“Lift Every Voice and Sing” & Augusta Savage’s “The Harp”

The Harp by Augusta Savage, displayed at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City

The Harp by Augusta Savage, displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City

Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a song first written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).  It was Weldon’s brother John Rosamond Johnson who set the poem to music.  The poem was first spoken aloud by several hundred schoolchildren on February 12th, 1900, at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where James Johnson was principal. The recital of the new poem was meant to honour both visiting guest Booker T. Washington – and Abraham Lincoln, whose birth date fell on the same day.

.     .     .

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into The Light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee;
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

.     .     .

Augusta Savage with one of her sculptures_around 1938

Augusta Savage (1892-1962), a Florida sculptor (born near Jacksonville) who grew artistically / worked in New York City during The Harlem Renaissance, was commissioned in 1939 to do a monumental plaster work for the New York World’s Fair. “The Harp” was strongly influenced by James Weldon Johnson’s poem Lift Every Voice and Sing”The 16-foot tall piece was exhibited outside the Contemporary Arts building where it received much acclaim.  The sculpture depicted twelve stylized Black singers of graduated heights that symbolized the strings of the harp.  The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding music represented the foot pedal.  No funds were made available to cast “The Harp” in permanent bronze, nor were there any facilities to store it.  After the World’s Fair was over, “The Harp” was demolished, like most of the event’s art.

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Hale Woodruff’s “Afro Emblems” and Ashanti Gold Weights

Afro Emblems by Hale Woodruff_1950_oil on linen_18 X 22 inches

Afro Emblems by Hale Woodruff_1950_oil on linen_18 X 22 inches

Hale Aspacio Woodruff (Cairo, Illinois, USA, 1900-1980) first grew interested in African art in the 1920s, when an art dealer gave him a German book on the subject. He couldn’t read the text but appreciated studying the pictures; on a trip to Europe some years later he bought African sculpture for his own personal inspiration. For Afro Emblems”, Woodruff divided his canvas into rough rectangles, filling each shape with an emblem inspired by Ashanti or Akan gold weights. [ See paragraph below. ]  Woodruff’s bold black outlines and dashes of colour stand out from the blue background, creating an abstract African-influenced pattern.

Ashanti gold-dust weights made of brass_19th century

Ashanti gold-dust weights made of brass_19th century

Ashanti or Akan Gold Weights


Natural gold resources in the dense forests of southern Ghana brought wealth and influence to the Ashanti (Asante) people. Wealth increased by transporting gold to North Africa via trade routes across the Sahara Desert. In the 15th and 16th centuries this gold attracted other traders, from the great Songhay Empire (in today’s Republic of Mali), from the Hausa cities of northern Nigeria and from Europe. European interest in the region, initially in gold and then in enslaved Africans, brought about great changes, not least the creation of the British Gold Coast Colony in the 19th century. (In 1959, this “Colony” de-Colonized, becoming the modern West-African nation of Ghana.)


Asante State had grown out of a group of smaller states to become a centralized hierarchical kingdom. By the early 1700s the Asante State’s increased power meant it was able to displace the former dominant state, Denkyira, which had, through conquest, controlled major trade routes to the Atlantic coast as well as some of the richest gold mines. Once the Asante became dominant in this region, both gold and slaves passed through its state capital, Kumasi.

Gold was central to Asante art and belief. Gold entered the Asante court via tribute or war and was fashioned into jewellery and ceremonial objects there by artisans from conquered territories. The court’s power was further demonstrated through its regulation of the regional gold trade. Everyone involved in trade and commerce owned, or had access to, a set of weights and scales. The weights, produced in brass, bronze or copper (usually by the ‘lost wax’ process), corresponded to a standardized weight system derived from North African / Islamic, Dutch and Portuguese precedents. Since each weight had a known measurement, merchants too employed them for secure, fair-trade arrangements with one another. Other gold-trade equipment included shovels for scooping up gold dust, spoons for lifting gold dust from the shovel and putting it on the scales and boxes for storing gold dust.

.     .     .

Mongo Santamaría and his ritmo sabroso: Africa aslant yet Africa strong

.     .     .

A Quinto drum

A Quinto drum

The Quinto is the lead drum (tumbadora in Cuba, conga elsewhere) used in the various forms of Afro-Cuban Rumba.   It is also the smallest of the three.  These drums of Cuban slave-hybridized Bantu-Congolese / Lucumi-Yoruba origin – are tall (though the Quinto may be only one foot tall), narrow, and single-headed. The Cuban version of such tumbadoras is staved, like a barrel;  it may have originated from salvaged barrels at one time.   Rumba-quinto master and Latin-Jazz percussionist Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez (Havana, Cuba, 1922 – February 1st, 2003) demonstrated his creative skill on the Quinto in the classic 1959 recording Mazacote (“Sweet hodgepodge”):


To read “I Want to Be a Drum” by Mozambican poet José Craveirinha click the link below:


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Wilson Pickett: Engine Number 9

