Yesterday’s post on the Cabell House is a fiber in an ongoing thread of an investigation to understand the earliest members who took part in the Virginia Glee Club. We know from the January 1871 issue of the Virginia University Magazine that “those gentlemen rooming at the Cabell House, and in that neighborhood, have made great efforts, and we understand tolerably successful ones, to form a Glee Club.” We seek now to understand who “those gentlemen” are.
More fools, we. As one digs deeper into the history of the house, one turns up a handful (only) of references to it in official University and Charlottesville publications. One of those identified a Miss Pattie J. Daffan as the proprietor of the Cabell House. Another publication placed her as the proprietor of a boarding house at 852 West Main Street, only a block from where the Cabell House was supposed to be. It seems pretty clear that this was the actual address of the Cabell House.
Why, one may ask, is this exciting? Well, partly because it’s important to know where to pay homage to our as-yet-unknown founding fathers. But also because the property between 9th and 10th on West Main Street is a Hampton Inn, but the property at 852 West Main Street is World of Beer (as well as apartments). Surely a World of Beer is a better location for our Glee Club than a motel.
One of the most beloved traditions of the Virginia Glee Club is its mascot, the pink lawn flamingo affectionately named Wafna. She has been a tradition for “living memory,” meaning since before I was a member from 1990 to 1994. But how did such a rare and unusual bird become the mascot of a 145-year-old men’s chorus? The answer, surprisingly, is a little shrouded in mystery.
…et qui mane me quaesierit in taberna
post vesperam nudus egredietur,
et sic denudatus veste clamabit:
Wafna, wafna! quid fecisti, Sors turpissima?
nostrae vitae gaudia
But how did the name get to be attached to a pink lawn flamingo? And when? The “why” is probably the association of the members of the Glee Club with naked drinking in taverns.
As to when: on March 1, 1987, the Glee Club performed Orff’s Carmina Burana together with the University Singers, the Virginia Women’s Chorus, and the Charlottesville University and Community Symphony Orchestra. By the fall of 1987, there was a pink flamingo named Wafna who hung out at 5 West Lawn. Who acquired the flamingo and who did the naming are lost to history, but it seems pretty certain to have happened between those dates.
What is not lost is Wafna’s continued role in Glee Club lore. Her most dramatic moment was the colonization of the Lawn with more than a dozen Wafna-alikes a few years ago, but she also lives on in tour tshirts (like the one at the top), cocktail glasses, bottle openers, and of course as a pink lawn flamingo, who appeared at events at the 145th anniversary reunion weekend to lift our spirits.
On Saturday afternoon, we were wrapping up a tour of Virginia Glee Club archives in the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. I had just taken about 50 alums, friends, conductors and family through the items, which I knew quite well having reviewed all of them—and donated some of them myself. We had also just ceremonially donated former Glee Club director Donald Loach‘s collection of concert programs to the library, and I was feeling pretty good about myself as a historian.
Then an alum asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. “Do you know who the first African-American member of Club was?”
After a pause, I replied, “No, but we should.”
The Virginia Glee Club is part of the larger story of the University of Virginia, and that story includes discrimination against African-Americans. It wasn’t until 1950 that Gregory Swanson, a graduate of Howard Law School, applied to take graduate courses at the University of Virginia, was denied admission, sued and won, becoming the first black student at the University—only to drop out in the summer of 1951. The University’s president, Colgate Darden, said he “was not well prepared for the work.” In the early 1950s two other African Americans followed in Swanson’s footsteps, and Walter N. Ridley became the first black student not only to gain a degree at the University but also the first black student to receive a doctorate from any Southern university.
It took the undergraduate schools a few more years, but in September 1955, following on the heels of the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision, three black students matriculated in the engineering school. Theodore Thomas and George Harris dropped out by the following spring, but Robert Bland continued on and was the first African-American undergraduate to graduate from the University in 1959, nine full years after the struggle for integration started. Also at the end of the fifties, Edgar F. Shannon took over as University president, and that’s when things started to get rolling.
I knew that the first black Glee Club member had to have joined sometime after 1959. I knew the story of David L. Temple, Jr., class of 1969, who was a member of Club from 1967 to 1969 and desegregated the fraternity system at the University, but I believed the first African-American member of Glee Club came earlier.
My second thought was that he would have joined during Don Loach’s first season as conductor, 1964-65. There’s a story in our archives that the Glee Club went on tour that fall, only to have their bus refused service in a truck stop on Route 29. After the tour, Loach raised the issue with President Shannon, and subsequently the truck stops got integrated. It’s a great story, and I assumed that this young man (whose name I’m still working on identifying; I have a bunch more candidates to work through with yearbook pictures) was the first student. (Update: I was closer than I thought. See below.) But as I was flipping through the 1965 yearbook, I found a picture of one of the graduating students of the Class of 1965 and knew we had found our candidate.
