Old Jim Crow
Where you been baby
Down Mississippi and back again
Old Jim Crow don't you know
It's all over now

-- Nina Simone

 

Black Culture and Art in the Emerging Civil Rights Movement

The period following World War II saw an explosion of Black intellectualism and visibility as African Americans, dissatisfied with their continuingly marginalized roles following the war, began to produce literature, visual arts and music embodying their frustrations. Just as the “nadir of American race relations” (LaVelle and Waring 133) and Black dissatisfaction with post-World War I oppression catalyzed the migration of millions of Blacks northward—giving birth to the Harlem and Chicago Black Renaissances (Boone and Courage 5)—the exclusion of African Americans from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” began to simmer a discontentment which would eventually boil over into the Civil Rights Movement (Goduti, Jr. 219). This interim period, falling roughly between the mid nineteen-thirties and early nineteen-sixties, saw the arrival of an emergent Black culture in Clemson, South Carolina that coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of de jure segregation (Janken). Particularly embodied through music, this culture was best represented at what were then Clemson Agricultural College and the Littlejohn’s Grill (now Clemson University and the Littlejohn Community Center, respectively), as future music legends, touring the Chitlin’ Circuit, used the two venues to thrust their voices and opinions into a space where they had never been welcomed before.

The Chitlin’ Circuit and Littlejohn’s Grill

Emerging in the throngs of the Jim Crow South, the Chitlin’ Circuit, also called the Southern Blues Trail, consisted of a number of Southern venues which played home to notable African American musicians up until the early 1960s. Ed Ward notes that these venues, predominantly located in “segregated American cities [,] helped give birth to a touring circuit that provided employment for hundreds of black musicians and eventually brought about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll” (Ward). The existence of these predominantly Black owned and operated establishments served to embody Henry Louis Gates’s claim that “[t]he spiritual and moral survival of black Americans demanded that they be given a stage of their own,” in that they acted as pockets of unadulterated Black expressionism outside of the constraints and expectations of white America (132).

In Upstate South Carolina, the eponymous Littlejohn’s Grill, run by Horace Littlejohn, was a crucial stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit that played host to names such as James Brown (Jackson 205), Little Richard (Jackson 137), Louis Armstrong (Jackson 66), and Harry Belafonte (Jackson 62). Vince Jackson notes, “during its heyday [the Grill] was the epicenter for African-American entertainment activities in Clemson and the Upstate of South Carolina” (2) and, for Blacks in particular, was “one of few places [available] for food, lodging and entertainment” in the area (1). As a result of, and in response to, its marginalized position in the Jim Crow South, the Grill quickly blossomed into a space reflective of African American cultural achievement and entrepreneurial success, rivaling Clemson Agricultural College in terms of showcased talent.

Performances at Clemson Agricultural College

Beginning as early as 1939, when the school welcomed Jimmie Lunceford onto its campus, Clemson Agricultural College began to borrow talent away from the Littlejohn’s Grill. Resultantly, artists like Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Cat Anderson held performances at both the Grill and the college (Jackson 203). Even at the then segregated campus, the musical genius of these artists was held in high regard. This is best evidenced when, remarking on the performance of Ray Charles at the 1963 Homecoming, that year’s edition of Taps notes that the event “will always be remembered as one of the greatest dance weekends ever held at Clemson” ("Taps (1963)" 78). This praise was echoed when, concerning Lunceford’s performance three decades earlier, The Tiger declared it on par to be “The Finest Taps Ball Ever” ("Plans for ‘Finest Taps Ball Ever’ Take Shape as Yearbook Event Nears"). However, even as their music was praised, up until desegregation, these artists were prohibited from lodging at the campus—many electing to stay at the Grill (Jackson 11)—and several, like Harry Belafonte—critical of the college’s segregation policies—chose to avoid the school altogether, instead playing exclusively at Littlejohn’s (Littlejohn’s Grill Clemson, S.C.).