Wilson Pickett_Engine No. 9_recorded in 1970

Wilson Pickett in the recording studio_early 1970s

Wilson Pickett in 1972

Wilson Pickett (1941-2006) was born in Alabama into a family of many kids, and a father who was working up in Detroit, Michigan. In an interview in later years Pickett described his mother during his childhood: “She was the baddest woman – in my book. I get scared of her even now. She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood… One time I ran away and cried for a week. Stayed in the woods, me and my little dog.” When he was fourteen he headed up to Detroit and lived with his father. It was then that he seriously began to sing in church ensembles that toured around; one of them, The Violinaires, helped him to really hone his singing skills. Gospel singers were beginning to “cross over” into the secular music market and this transition led the way to what would come to be known as Soul music. The Falcons, with Eddie Floyd, were at the forefront of this evolution, and Pickett joined the group at the age of 18 in 1959. His first songwriting began, with “I Found a Love”. “If You Need Me” and “It’s Too Late” would follow – but the latter two he recorded solo – commencing a career under his own name.  James Brown is undisputably Soul’s Number 1 Man, but if you listen to Pickett and Brown, Pickett’s voice is undeniably more interesting:  complex; capable of bird-like shrieks and astonishing wails;  hoarse from crying? shouting? at Love gone wrong or Love going oh so good.   James Brown had the crazy looks and stage personality, but Pickett’s voice is richer, takes more chances, and makes the weirdest deep-from-within sounds.


Listen to Wilson Pickett in this 1970 recording of Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff’s “Engine Number 9”. The instrumental sound is a hybrid of Blues and Rock.  And Pickett’s voice is all Soul:

.     .     .

“Engine, Engine number 9”

(words and music by Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff / Owws and Uhs by The Wicked Pickett!)


Engine, engine, number 9:
Can you get me back on time?
Move on, move on down the track,
Keep that steam comin´ out your stack.
Huh! Keep on movin´,
Keep on movin´, keep on movin´…
Oww! Uh!
Engine, engine, number 9:
Keep on movin´ down the line.
Seems like I been gone for days,
I can´t wait to see my baby´s face.
Look-a-here:  Been so long since I held her,
Been so long since I held her…
Been so long since I held her,
Been so long since I kissed her…

Engine, engine, number 9:
Move on, move on down the line.
Seems like I been gone for days,
I can´t wait to see my baby´s face.
Move on, move on, woaaah, move on!
Owwwww! Gotta git there…
[ Oh, this is soundin’ alright…

I think I’m gonna hold it a little bit longer,

I’m gonna let the boys “cook” this a little bit… ]


.     .     .     .     .

Johnny Hartman: the great yet little known song stylist

Johnny Hartman

Johnny Hartman (born John Maurice Hartman), 1923-1983, was from Louisiana but grew up in Chicago. Imagine the best qualities of Frank Sinatra’s voice from the 1940s and 1950s – tender and thoughtful, or manly with confidence – and you’ll have an idea of Hartman’s voice.  Now: lower that voice to a baritone-bass – and you’ve got Hartman.  Like Sinatra, he had a homely face and a great voice – but Hartman’s interpretive skills with a ballad were more sensitive – were finer – than Sinatra’s.


Contemporary singer Gregory Generet has written of Hartman: “ [He] was a master of emotional expression, putting everything he had into every word he sang. His rich, masculine baritone voice never wavered in its sincerity. The only vocalist ever to record with John Coltrane, he was mostly known only to true jazz lovers during his glorious career.” Generet’s correct when he writes “glorious”; he’s also correct when he writes “mostly known only to true jazz lovers.” Hartman’s performances on record are “glorious” and he was always too little known by the general public, and is by now all but eclipsed in the Internet-era that is the 21st century, where History is 10 years ago.

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Cole Porter (1891-1964)

“Down in the Depths on the 90th floor” (1936)


Manhattan, I’m up a tree,
The one I’ve most adored
Is bored
With me.
Manhattan, I’m awfully nice,
Nice people dine with me,
And sometimes twice.
Yet the only one in the world I’m mad about
Talks of somebody else

– And walks out.
With a million neon rainbows burning below me
And a million noisy taxis raising a roar,
Here I stand above the town
Drinking champagne with a frown,
Down in the depths on the ninetieth floor.

And the crowds in all the nightclubs punish the parquet
And the couples at the bar clamour for more.
I’m deserted and depressed
In my regal eagle’s nest,
Down in the depths on the ninetieth floor.

When the only one you want wants another,
What’s the good of swank and cash in the bank galore?
Why, my janitor and his wife,
They have a perfectly good love life;
And here am I,
Facing tomorrow,
Alone in my sorrow

– Down in the depths on the ninetieth floor!

.     .     .

Listen to this 1955 recording of Johnny Hartman singing “Down in the Depths (on the 90th floor)”:

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Black History Month: Favourite Albums: 1933 –1983

February 2014_Snowed In...Time to listen to some great albums!

Though Zócalo Poets is a poetry site – mainly – we are unable to resist the urge to post a Favourites list. Not a list of poems but of musical recordings; some of these are Songs, and, therefore, related to Poetry in its origins…What’s not to love about such an undertaking?!

Our Favourite Albums list for Black History Month 2014 is by no means definitive, for Music, like Poetry, is a limitless lifetime’s discovery. But here at least are some “snowed-in” Bests for February in Toronto…

.     .     .

