist living across the street. You've got the Howard University professor living at the corner. So in terms of role models for children the black community in Washington could have provided all kinds of possibilities.

And there was also a sense of ownership. I mean you could walk down U street and you know this is my street. These are my people who own these businesses. I'm somebody on this street. That sense of belonging, that sense of being important, that sense of and this is part of what parents hope to do, instilling in their children this sense of worth. So that's part of it and I think that when people look back on Washington, DC, people who grew up in the black community here and they say oh I know those are the good old days, in part they're right. I mean, for many people they were the good old days, at least in part, because they were the days that protected you.

But of course the fact is there was something from which you needed to be protected. And that something was everything outside of your community. Because when you left Shaw or LeDroit park or wherever you lived in this protected environment, when you left that environment, and you tried to take a train from Washington to New York for example, you were going to sit in a Jim Crow car. Or you tried to take a bus to Atlanta, you were going to sit in a Jim Crow section of the bus. Or when you went downtown to get a cup of coffee you were going to stand or go outside or sit in a special place. 1922, when they dedicated the Lincoln memorial, the black dignitaries came to the dedication and they had to sit in a special roped off place.

So it was certainly true that in their neighborhood they were protected and there was a feeling of community and we can really appreciate how important that was, especially to people growing to maturity during those days. One would never want to go back to the fact that no matter how dignified you were when you operated in the wider society you sat in the equivalent of the roped off area. I can certainly understand how people who come from Washington and can remember those days would have nostalgic feelings about their youth, as we all do. Nostalgic feelings about that place, as well they should, but by the same token they also know that that place was only a small slice of their life. A protective and important slice but only a small slice.

SMITH: Earlier you were talking about the Harlem renaissance being a concept rather than a geographical development. I wonder what your take is as an historian? You see, for example, the Howard theater opening up 15 or 20 years before the Apollo. You see this flowering of talent in Washington, actually beginning before it happens in a big way in Harlem. Or do you just simply see them as all part of one movement? Is there any progression here?

HORTON: It is very difficult to know when the flowering of black talent, ultimately called the Harlem renaissance, begins. Does it begin before the Civil War, or when people like Edwin Bannister are doing wonderful paintings? And people like the 'black swan' who presents her songs here in Washington. Is that part of the Harlem renaissance? The fact is that the Harlem renaissance is building on a long tradition, coming out of black communities all over the country. Certainly, part of that tradition is coming out of Washington, DC.

The fact that it's going to the north has more to do with people bringing the tradition to the north. It is happening in Chicago and in New York and in Washington and Philadelphia and a variety of other places, but this is a reflection of the way in which African Americans are coming together in the urban environment. They are building institutions which are increasingly important, not only within their communities, but to African Americans even in other communities. Howard is a perfect example of this. It is an example of the fact that these cultural expressions are happening more or less at the same time, although in lots of different places, and they're all influencing one another.

Certainly, Washington influences what's happening and being called the Harlem renaissance in New York. Certainly, what's happening in New York is influencing what we know to be part of the Harlem renaissance in Washington DC. People are traveling back and forth. They're communicating. They're bringing their music. They're bringing their poetry. They're bringing their writing back and forth. You know, Alain Locke at Howard is an important catalyst for the development of black writers, not only at Howard but those black writers that are moving into New York and from New York back to Washington. They're sharing information so that this kind of cross fertilization is going on, and it's difficult to say that one happens before the other. They are happening about the same time and they are influencing one another.

SMITH: Langston Hughes' take on Washington society was that at least the upper part of Washington society...I forget what his exact quote was, but something to the effect that this was the most snobbish bunch of people that he had ever met. You were talking about this highly structured society. Focus on that issue for a moment. This was a fairly well developed society. It had its alley people and it had people, as you pointed out, who had been freed blacks for, by the time Ellington came along, maybe 3 generations. People of very different skin colors, social class, professional abilities and so forth. How structured was this, and how class-conscious were blacks among themselves in this society?

HORTON: First of all, Washington was a sizable black community. And because it had so many people, it then had the possibility of having lots of social layers. Black Washington was a highly class structured society. There were obviously people at the bottom of that society but there was a substantial and influential layer of black professionals at the top. These were people who were associated with Howard University in one way. Some of them were doctors that hospital. Some of them were faculty members. These were people, some of whom worked for the federal government. The fact is that there was an important social structure within black society in Washington DC, and it was a highly conscious structure.

Skin color, specifically shade of color, was important in this structure. That was, in large part, a carryover from what we saw decades, even generations, earlier in other parts of the deep south. In New Orleans, in Charleston, for example. In Charleston before the Civil War, in order to get into society not only did you have to have a certain amount of money but you had to also have a certain lightness of skin shade. Now there was that kind of structure within black Washington. And so it certainly true that as you moved toward the top of the black social and economic structure, you also found yourself in a crowd of people who were lighter and lighter in terms of complexion. Absolutely true.

You found that there was a great deal of trying to protect one's position in the society. And the position based on economics and based on social status was also based on shade of color. In this black Washington was not much different from America. Italians who had moved into upper society were not often all that excited about having lower class Italians attach themselves. We know about the friction that resulted between Eastern European Jews and Russian Jews. So that what we're talking about in black society here is a pretty human kind of relationship that we can find in any society where you have a highly developed social structure.

I think that for black society in this period of time, all of this was mitigated by the overwhelming racism of American society. Because you could be a doctor, you could live really well, you could have gone to Howard University, and you could have lots of degrees. But the fact is that in the white society at large you were likely to suffer the same kind of indignities that you would if you were a dock laborer who was black and had no degrees. So that there was a kind of commonness of experience that helped to draw African Americans together. Having said that, there is no denying that there was an important and sustained class structure. And that class structure lasted well into the latter years of the 20th century. In fact some people would argue that the class structure exists today, perhaps a little less visible, but operating in very important ways.

SMITH: You said skin color mattered. And I just really want to pick up that...everything you said was fine, our problem is television and time and space. Just encapsulate, what do you mean that skin color was important in this society?

HORTON: When you talk about the importance of skin color in black society you have to undersigned that lighter skin blacks often got a break in the wider society. That is, the white people often treated them better, made certain assumptions about their abilities that put them, at least in the minds of many white people, in a category higher than those in black society who were darker in skin color. They often got opportunities for education, for jobs, to live in areas where darker blacks found fewer opportunities. In black society that often translated in a kind of pecking order. A highly structured class order in which light skinned blacks were on the top, darker shades on the bottom, and that often led to social friction. It often led to hard feelings and tension within the society. That's a kind of impact on black society generally, that was less than positive. And you see some of that in Washington DC.

 

 

 



 

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