Performance and Protest, Artistry and Activism

Acts like those perpetuated by Belafonte demonstrate the intersection of civil rights and entertainment and show how the Black musician used, or this case withheld, his or her craft as a form of resistance. Remarking Belafonte’s refusal to play at the college, Jackson notes, “[he] was scheduled to appear at Clemson College, but refused when he found the school was segregated. In all likelihood [he] knew this in advance, but was making a point. He went just down the road to the Grill instead and performed in front of a large crowd that evening” (Littlejohn’s Grill Clemson, S.C.). Following the release of Calypso in 1956, “the first album in history to sell over a million copies,” Belafonte had become somewhat of a national phenomenon and the country’s closest representation of Trinidadian calypso music (Browne and Browne 77). In this he not only represented the country’s commodification and appreciation of Black culture but also served to bring a marginalized voice into the mainstreams of American society. By refusing to play at Clemson, the self-avowed “social activist” capitalized on his popularity and appeal to white society to move the struggle of African Americans to the forefront of all discourse surrounding his music or himself whilst also demonstrably punishing the school for its participation in systematic oppression.

Belafonte is also notable in that he embodies the interim period following World War II and demonstrates a continuity between the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement—all the while converging upon Clemson, South Carolina. Born in Harlem, Belafonte would study at The New School under the tutelage of Erwin Piscator before performing in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, a venue he shared at the time with Sidney Poitier (Pitts Walker 257). This, and his later work with Carl Van Vechten fashioned him into this renaissance-like figure occupying a timeframe not usually studied under the context of African American artistic expression (Van Vechten). His role as a Renaissance artist and as a civil rights activist allow the existence of a space wherein the Renaissance and civil rights, artistry and activism, converge upon one another, demonstrating a continued strain of African American artistic and political resistance throughout the twentieth century (thereby demonstrating that the interim period, although not well recognized, was not a period of inaction). Clemson simply serves to represent a scenario wherein this convergence is allowed to attack extant systems of oppression and push towards Black recognition and racial equality.

Artists like Lunceford and Ellington did this indirectly through the respect and compensation that they demanded in the segregated space. Records kept by Clemson Agricultural College’s Central Dance Association (CDA), the group responsible for the organization of the school’s many dances, balls and concerts, show that Lunceford was paid a $1000 security deposit to perform at the 1939 Taps Ball (Tom Stanley) and that Ellington was paid $3000 to perform at the 1955 Military Ball—the highest amount seen given to any artist or orchestra in the archive (George Bennett). George Bennett, president of the CDA during Ellington’s visit, stated that even though the duke was prohibited from lodging and dining at the college, he arranged for him to dine at a restaurant in town, noting:

A banquet room was set up and Dan [Gentry, the restaurant owner,] provided some of the biggest steaks I have ever seen for Ellington and his group. The steaks literally covered the plates, hanging over until they touched the table. After eating and performing, Ellington told me this was “the best gig he had ever had in the South.” (Jackson 68)

Given the context of segregation in the twentieth century, Ellington’s response acts as a bit of signifyin’, a backhanded compliment aimed at chastising Bennett, Clemson Agricultural College and the Jim Crow South for their participation in, and maintenance of, racism and segregation. Like Belafonte, Ellington capitalized from the commodification of Black culture—this time jazz—whilst also introducing a Black voice into a white space. Bennett notes, “When I turned in the bill to the College for the Duke Ellington show, it cost $3500. That was a lot of money in the 50s and I got some grief for it, but we got three shows for that price, and they were some of the finest performances ever at Clemson, in my opinion” (Jackson 69). By simply performing and having his shows recognized as “some of the finest performances ever at Clemson,” Ellington curated a Black resistance by forcing the voices of the marginalized to be recognized as both valid and beautiful in the eyes of the oppressor (Jackson 69).