Art Tatum (1909-1956) was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the twentieth century. His musical aptitude didn’t emerge from nowhere, however; his father Arthur and his mother Mildred were a guitarist and pianist together at Grace Presbyterian Church in Toledo, Ohio. From early childhood, Art Tatum’s perfect pitch and ability to play by ear got him a head start; he would come to touch the piano keyboard as if it were merely an extension of his fingertips. His main influences were James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines. But Tatum goes beyond them all – great though they were. His first piano recordings, both from 1933, are breathtaking in their sophistication, ease, sensitivity, and light touch: “Tiger Rag” and “Tea for Two”.

Art Tatum_Tiger Rag_1933

Since there is no one album for Billie Holiday in the 1930s – generally there were only individual 78 rpm records with one song per side during that era – we have chosen her 1938 recording of Ray Noble’s “You’re So Desirable”. The 23-year-old Holiday sings it just right. And it was during this period – her early years – that she did her best singing. She was billed as the vocalist for various popular orchestras of the day – and was among the first singers to become more of a draw in performance than the band itself. From the time she was 18 and made her first recorded song – “My Mother’s Son-in-law”(1933), and clear through till the end of the decade, in songs such as “Travelin’ All Alone”(1937) and “On the Sentimental Side”(1938), Billie sang in her own new way – cheerful, spritely, yet also kind of lost: dreamy and sad – and often about a quarter-beat behind the band’s beat.

Billie Holiday_1938 recording of You're So Desirable

Paul Robeson recorded “Trees”, a song adaptation of a terrifically popular 1913 poem by Joyce Kilmer, in 1938 when he was 40 years old. Robeson’s voice was the deepest – yet full of nuanced feeling for all its bass ballast. A magnificent singer.

And take a few minutes to research his ambitious and complicated life. Robeson was a man of integrity; he really put his money where his mouth was – and paid the price.

Paul Robeson_1938 78 rpm recording of Trees_with Songs my mother taught me on the flip side

Mongo Santamaría‘s 1959 album “Mongo”. Santamaría was a Cuban conga player, primarily handling the “quinto” drum which voices the lead in a percussion ensemble. Afro-Blue and Mazacote (“Sweet Hodgepodge”) are hypnotic tracks.

Mongo_the self-titled 1959 album by Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria_featuring AfroBlue and Mazacote

Nancy Wilson was 24 years old when she sang on this 1961 record, backed by George Shearing. To hear her sing “On Green Dolphin Street” is to hear young-smart-&-sophisticated. But in all that she sang from the 1960s – the pop standards, too – Wilson’s unique sound included a vocal clarity and precision unlike any other singer. The Song-Stylist to match!

The George Shearing Quintet with vocalist Nancy Wilson_The Swinging's Mutual_1960_1961

Jackie Washington – born Juan Cándido Washington y Landrón in Puerto Rico but raised in Boston – was mainly known on the folk-music scene. He sang in English and in Spanish. This 1963 record includes “The Water is Wide” and “La Borinqueña”. A subtle and much under-rated singer.

Jackie Washington_folksinger_born 1938 as Juan Cándido Washington y Landrón in Puerto RIco_raised in Boston_1963 album

The John Coltrane Quartet recorded A Love Supreme in just one session, on December 9th, 1964. It is a four-part instrumental suite – complex jazz, both introspective and forthright. Personnel included: Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner.

John Coltrane_A Love Supreme_A four part jazz suite recorded in one take in December 1964

Wilson Pickett was one of the great R & B and Soul singers of the 1960s. And his earthy, rough and intense tone brings any lyric to life. The Exciting Wilson Pickett, from 1966, is 12 songs that play like jukebox Hits, many of them barely 2 and a half minutes long, and none more than 3 minutes. And how much time do you need anyway – when you’re the Wicked Pickett?

The Exciting Wilson Pickett_1966 album by one of the best R and B and Soul singers of the 1960s

When Aretha Franklin recorded her first song, the brisk and bluesy “Maybe I’m a Fool” at the age of 18 in 1960, it was the beginning of a decade of superior-quality popular music from a young woman who quickly became one of the masterful song Interpreters of the 1960s. On Lady Soul, from 1967-68, Aretha sings two songs that show off her voice in different moods – and she gets ’em both exactly Right-ON. The telling-it-like-it-is“Chain of Fools” and Carole King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” (Aretha’s version of this is the one.) The Lady Soul album included among the background vocalists Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Emma, and Whitney Houston’s mother, Cissy.

Aretha Franklin_Lady Soul album_1967_1968

Miles Davis was making a transition from acoustic jazz to electric sounds when he recorded Filles de Kilamanjaro in 1968. Personnel included: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock / Chick Corea, Ron Carter / Dave Holland, and Tony Williams. We far prefer this quirky album to the chilly perfection of Kind of Blue.

Miles Davis' 1968 album_Filles de Kilimanjaro_photograph of his wife Betty Mabry on the cover

1969’s Outta Season! is all classic Blues from Ike and Tina Turner, with the addition of the old Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. We agree with Nat Freedland’s appraisal of Tina Turner’s voice and presence from this period: “Tina is such a fine singer and such a superlative performer that any reaction less than adulation seems pointless.” (Billboard magazine, October 1971).

