Before jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald became the First Lady of Song and earned 13 Grammy Awards, she spent much of her teenage years as an orphan, finding odd jobs to get by and, at times, living on the street. Filmmaker Charlotte Zwerin interviews journalist Nina Bernstein and Fitzgerald’s longtime friend June Norton, who discuss one of the singer’s most difficult periods. Enduring harsh conditions at an abusive reformatory program in Hudson, New York, Fitzgerald faced prejudiced policies common in the institutional racism of the 1930s child welfare system. She battled through this adversity to achieve a career driven by sheer determination and talent [Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (1999)].
Nina Bernstein: The training school for girls at Hudson New York was a State Reformatory. The girls who were sent there were generally not serious delinquents. They were just throwaways in many respects. They were children who were abused who were neglected perhaps were truant. I’m working on a book about child welfare in New York and it involves a class action lawsuit against the foster care system of New York and the named plaintiff was a girl who was sent there 40 years after Ella Fitzgerald and I did a lot of research into the history of the place. And one of the things that I discovered talking to old counselors from there and the former superintendent was that Ella Fitzgerald had been an inmate in effect there in the earlier mid-1930s. I was fascinated and tried to find out more. I interviewed a number of people who remembered her there including a former teacher who remembered her as having been a perfectionist. Remembered her penmanship as being perfect. I interviewed the last superintendent of the institution who remembered how they had tried to invite Ella to come back when she was famous in the 60s there was an assistant superintendent named Muriel Jenkins who wanted her to come back as a as a kind of role model for girls who were there. And she refused to have anything to do with the place she hated it. And the story that came back was that she had been held in the basement of one of the cottages and all but tortured. And in fact it fits with a lot of what I learned about the institution and the history of this place over the years really from its earliest time as a house of refuge for women as it was called in the 1880s when it was founded. I think that she really was abused there. And I think it was a traumatic experience for her and she didn’t want the institution to be in any way associated with with her success or to associate herself with it.
Charlotte Zwerin: Why was she there?
Nina Bernstein: Well she was orphaned. And I mean the truth is it’s very hard to determine exactly what happened because the records have been destroyed for the most part and recollections are are different but my understanding is that after her mother died she was left with a stepfather who may have abused her. She was sent to live with I believe an aunt in Harlem. And I think she felt unloved. She certainly was not able to did not continue with school she had been a very good student as I understand it originally in the lower grades and she was a truant. She was on the street. I believe she spoke in one interview about warning the women in the sporting houses as they were called the cops were coming. So putting the pieces together the likeliest story that I came up with was that the police caught up with her and she was taken into custody perhaps as a truant or as a child in need of supervision or wayward child. These were the kinds of terms that were used over the years. And I think that she, one possibility is that she was sent to the colored orphan asylum at Riverdale was the one institution for wayward children. It was sort of the stop before the reform school and it was the only place that accepted Black children. And it was completely overcrowded at that point. I mean this is we’re talking about perhaps 1932, 1933 – it’s the depression. You have the Black migration from the south. And I think a lot of these charitable institutions which had they had support they had some public support but they were basically private institutions. They would send the troublesome teenagers – they would ship them away rather readily to the state training school to make room for younger children. And I believe that’s what happened that that basically she didn’t have anybody willing to take her in, she didn’t have a place to go. Perhaps she was a rebellious adolescent and she ended up in this place up the Hudson River with a very harsh and really punitive regime.
Charlotte Zwerin: Is this something that goes through the court?
Nina Bernstein: Yes that’s right. It would have been through the courts there would have been a petition to the family court or the juvenile court and she would have been committed to the state her custody would have been transferred to the state for placement at the training school for girls at Hudson which meant that really they had the say so where she would go how long she would stay.
Charlotte Zwerin: And what rights would she have in this procedure?
Nina Bernstein: None whatsoever. It’s really very hard for an adolescent in that situation because she doesn’t have autonomy. The best you can have is someone who is advocating for you as a parent and she didn’t have that and certainly she wouldn’t have been represented by counsel at that point. So she was just powerless in the situation she was shipped to this place a strange place with run by strangers. There were these places called cottages. They were really these brick buildings that had been built in the 19th century. Most of them. They housed a 20 to 25, 25 to 30, something like that girls. And out of the 17 of them two had been designated for Black girls and they were overcrowded, they were the most dilapidated ones. And what the investigation found was that in fact these girls were routinely beaten by male staff. So the story that she had been confined to the basement and all but tortured really fits in my mind with that. I think they used solitary confinement as a discipline. So I I can well believe that she could have, especially if she was someone which she must have been, with a lot of guts and a strong will, that she would have run afoul of of the system there and could have been punished in that way.
Charlotte Zwerin: How does one get out of a place like that?
Nina Bernstein: Well legally you would be paroled. You could be paroled to a foster family. You could be paroled to a relative. You the commitment that her commitment probably would have been until age 18. So until her 18th birthday she would still have been under the authority of the state. And what’s fascinating about what happened to Ella Fitzgerald is that technically she was paroled to Chick Webb’s band. That’s what I was told by Gloria McFarland who was the psychologist at Hudson at the State Training School for Girls of between 1955 and 1963. And she described for me how she actually looked in the records she had access to the files the old files and she had heard of course from other people at the institution that Ella had been there and she pulled Ella’s file and there that was to her the most fascinating thing that that they had a notation that Ella had been paroled to Chick Webb’s band. Well I’m sure that what happened was that Ella like so many other foster children or or former children of the system she had to survive essentially from hand to mouth when she was let go. She was out there as I understand it she was dancing for tips on 125th Street. She was sleeping where she could she. She was basically what we would have called homeless. And she her sheer talent and good luck. Got her this this place this opportunity whereas as I understand it Charles Linton persuaded chick wife to let her sing with the band. And I think that then the state essentially put the imprimatur of authority on this arrangement.