Pushing Boundaries in the Jim Crow South

In Clemson, and by extension in the South, the very presence of these musicians marked a transition in how African Americans were allowed to navigate American society. As a result of this they symbolically became an embodiment of the interim period previously discussed and harbingers of the impending Civil Rights Movement. This is seen as early as the late nineteen thirties when Tom Stanley (CDA president in the late nineteen thirties), writes to Lunceford's booking agent, describing his uncertainty about bringing African American musicians to campus:

As you most probably know, we are always a bit shaky about having colored bands down here because of the feeling that exist[s] in the south. A feeling that came about long before you or I had a say-so or opinion. [It] is my belief that the student body will give LUNCEFORD a hearty welcome, because even though it is a colored band, it is one of the best, and that in my opinion is the thing that counts. [O]n many occasions I have dropped countless [nickels] in a “slot” to hear one of LUNCEFORD’S recordings when there were many others to choose from. I have made arrangements with the owner of the theatre here at Clemson, and he has offered to do this favor for me: If you will send me a list of the concerns with which LUNCEFORD has made movie shorts or any type of screen picture, I will give him the address, and he will bring them to Clemson. In this way we can show our student body just what they are getting in JIMMY LUNCEFORD[‘S] BAND. (Tom Stanley)

Simply by appearing on the campus Lunceford is pushing against the constraints of racial discrimination and is forcing the university to accommodate him. Jackson describes a similar scene when, sometime “in the late 1950s or early 1960s,” the football team invited Ray Charles to campus (77). Jackson writes that upon learning Charles’s race, legendary Tiger coach Frank Howard remarked, “We can’t have a black man play at a Clemson event” (77). However, after much coaxing from his players, Jackson notes, “Howard was so moved by the team’s insistence, he made arrangements to rent a club in Anderson, SC that allowed blacks and whites to mix in a social setting” (77). In this Charles, like Lunceford, forced the university to accommodate him and to recognize the validity of his voice whilst also forcing decision makers to renege, at least temporarily, on their segregationist attitudes.

Black Musicians During Desegregation

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in the early nineteen sixties, when the college and the country were going through a period of great transition, an influx of African American musicians was seen in Upstate South Carolina—particularly at Clemson Agricultural College. The rise of Black bodies at the predominantly white space coincided with the 1963 decision to allow Harvey Gantt to integrate, or rather desegregate, the school. Jackson notes “that when Brook Benton performed at a private party on the Clemson campus in 1964 he asked if he could meet […] Gantt,” thusly identifying that his presence went beyond just performing (29). Other notable musicians performing at the college around the time were Clyde McPhatter and the Midnighters (“Taps (1964)” 75), Ray Charles (“Taps (1963)" 78), Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs (“Taps (1963)" 79), the Shirelles (“Taps (1963)" 75), the Olympics ("Taps (1962)" 67), Hank Ballard ("Taps (1962)" 38), Smokey Robinson (“Taps (1967)” 91), the Temptations (“Taps (1966)” 83), Ben E. King and Sam Cooke (Taps (1965)” 82). In fact, the very same year that Cooke would perform at Clemson’s Homecoming (1964) he would release “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song that quickly became an anthem for civil rights (“Sam Cooke And The Song That ‘Almost Scared Him’”). This transitory period climaxed in seeing the first female students enroll in Clemson by 1955, and seeing the school formally being renamed Clemson University in 1964 to reflect its expanded academic offerings (“History Timeline”). The fact that all of this occurred in the midst of a period of great Black artistic expression goes beyond coincidence and instead points to the fact that the greater culture these musicians represented participated actively in and was ultimately responsible for its own liberation.

Clemson as Battlefield for Artistic Resistance

By recognizing the musicians that toured around Clemson, South Carolina in the mid-twentieth century as connecting the artistic expression of the Harlem and Chicago Black Renaissances with the civil and political resistance of the Civil Rights Movement, the interim period separating the two can no longer be understood as a time of Black inaction and rather simply becomes an extension  of the resistance that had been fomented against racial oppression since the nadir. Clemson Agricultural College, as a space synonymous with the practices and ideologies of the Jim Crow South, became a metaphorical battlefield emblematic of a struggle much larger than itself wherein African Americans, artists and citizens alike, were forcing their voices and opinions into a realm where they had never been welcomed before. This is significant for the history of the university because it demonstrates just how important the voices of Blacks were in shaping the culture and trajectory of the school.

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