Ike and Tina Turner_1969 Outta Season! album of mostly classic Blues numbers, with Tina in perfect voice_This photo shows the album jacket's two sides folded open to show the inside picture.

Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway: In 1971-72 these two intensely-personal singers teamed up for an album that included soul, pop, and a powerful rendition of a 19th-century hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate”.

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway_1971_1972 album of duets

Al Green‘s 1972 album, I’m Still in Love with You: 35 minutes of exquisite Love Music. This was the Billboard chart #1 R.& B. album in December 1972, and Green’s pleading, confessional tone with a lyric makes you know why. Soul, Gospel, Pop, even a Country ‘feeling’ – all together as they rarely have been. “Love and Happiness”, “I’m Still in Love with You”, and “Look What You Done for Me” are standouts.

Al Green_I'm Still in Love with You_1972 album

It’s hard to top Al Green’s album mentioned above – but Hedzoleh Soundz, an early 1970s combo. group from Ghana – with West African traditional and pop/rock musicians weaving into an Afro-Jazz sound – plus South African Hugh Masekela‘s trumpet sewing it all up – somehow DOES!

Hedzoleh Soundz from Ghana_with trumpeter Hugh Masekela_1973

Bob Marley and The Wailers and the “I-Threes”, recorded live at The Lyceum in London, England, 1975. What can we say?  The standard setter for great first-generation Reggae.

Bob Marley and The Wailers and the I-Threes_1975 album recorded live at The Lyceum in London, England

Esther Phillips has one of the best voices in recorded popular music – it may be too good, in fact.  Her voice’s number 1 quality is Real-ness, and your ass’s been song’d by the time the needle leaves the groove. She was versatile, too – blues, jazz, country, pop – you name it, her voice held it all.  Her 1972 version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is the definitive version of that disturbing drug-addiction cri-de-coeur (Phillips died at the age of 48, in 1984, after three decades of chronic hard-drug use.)   If you can find a copy, listen to “All the Way Down” from the album pictured here, 1976’s Capricorn Princess.

Esther Phillips_1976 album Capricorn Princess

Evelyn “Champagne” King‘s debut album, Smooth Talk, was released in 1977. The 18 year old had been cleaning offices and producer T. Life overheard her singing. He coached the teenager and in no time she delivered perhaps the single best Disco song ever – “Shame”. 6 minutes and 37 seconds long, it was a group effort, of course; there were real horns, plus guitar, bass, a drummer, keyboards, clavinet, organ, and a half a dozen judiciously-placed background vocalists. But King was a singer who could sing – her voice has a rawness and delicacy all at once – in other words, real character. It’s instructive to listen to a song like “Shame” nowadays and, if you’re old enough, you’ll remember when such mid-tempo dance songs were commonplace and that the bass beat was rarely punchy or mixed too big and too far forward.  (Beware Remixes – such “pumped up” re-releases of quote-unquote Retro or Old-School dance numbers from a generation-or-more ago rob the songs of their integrity.) While many people made fun of Disco – even when it was “the trend” (approx.1976 – 1981) – it’s also true that too much of 21st-century Dance music (“Club” music) is pretty generic, features unmemorable voices, and requires a Video to make you believe you really Dig It. Are we showing our age here? Well, alright then.

Evelyn Champagne King_Smooth Talk_1977

Linda Clifford was given the full treatment for her 1979 Disco double-album, Let Me Be Your Woman: a cover portrait by Francesco Scavullo and an all-Woman centrefold (but classy!) when you flipped the jacket open. Clifford turns Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into the funky disco anthem it should always have been, complete with “talking drums”.  And “Don’t Give It Up” is 9 minutes of common-sense Rap – in its 1960s’ meaning: “keeping it real” and “having your say”. Clifford’s opening line: “Alright, Girls, come on now. We gonna have to git together and figure out what we gonna do with all these Men!”

Linda Clifford_a powerhouse disco singer_Let me be your woman_1979 double album

“Balafon” and “Maracatu Atômico” from 1979 are examples of sweet-voiced Gilberto Gil‘s playful melding of Afro-Brazilian themes and rhythms with pop music – something so typically Brazilian. Brazil has the most variety musically of all countries on the planet; its musical inventiveness and hybrid vigour are unparalleled.

Gilberto Gil_the sweet-voiced Brazilian singer's 1979 album Nightingale

Jorge Ben, like his countryman Gilberto Gil, is restlessly creative on this 1981 album of Brazilian pop…

Jorge Ben_Brazil_Bem-Vinda Amizade_1981

The Brothers Johnson‘s Blast! from 1982 contained the final great Disco track – “Stomp”. Yeah, it’s funky too, but make no mistake, this is Disco at its best, and a sexy, muscular last hurrah just as pop-music trends were veering off toward the self-conscious weirdness of New Wave.

