Reckoning with Jim Crow

Cavalier Daily: Sullivan announces commission focused on UVa’s history with racial segregation. Clearly President Sullivan isn’t completely playing the lame duck. I am grateful that the University of Virginia continues its commitment to exploring its original sins, and recognizes that those don’t stop with slavery. Other notes in UVA Today.

While the reckoning is long overdue at UVa, it’s worth noting that it isn’t the only university coming to grips with its history in this regard, and may even be ahead of some of its northern colleagues. As an MIT alum, I got an email from the president of the institute yesterday discussing MIT founder (and former UVA professor) George Barton Rogers’s slave-owning history, which is discussed in a Boston Globe article today. The fact that L. Rafael Reif could say “Quite frankly, it was shocking to me” and that he is still “reeling” simply means he, and the Institute, haven’t been paying attention.

The Virginia Glee Club in World War II, part 2

This is a continuation of a post from earlier this week.

I’ve finished an index of Virginia Glee Club members who gave their lives in World War II. Here are a few more stories:

Mason Williams was shot down over Munich at the end of 1944.

John McCown died fighting in the mountains near Florence and is buried there.

John Gordon died serving in the cavalry in Europe.

Moss Plunkett was killed in action in New Guinea in 1943.

Louis Smith died two months before V-J Day, somewhere in the Pacific Theatre.

Alfred Marshall Luttrell, like Robert Gamble and Edmund Van Valkenburg, was killed in action, though we know nothing further about his death. 

In addition to the casualties, a further ninety-eight Glee Club alumni are known to have served in the war.


The Virginia Glee Club in World War II, part 1

Rotunda memorial tablet for UVA students killed in World War II. Photo courtesy Andrew Breen

As part of my ongoing work on the history of the Virginia Glee Club, I started researching the lives of Club members who became casualties of World War II. With some help from fellow fossil Andrew Breen, who thoughtfully photographed the Rotunda memorial tablet for me, I’ve been able to fill in a few additional names of Glee Club alums who gave their lives in service. This work is ongoing; I have no doubt I’ll find more than the seven I’ve found thus far.

It’s fascinating to me to learn about the particulars of the heroism of these young men. Of the seven I know about so far, five died in action overseas, but two died in accidents in training or at Stateside bases. One, Edwin Robson Nelson, died a prisoner aboard a Japanese ship in the Philippines. Another, Bruce H. Bode, suffered engine failure in his small plane while taking off in France, and changed course to avoid crashing into a backyard occupied by children playing, knowing that he would destabilize his aircraft and almost certainly die as a result. William Noland Berkeley Jr. landed in France six weeks after D-Day and was killed in action in an ambush a month later. Robert Gamble and Edmund Van Valkenburg were killed in action, though we know nothing further about their deaths. Ralph Chandler‘s plane disappeared while on a flight to the USMC base at El Toro, California, and Fielding Mercer died while Stateside in Pensacola, Florida.

The variety of ways in which young men gave their lives to save their country during this war is both inspiring and daunting. I’ll post more information as I get it.

Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (part 2)

(This is Part 2 of the story of how I got my hands on a copy of the 1943 radio transcription record of the first performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom. Read Part 1 for context about the recording.)

Finding the record on eBay was a heady, exciting moment, tempered by two things: it wasn’t complete, and I wasn’t alone.

I have learned over the years that, while they don’t draw hundreds of bidders, works of history from the University are of enough interest to a small number of collectors that bidding can be competitive. I knew that I could probably win the auction if I paid enough attention—though I’ve lost my fair share of items, I’ve won more than I lost, thanks to a sixteen-year-old paper by one of my grad school professors. I knew that there was at least one other bidder, so I set an alarm for the last day of the auction and waited.

The completeness point was a little more concerning. The available information about the recording indicated that it was a three-record set (not uncommon in the days before 33 1/3 RPM records), but this was only one record. Thankfully, the photo of the label indicated that it was the last movement, easily my favorite of the four. Though Thompson’s setting of Jefferson’s text still plods in places (like any time the word despotism is sung), there is a note of real challenge to the opening words “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…”

The day of the auction arrived and I won, despite a flurry of bids earlier in the day. (The odds are good that the other bidder is reading this; sorry and better luck next time!) Now I just had to get the record. And here Fate intervened and made me wait.

The auction ended New Years Eve, one of a series of bitterly cold days with highs in the single digits. The next day the seller contacted me to tell me that he would mail the package a day later, since it was so cold his truck wouldn’t start. I could sympathize, having had to jump-start my own car so that I could take it to the garage to get a new battery. So I waited and watched as the package was shipped—two days before a huge storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on Lexington, Massachusetts.

Perhaps because of the storm, the package took a … circuitous route from New Hampshire to Lexington:

But it finally arrived earlier this week, and to my delight, while the original sleeve was in poor shape (the seller thoughtfully put the record in a new sleeve), the record looked like it was pretty good. Now all I had to do was to listen to it.

Here we had a small snag: my otherwise-wonderful Denon DP-45F turntable has no 78RPM setting. But I was going to digitize the record anyway. So I played it back at 45RPM, and then (as I noted earlier this week) used Amadeus Pro to speed up the playback by 173.3% (78/45). I tried noise reduction but didn’t like what it did to the tone of Thompson’s piano, so I left it alone.

Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. Listening to Thompson’s solo piano introduction to the movement, one is reminded of the historical moment in which the work was written. This was April 1943, more than two years into World War II, and many of the young men singing the work were painfully aware that Jefferson’s words about dying with light and liberty on the advance were not going to be hypothetical for them. The following vocal entrance is appropriately hushed, and the Glee Club declaims Jefferson’s text with clarity and good pitch. The reintroduction of the first-movement “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is not strident (as in the 1945 BSO/Harvard Glee Club performance) but nuanced—perhaps because the Virginia men only had to be heard above a piano, not a full orchestra. Only the final chord shows vocal strain in the high tenors.

And here it is! As noted above, the only manipulation was speeding up the playback to restore normal speed, and to join the two halves of the recording into one—which fortunately was pretty straightforward. Enjoy!

Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (Part 1)

Concert program from the 1943 premiere of Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom

Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, University of Virginia president John Newcomb commissioned a new work from the head of the music division (not yet the McIntire Department of Music), composer and professor Randall Thompson, to commemorate the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, which would be celebrated April 13, 1943. Thompson looked for appropriate texts for the occasion and found them in Jefferson’s own letters.

In January 1943, Thompson had taken over the directorship of the Virginia Glee Club as Harry Rogers Pratt stepped down to focus on the war effort. The Glee Club provided, presumably, a solution to a significant challenge: how to mount the forces for a concert with a student body that was perpetually being shipped off to war. The Glee Club, while reduced greatly by the war effort (the 1942-1943 group officially numbered 45, down from 130 in 1940-1941), at least still performed. And Thompson knew them, having conducted them in his “Tarantella” the preceding spring. Accordingly Thompson composed the new work for men’s chorus and piano.

The actual concert was held on Founder’s Day and featured “music proved to have been owned or known by him,” according to the program notes from the concert. Significantly, the concert was broadcast nationwide on the Columbia Broadcasting System, and was recorded for later playback over the Armed Forces shortwave in Europe. It was a hit; Thompson’s obituaries noted it as his best-known work, and it was used in 1945 by Serge Koussevitzky (with the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Glee Club) to mark the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I have long known that copies of the recording existed—in fact, a few years ago I found mention in a contemporary issue of College Topics, the precursor to the Cavalier Daily, that the Glee Club  was privately selling “records … being made by Columbia Recording Corporation” that featured “reproduction of the first performance of [The Testament of Freedom] last April 13 with Stephen D. Tuttle conducting and the composer at the piano.” I figured I would have to go to the University to hear its archival copy.

And then I checked eBay, as I’m wont to do, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the listing:

“1943 Randall Thompson/Univ. of Virginia Glee Club Testament of Freedom 78”

I couldn’t let it go. I had to be able to listen to it.

Tomorrow: getting, and listening to, the record.

Reasons to shop at the UVa Bookstore

UVA Today: The Gift That Keeps Giving: Bookstore Donates Annual Surplus to Students in Need. When your non-profit is running almost a half million surplus every year, where can applying that money have the most impact? If you’re the UVA Bookstore, the answer is taking the entire profit and donating it to Access UVA, which allows kids from disadvantaged economic backgrounds to attend the University of Virginia.

I’ll be doing more shopping there, knowing this.

Removing the Confederate plaques on the Rotunda

Rotunda memorial plaques, courtesy Richard Dizon, Cavalier Daily

On Friday, the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia voted to remove a pair of bronze memorial plaques listing the UVA students who were killed fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Early Saturday morning, workers removed the plaques. Per the BOV resolution, the plaques will be “moved to a location at the University where they can be viewed as artifacts.”

The tablets in question were installed on the Rotunda in the early 1900s—the CD says “1903” but Philip Alexander Bruce says they were installed and dedicated by UVa’s first president, Edwin Alderman, in 1906, as a gift of the Confederate Memorial Association and the Albemarle Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. (Note that the Glee Club raised funds for the Confederate Memorial Association in 1890.)

The actions over the weekend are a direct outcome from the events that happened in Charlottesville over August 11–13, in which torch bearing neo-Nazis marched through Grounds shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Passing up into Grounds from the Bookstore and presumably passing the student center at Newcomb Hall on their way up the Lawn, they came around the Rotunda, which bore these plaques on its south side, and surrounded a group of 25 counter-protesting students at Moses Ezekiel’s statue of Thomas Jefferson. They jeered and chanted at the students, and then they threw kerosene and lit torches at them.

Tyler Magill, who was in the Glee Club with me in the early 1990s and who I count as a friend, had joined the students by this time. He was struck by a torch on the side of his neck, which eventually led, a few days later, to his suffering a stroke.

More horrors happened over the weekend, including 20 year old James Alex Fields driving his car through a crowd of protesters, deliberately murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many others.

I have been trying to write my feelings about what happened that horrific weekend for over a month, and have not been able to. Among other reasons, it feels as though once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.

But part of it is that today’s liberal Charlottesville sits atop a veritable Indian burial ground of undercurrents of racism and secession. This is, after all, the school where the Jefferson Society debated, on January 14th, 1860, whether a state had the right to secede from the Union (the conclusion was affirmative), and where the Washington Society decided in a November 1860 debate that the Southern States should secede; where students flew the flag of the Confederacy atop the Rotunda in February 1861. And it was also the school that was built with slave labor and that ran on the efforts of enslaved workers, and that was founded by a United States President who wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” but who held both a peculiar definition of “all” and over 100 slaves.

So it is that Charlottesville seems a seat of that original sin of our country, and that our past is now coming home to roost.

The University’s actions to remove the names of those who fought to uphold slavery from its most central, symbolic building are a good start. I think the decision to display the memorials elsewhere is a good way to resolve the tension I have felt about removing public Confederate symbols. I don’t want us to forget our historic complicity in injustice and violence, but I also don’t want those reminders to continue their mission of oppression.