In 1961-1962, the group picture of the Glee Club for the first time has a black face. (That’s the picture up above.) The young man standing on the second row to the left side of the stage of Old Cabell Hall is Edwin S. Williams, of Smithfield. He stayed in the Glee Club for two seasons—as did most members, since it could only be taken as a graded course for two years—and completed his BA in chemistry, graduating with the class of 1965. And I believe, based on the evidence I have so far, that he was the first African-American member of the Virginia Glee Club.
There’s certainly more of his story to be told, and I will continue to look for more information. But one of my first questions is: if the truck stops on Rt 29 were first integrated in 1964-65, what did Williams do when the Glee Club got on a bus in 1961-62? I think we have a lot more to learn, but I’m glad we’ve taken the first step.
Update April 28: Donald Loach filled in the missing pieces by confirming that Edwin S. Williams was still in Glee Club in 1964-1965—was the baritone section leader, in fact—and was the Club man not served at the truck stop. So the stories are connected! And we need to fix our roster information.
As I celebrate the appointment of a fellow Glee Club alum to the bench of the fifth judicial district in Virginia, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the company he joins of fossils who’ve been judges.
John W.G. Blackstone (1879–1880 season). Blackstone (1858–1911) was one of the more notable politicians of the 1879–1880 class (Wilson aside), serving in the Virginia State Senate from 1884 to 1896 when he was appointed the county judge for Accomac and serving as a judge on the Eighth and Eleventh Judicial Circuits until his retirement in 1908.
Oliver Whitehead Catchings (1891–1892 season). At Virginia, he was a law student, captain and quarterback of the football team, member of Phi Kappa Psi, the Z Society and Eli Banana, and editor of both Corks and Curls and College Topics. He completed law school at Virginia and practiced law in Washington, DC while his father, Thomas Clendinen Catchings, was in Congress, then returned with his father to Vicksburg to establish the practice of Catchings & Catchings. He was appointed judge of the 9th Mississippi District in 1905, and died unexpectedly of heart disease in 1916.
Duncan Lawrence Groner (between 1894 and 1896). As Wikipedia records, Groner served as a judge of the Eastern District of Virginia and as chief justice for the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, as well as serving six years in the United States Senate for Virginia.
George Latham Fletcher(seasons between 1895 and 1898, music director 1897–1898). A member of the Z Society and Eli Banana, he practiced law, served as judge of the 28th Judicial Circuit of Virginia in Warrenton, and served two terms as a state senator. Possibly the most memorable case over which he presided as judge was the divorce of future Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson from her first husband, in 1927.
Frederick Garner Duval (1905–1906 season). A member of T.I.L.K.A. and the dramatic troupe the Arcadians while at Virginia, Duval was an attorney in Alexandria and later became civil police justice there.
Sheffey Lewis Devier (1917–1918 season). Devier practiced law in Harrisonburg, and served as both a justice of the peace and judge of the juvenile and domestic relations court for Rockingham County. He later served a term as mayor of Harrisonburg.
Absalom Nelson Waller (from 1922 to 1925). Vice president of the Glee Club, he served as a county judge in Spotsylvania County for 32 years.
Robert Fitzgerald (1939–1940 season). An engineering student at Virginia, he served in the US Marine Corps during World War II at the Pacific front and and was discharged a second lieutenant. He practiced law in Falls Church, was appointed a trial judge in Fairfax County, and was later elected to the Virginia Senate.
Charles Stevens Russell(from 1945 to 1948). A Raven, he was appointed to the Seventeenth Judicial Court of Virginia in 1962, and served there until he joined the Virginia Supreme Court in 1982, retiring in 1991.
Edward Earle Zehmer (from 1949 to 1951). Another Marine, Zehmer practiced law for 23 years before his appointment to the First District Court of Appeal in Florida in 1983.
There are probably other still-living Glee Club fossils who sit on the bench, but those are the ones we know of for now. So my friend is in very good company!
Members and alumni of the Virginia Glee Club have contributed many things to the University, from musical theater to classical performances to “The Good Old Song.” But until this weekend I didn’t know that they had also contributed a piece of the University’s facilities.
I read through the 1905 edition of Corks and Curls in the San Francisco airport Friday morning. (I know, I know: the high life.) I found a page on the 1904-1905 Glee Club that I had previously missed. It listed two Humes, Howard and John, as among the officers of the combined Glee and Mandolin Clubs. Over the weekend I did some research on them.
Howard Hume, it turns out, was quite the adventurer. A physician, he got an officers’ commission in the Army Reserves in 1913 and went to Europe as a surgeon attached to the British Army during World War I. He was head of surgery and later head of the hospital at a series of camps, forts and other army posts for the next few years, even spending a few years on Corregidor in the 1930s. He continued to serve in Army hospitals across the American south in his early 60s during World War II.
John and Howard were the sons of Frank Hume, Civil War veteran and noted producer of whiskey in Alexandria at the turn of the century. And apparently John was the major donor for the fountain and wall—the Hume Memorial Fountain, with its whispering wall—that once sat in front of Monroe Hall and now is at the end of Newcomb Plaza.
So Glee Club alumni have contributed not only song, but also physical monuments to the University.