Brothers Johnson_1982 album of disco and funk_featuring Stomp

The Pointer Sisters (Anita, June and Ruth) were a seasoned trio all in their thirties (fourth sister Bonnie struck out on her own in the late 1970s) by the time their 1983 album Break Out was released. Their strikingly-low alto voices combined with a synthesizer-dense instrumental made the song “Automatic” one of the quintessential 1980s tracks. The “12-inch” extended version of the song is an “Electro-Dance” classic of that decade. But it’s the Sisters’ rich, full vocals that really make the song.

Automatic by The Pointer Sisters_from their Grammy Award winning 1983 album Break Out

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“Make sparks”: an inspirational poem

ZP_Rodrigo Alvarez_Poesia Visual para Rosa Parks_2008

Make sparks”:  an inspirational poem


Best, Carrie;

Desmond, Viola;

Rosa Parks.

Two at The Movies;

One on The Bus;

Three for Justice.


Step upon step,

Day after day,

Choice by choice.

And what if You,

And what if I,

Lend our voices,

Look Wrong in its eye?


It’s hard to have guts

Yet do it we must

no ifs, ands, or buts –

Cry “Freedom!” and Aye

Trust in Our Common Future.

.     .     .

The illustration at the top is called “Poesía visual para Rosa Parks” by Rodrigo Alvarez. Alvarez uses musical symbols in ironic fashion. His equation means: one white half note does not equal two black quarter notes. Yet in musical notation half notes are white, and they do equal two black quarter notes. Alvarez has created a confusing “non-equation” to draw attention to untenable notions of racial segregation and inequality.

.     .     .     .    .

They stood up for their rights – by sitting down: Carrie Best and Viola Desmond

ZP_Canada postage stamp recognizing Carrie Best_February 2011ZP_Carrie Best_1903 to 2001

They stood up for their rights – by sitting down:   Carrie Best and Viola Desmond


Carrie Best (1903-2001) was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada. She was the daughter of James and Georgina Ashe Prevoe, and married Albert T. Best in 1925. Carrie founded Nova Scotia’s first Black-owned-and-published newspaper, The Clarion, in 1946. She featured a radio programme, The Quiet Corner, which aired from 1952 to 1964. She also wrote as a columnist for The Pictou Advocate newspaper from 1968 to 1975. Best was made a Member of The Order of Canada in 1974, and her image was issued on a Canadian postage stamp in February 2011.

. . .

Carrie Best was in her mid 70s when she published an autobiography entitled That Lonesome Road. For a woman who had a sure sense of her self and of her utmost worth – and who was a person of capital I Integrity – it is interesting to observe that she left out of her autobiographical record – and, indeed, in 2014 the Wikipedia entry for her does the same – an important personal event which matters a great deal to the history of human-rights progress in Canada. The reason for the omission can only be guessed at;  perhaps it was because the events she left undescribed took place in the town of her birth of which she was a good and loyal citizen – and that the personal hurt was very deep indeed. This is only surmise.


Racial segregation in Canada during the 1940s had no broad national legislation. While a “colour bar” could exist, and did exist, in various towns and cities throughout the country – be it at a restaurant, dance pavilion or swimming pool – yet there was no all-pervasive law. Indeed, sometimes it was practised as a kind of “social convention” or “tradition” with no legal binding to it.  Yet there were also no statutes in Canadian law that forbade racial segregation.  In New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, racial segregation was sometimes practised, informally, but it was introduced in a different and dramatic way in December of 1941. This may have been a response to the increasing social mobility of Black people; it could’ve been because of the fact that more “Negroes” – and these were locally-born New Glaswegians, as well – were stepping out to see the Picture Show…


Norman W. Mason was a sometime-mayor of New Glasgow and an impresario who ran the Roseland Theatre from its inception in 1913. In December of 1941 he gave new-seating policy instructions to his Roseland staff: to require that Negroes attending the Roseland’s films sit upstairs at the Balcony level instead of in the main-floor auditorium, known as Downstairs. When Carrie Best heard that several high-school-age Black girls had been forcibly removed from the Roseland for refusing to comply with the new policy, Best herself paid a visit to the Roseland and asked that the staff discontinue their discriminatory practice of dividing patrons by colour. This was a beginning, and it proved fruitless. So she wrote a letter to Mr. Mason, owner and operator of the Roseland Theatre:

Dear Mr. Mason:

I sincerely trust that this is the last time that I shall be forced to undergo the humiliating and undemocratic treatment that I have been forced to undergo from your employees at the Roseland Theatre.


It should not be necessary for me to remind them that I am a citizen and taxpayer in the town and as such have the right under British law to sit in any public place I wish to while I enter and exit in a clean, orderly manner.


I have spent the entire afternoon conducting a personal Gallup poll to see if this rule is the carry-over from the faraway days of slavery or if this is the rule of the Board of Directors and shareholders of the Roseland Theatre Company. Scores of respected citizens were amazed to believe that such Jim Crow tactics are practiced on decent law-abiding citizens and when the time comes have said they will not hesitate to speak against it.