Charlotte Zwerin: How recently did this school exist, and what were the conditions?
Nina Bernstein: Well the school continue the training school was in existence until 1976. I really think that the conditions did not change a lot. There was certainly an effort to reform it. Tom Tonny the last superintendent considered himself a reformer, he did away with the punishment cottage that was had still been there since the 1920s. But on the other hand he created a behavior modification cottage that reprieves a lot of the methods that were used back in the early days. You know in the 1880s and 1890s so unconsciously I would say so. It was not a good place. It was not a good place for children institutions basically are not good places which is something we tend to have forgotten. We seem to go through these cycles where we think of them as a place to rescue children all over again. You know it’s the same system that exists in in prisons that you have trustees who essentially run the show. I think what happens is that the institution essentially abdicates its authority or delegates its authority to the toughest inmates. And the same thing is true in this kind of reform school the toughest gangs of girls the toughest counselors quote unquote counselors run the show and it’s very hard for especially I would say for a girl of spirit someone who has a mind of her own a will of her own. I’m sure that that Ella who who essentially grew up with a strong sense of herself and who she was must have. It must have been terrible for her there. There are – well there are people who really are broken. In fact they had a whole system there of well they had a system of solitary confinement and they had they would take away a girl’s clothing. A girl would be put alone in a room with mattresses around the you know padded cell essentially. And some of them literally went crazy from the strain of solitary confinement of abuse by by others I mean essentially I think there were people whose spirits were broken. Then there were other girls who ran away. Running away from Hudson with something that happened absolutely from the from the beginning. I mean one of the I think in the first year that the place opened in the in 1887 there were there were runaways. And in 1994 when it opened as the when it changed to the training school for girls for girls 12 to 16 the first girl who was admitted under the new name later ran away. So that was that was sort of the choice you did your time that you got through. Perhaps you were broken or you you ran away and Ella may have run away.
Charlotte Zwerin: Now this was called a training school. What were the Black girls being trained to do?
Nina Bernstein: Black girls were, sixty-six percent of them I believe had cleaning assignments laundry assignments. Essentially what this training school did was to use the labor of the girls to run the institution and in particular of the Black girls were confined to the most menial tasks and the the laundry you couldn’t even argue that they were being taught how to be laundresses because the equipment was out of date. And the argument was well this was the work that they wanted to do. They preferred this work. That was one of the arguments that was made but there was in 1936 a complaint and and there was an investigation of the conditions and they found that definitely the Black girls were being discriminated against and had been confined to, they didn’t have as much school as much schooling. They weren’t given the more interesting assignments for instance there was a there was a school store where girls could practice being cashiers and selling things and so forth and they were not allowed to be part of that. And the woman who ran the place – I mean it’s one of these ironies. She was a reformer she was had been in her day considered a reformer. And one of the things she prided herself on was a choir girls choir. They went and sang for various churches and institutions and women’s groups. Well Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t sing in the choir because the choir was all White. Black girls were not allowed to sing in the choir and I was told by a woman named Beulah Cranke who was a teenager at the time in Hudson that she had the privilege of hearing Ella Fitzgerald and a small group of Black girls who were invited by the local Black AME church in Hudson to sing I think to make up for the fact that they were not allowed to sing in the official Hudson choir. They sang in the AME church and Beulah Cranke never forgot sitting there with her parents and hearing Ella sing and she said she sang her heart out.
Charlotte Zwerin: You found out these things before Ella died, right?
Nina Bernstein: That’s right. I did. And I wrote Ella Fitzgerald’s publicist a letter a long letter describing what I had found and trying to trying to persuade her to respond. I felt that this was the right time would have been the right time to acknowledge this part of her life. I mean clearly this was so painful to her that she didn’t want to ever talk about it or acknowledge it. And yet it seemed to me that the fact that there were so many other girls like her who had suffered in this way. She really she could put a face on those, that suffering she could we could find out that these anonymous children who had been harmed by the system had the face of someone we cherish as a nation. And so I wrote this letter and I was told that it was that her it was passed on to her and I never got a reply. I mean basically she kept her silence. But I certainly felt that had she had it not been accurate. And I’m sure that it is but she certainly could have denied it or had told me I was mistaken or had that come back to me. And of course she was already quite ill I think at that point, it was 1994, but I really don’t know how much she constructed another story for herself. And perhaps you’re discovering that how how much she constructed another story and how much bits and pieces of this emotional history came out in other ways.
Michael Kantor: June Norton, a close friend of Ella Fitzgerald, reflects on the impact the school had on Ella.
June Norton: She would lapse into some recollections. And I was always happy when she would do that. It didn’t make her sad, she would think about some of the comical things you know like she would get away from home and she had to climb over a fence and back in those days we women had to wear bloomers and she would say gosh can you imagine see the top of that fence with bloomers on and I say yeah, because their horrible when you haven’t seen them on somebody else. So that really gave her a charge because it stayed vividly there. So it was never far from her knowing what had gone on in her life.
Charlotte Zwerin: How did she get by? I mean she was really young.
June Norton: She’d run into other kids the young ones out there in the street. It’s been written that she probably was running numbers. People would just use the kids to go and do something. She just delivering something. And actually it was running numbers but she didn’t realize that that was I think illegal. And if she did you know she had to live and there were a lot worse things she could have done. The safety net was gone and so she was truant because she didn’t have any place to go. No home. After her Mother died. she never cried about circumstances because it wasn’t gonna make things different. It wasn’t gonna change what was. So the best she could do was to pick up from there and go on, knowing that we all have something that happened over which we had absolutely no control. And knowing the people who loved her would love her anyway.