Today I speak for one family, the Bests, my husband, my son and myself. I will ask, no, I will demand to be given the same rights as the Chinese and other nationalities of the Dominion of Canada and today I speak for my family only. As I am too tired to come to the theatre tonight, I respectfully request you, Sir, to instruct your employees to sell me the ticket I wish when next I come to the theatre or I shall make public every statement made to me by you and your help: of negroes being dirty, smelly, etc., and of you taking it upon yourself to evict high-school girls of irreproachable character from your office. Please get this straight, Mr. Mason. If respectable coloured people are cowardly enough to put up with such treatment they are welcome. I speak today for no family but my own and if you wish a public controversy both pro and con as to whether you have the power of a dictator to decide in a British town who is a citizen and who isn’t, you can have it. If my words are clear and strong I wish you could have heard some of the citizens who do not believe such a thing is possible in times like these. The statement of your employee to me that no coloured person can sit downstairs in the Capitol Theatre in Halifax is a lie of the first order as I have and always do sit there and I am sure the public will be interested to hear all this. I am coming to the theatre Monday.

Mrs. Best


Monday, December 29th, 1941. The film feature was “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” with Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes and Claude Rains. Carrie Best arrived at the Roseland with her son, Calbert. Carrie placed two quarters on the ticket-seller’s counter and asked for two downstairs seats. The ticket-seller, Caroline White, gave Carrie two balcony tickets and ten cents change. (Main floor seats were 25 cents each, balcony seats were 20 cents each.) Carrie Best and her son entered the theatre – the mainfloor i.e. downstairs seating level. Mrs. Best left behind both the tickets and the change at the counter.


Erskine Cumming, the Roseland’s assistant manager, was standing in the lobby in front of the entrance to the downstairs seating area. He asked the Bests for their tickets and Carrie Best replied that she had left the money and the tickets back at the counter. Mr. Cumming followed in behind them when they entered the auditorium, while explaining to them that “all coloured people must sit upstairs.” Mrs. Best’s response was: “I am inside now. Put me out.” Mr. Cumming returned to the box office, retrieved the money that Carrie Best had left there, came back inside and gave it to her – then asked her to leave. She refused, claiming that she was “a British subject with as much right to be here as anyone else.” Upon the third time that Mr. Cumming asked Mrs. Best to leave he put the 50 cents into her purse and then told her that she was seated in the downstairs area without a ticket – and that if she would not leave he would call the police. Carrie Best and her son Calbert stood their ground – by remaining seated.


A short time later, New Glasgow police officer George S. Wright arrived at the Roseland and asked the Bests to leave. When Carrie Best refused to do so, the town’s Chief of Police, Elmo Langille, was summoned. Chief Langille ordered the Bests to leave – and they refused to vacate their seats. At which point Officer Wright placed his hands under Carrie Best’s arms and raised her from her seat. When Wright had done this, Mrs. Best said to him: “That’s all I wanted you to do – put your hands on me. I will fix you for this.” And then, accompanied by Calbert, she walked out of the Roseland Theatre.


The above re-counting – from Constance Backhouse’s 1998 essay (published in Atlantis, Vol.22.2): “I was unable to identify with Topsy”: Carrie M. Best’s struggle against racial segregation in Nova Scotia, 1942 – gives a plain account of events (taken from both court documents and from first-person interviews).


Best v. Mason and Roseland Theatre, 1942, was a very brief court case. Judge Robert Henry Graham of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court presided over the trial in May of 1942. After the plaintiff’s case had been presented – the plaintiff being Carrie Best who was “a Negress”, “a British subject”, and “a married woman” – and after the defence’s evidence called upon, Judge Graham, in charging the jury, made his views known. Though theatres advertise their services generally to the public, yet the management had the right to exclude anyone from the theatre – and that theatres therefore were no different from private dwellings. Graham advised the jury thus: “The ordinary citizen [has] the right to exclude anyone from their homes unless a contract [has] been entered into.” (Quotation from the Advocate Newspaper, 21 May, 1942.) In his closing advice to the jury Graham urged them to disregard any other questions raised by the litigation – these were “irrelevant”. The jury did as it was told, Judge Graham dismissed Carrie Best’s suit, and she was ordered to pay $156.07 to the defendant, Norman Mason of the Roseland Theatre.


After her legal defeat, Best embarked upon a career in journalism, editing the newspapers The Clarion and The New Negro Citizen.  Being a journalist she described (in her 1977 autobiography) as being “very satisfying”, “a release from frustration and disappointment”, and “a prescription for impatience”.

Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond

In November of 1946, a Black hairdresser and salon owner from Halifax, Viola Desmond (1914-1965), received similar treatment to Carrie Best when she was forcibly removed from the same Roseland Theatre for seating herself in the main-floor auditorium. In court, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax between a balcony ticket and a main-floor ticket. There were subsequent trials during which the Nova Scotia government insisted upon arguing that Desmond’s was a case of tax evasion pure and simple. Retail sales tax was calculated based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell the Black woman a cheaper balcony ticket, but she had insisted upon sitting in the more expensive main floor seat, she was therefore one cent short on tax. For her crime of so-called tax evasion, she was removed from the theatre, stayed in jail overnight, tried without counsel, convicted and fined. Most interestingly: during the trial, no-one admitted that Viola Desmond was Black, and that the Roseland Theatre maintained a racist seating policy. The trial was steered as one of tax evasion and efforts to have Desmond’s conviction overturned at higher levels of court failed.

. . .

So – why all these details? – and why put the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, under the microscope three quarters of a century later? First, because Carrie Best was principled and brave, and because Viola Desmond had guts. Second, because specific examples from specific places make History real. New Glasgow was just one of many towns and cities nation-wide where such incidents occurred – a number of them lost to the historical legal record because they never acquired further shape in a court document; such incidents were borne and buried.


Constance Backhouse, in the closing remarks of her essay about Carrie Best, is worth quoting in full: “The awards and honours bestowed on Carrie Best [in later life] are matters of public record. That her lawsuit seeking redress for racial segregation – unsuccessful though it may have been – has not equally been noted is one indication of how deeply the past history of racism in Canada remains buried. Until recently [the 1990s], Canadian historians and lawyers have largely neglected to pursue research into issues of race, racism and struggles to resist discrimination. This failure calls out for further scrutiny. Why have momentous cases such as this not been discovered and analyzed before? Answers are complex and may include: the prevailing mythology that Canada has a rather benevolent record on racial discrimination; the artificially ‘race-neutral’ categories of much legal and historical doctrine; etc. These and other barriers to the recovery of Canada’s racial history must be scaled – and soon.”

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Editor’s Note:

We have posted this “one-town” examination of Canadian racial segregation – and of the lives of Carrie Best and Viola Desmond – to coincide with the birth date – February 4th, 1913 – of Rosa Parks.

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Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson: “The Praline Woman”

Photograph of a 19th century Creole woman

Photograph of a 19th cetury Creole man

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson(1875-1935)

The Praline Woman”

(from: The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Short Stories, published in 1899)

[ On title page: “To my best comrade – My husband [Paul Laurence Dunbar]” ]


Editor’s Note:

French settlers brought the Praline recipe to Louisiana where both sugar cane and pecan trees were plentiful. During the 19th century, chefs in New Orleans substituted pecans for the originally-used almonds, and added cream to thicken the confection. They thus created what became known throughout the American South as the Praline. Pralines have a creamy consistency, similar to fudge. They are most often made combining brown sugar, butter, and cream or buttermilk in a pot on medium-high heat, and stirring constantly until most of the water has evaporated and the mass reaches a thick texture of a brownish colour. The mixture then cools down and hardens somewhat, then is ready to eat.


The Creole people of Louisiana are descended from 18th-century colonial settlers of French – and sometimes Spanish – descent, with those of African descent via American slavery. Many Creoles in the 19th century were mixed-race people. This also included Native-American ancestry in some families. The word Creole itself has many different meanings, depending on which country, culture, and language where it is in use – throughout The Americas.


A note on the language employed by Dunbar-Nelson:

The author has created a hybrid language of her own here, combining Black-American Southern Dialect with Louisiana (French-based) Creole (primarily translated into ‘accented’ English) – so that her English-speaking readers might enjoy reading what for most would be a narrative of home-grown “exotica”.

.     .     .

The Praline Woman”


The praline woman sits by the side of the Archbishop’s quaint little old chapel on Royal Street, and slowly waves her latanier fan over the pink and brown wares.

“Pralines, pralines. Ah, ma’amzelle, you buy? S’il vous plait, ma’amzelle, ces pralines, dey be fine, ver’ fresh.

“Mais non, maman, you are not sure?

“Sho’, chile, ma bébé, ma petite, she put dese up hissef. He’s hans’ so small, ma’amzelle, lak you’s, mais brune. She put dese up dis morn’. You tak’ none? No husban’ fo’ you den!

“Ah, ma petite, you tak’? Cinq sous, bébé, may le bon Dieu keep you good!

“Mais oui, madame, I know you étrangér. You don’ look lak dese New Orleans peop’. You Lak’ dose Yankee dat come down ‘fo’ de war.”

Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, chimes the Cathedral bell across Jackson Square, and the praline woman crosses herself.

“Hail, Mary, full of grace–

“Pralines, madame? You buy lak’ dat? Dix sous, madame, an’ one lil’ piece fo’ lagniappe fo’ madame’s lil’ bébé. Ah, c’est bon!

“Pralines, pralines, so fresh, so fine! M’sieu would lak’ some fo’ he’s lil’ gal’ at home? Mais non, what’s dat you say? She’s daid! Ah, m’sieu, ‘t is my lil’ gal what died long year ago. Misèrè, misère!

“Here come dat lazy Indien squaw. What she good fo’, anyhow? She jes’ sit lak dat in de French Market an’ sell her filé, an’ sleep, sleep, sleep, lak’ so in he’s blanket. Hey, dere, you, Tonita, how goes you’ beezness?

“Pralines, pralines! Holy Father, you give me dat blessin’ sho’? Tak’ one, I know you lak dat w’ite one. It tas’ good, I know, bien.

“Pralines, madame? I lak’ you’ face. What fo’ you wear black? You’ lil’ boy daid? You tak’ one, jes’ see how it tas’. I had one lil’ boy once, he jes’ grow ‘twell he’s big lak’ dis, den one day he tak’ sick an’die. Oh, madame, it mos’ brek my po’ heart. I burn candle in St. Rocque, I say my beads, I sprinkle holy water roun’ he’s bed; he jes’ lay so, he’s eyes turn up, he say ‘Maman, maman,’ den he die! Madame, you tak’ one. Non, non, no l’argent, you tak’ one fo’ my lil’ boy’s sake.

“Pralines, pralines, m’sieu? Who mak’ dese? My lil’ gal, Didele, of co’se. Non, non, I don’t mak’ no mo’.

Po’ Tante Marie get too ol’. Didele? She’s one lil’ gal I’dopt. I see her one day in de strit. He walk so; hit col’ she shiver, an’ I say, ‘Where you gone, lil’ gal?’ and he can’ tell. He jes’ crip close to me, an’ cry so! Den I tak’ her home wid me, and she say he’s name Didele. You see dey wa’nt nobody dere. My lil’ gal, she’s daid, of de yellow fever; my lil’ boy, he’s daid, po’ Tante Marie all alone. Didele, she grow fine, she keep house an’ mek’ pralines. Den, when night come, she sit wid he’s guitar an’ sing:

“‘Tu l’aime ces trois jours,
Tu l’aime ces trois jours,
Ma coeur à toi,
Ma coeur à toi,
Tu l’aime ces trois jours!’

“Ah, he’s fine gal, is Didele!

“Pralines, pralines! Dat lil’ cloud, h’it look lak’ rain, I hope no.

“Here come dat lazy I’ishman down de strit. I don’t lak’ I’ishman, me, non, dey so funny. One day one I’ishman, he say to me, `Auntie, what fo’ you talk so?’ and I jes’ say back, ‘What fo’ you say “Faith an’ be jabers”?’ ‘Non, I don’t lak I’ishman, me!

“Here come de rain! Now I got fo’ to go. Didele, she be wait fo’ me. Down h’it come! H’it fall in de Meesseesip, an’ fill up– up–so, clean to de levee, den we have big crivasse, an’ po’ Tante Marie float away. Bon jour, madame, you come again? Pralines! Pralines!

.     .     .

Source for the short story above:   the online archives of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, New York City)

Photographs:  A 19th-century Creole woman, New Orleans / A 19th-century Creole man, New Orleans

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Henrietta Cordelia Ray: Odes to Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Laurence Dunbar

Engraving of Toussaint L'Ouverture

Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852?-1916)

Toussaint L’Ouverture”

(from: Champions of Freedom, published 1910)


To those fair isles where crimson sunsets burn,
We send a backward glance to gaze on thee,
Brave Toussaint! thou wast surely born to be
A hero; thy proud spirit could but spurn
Each outrage on thy race. Couldst thou unlearn
The lessons taught by instinct? Nay! and we
Who share the zeal that would make all men free,
Must e’en with pride unto thy life-work turn.
Soul-dignity was thine and purest aim;
And ah! how sad that thou wast left to mourn
In chains ‘neath alien skies. On him, shame! shame!
That mighty conqueror who dared to claim
The right to bind thee. Him we heap with scorn,
And noble patriot! guard with love thy name.


Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803):  Leader of the Haitian Revolution for Independence

. . .

Two Quatrains:



What is ambition? ’tis unrest, defeat!
A goad, a spur, a Quick’ning the heart’s beat;
A fevered pulse, a grasp at shadows fleet,
A beck’ning vision, fair, illusive, sweet!




What we to-day prize and most fondly cherish,
To-morrow scarce may claim a moment’s reck’ning.
Yet why adjust the cause? Let doubt all perish.
Can argument withstand the spirit’s beck’ning?

Lyrics of Lowly Life_1897_This volume included Paul Laurence Dunbar's Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors both under one cover.

In Memoriam: Paul Laurence Dunbar”


The Muse of Poetry came down one day,
And brought with willing hands a rare, sweet gift;
She lingered near the cradle of a child,
Who first unto the sun his eyes did lift.
She touched his lips with true Olympian fire,
And at her bidding Fancies hastened there,
To flutter lovingly around the one
So favored by the Muse’s gentle care.

Who was this child? The offspring of a race
That erst had toiled ‘neath slavery’s galling chains.
And soon he woke to utterance and sang
In sweetly cadenced and in stirring strains,
Of simple joys, and yearnings, and regrets;
Anon to loftier themes he turned his pen;
For so in tender, sympathetic mood
He caught the follies and the griefs of men.

His tones were various: we list, and lo!
“Malindy Sings,” and as the echoes die,
The keynote changes and another strain
Of solemn majesty goes floating by;
And sometimes in the beauty and the grace
Of an impassioned, melancholy lay,
We seem to hear the surge, and swell, and moan
Of soft orchestral music far away.


Paul Dunbar dead! His genius cannot die!
It lives in songs that thrill, and glow, and soar;
Their pathos and their joy will fill our hearts,
And charm and satisfy e’en as of yore.
So when we would lament our poet gone,
With sorrow that his lyre is resting now,
Let us remember, with the fondest pride,
That Fame’s immortal wreath has crowned his brow.


Paul (Laurence) Dunbar (1872-1906):  Black-American poet and playwright from Dayton, Ohio

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To read poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar click on the following link:


.     .     .

Source for the above poems:   the online archives of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, New York City)

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