1940s Austin Meets Who's Who in Black America
Imagine a university-sponsored artist series boasting an International Peace Prize winner, a world-famous tenor, one of the 20th century's most influential poets and the first African-American to represent New York in the U.S. Congress. Where in 1944 Austin would you have gone to avail yourself of such talent? The University of Texas would be a logical guess, but this impressive series was offered not by the largest university in the state, but by one of the smallest, tiny Samuel Huston College.
Huston College admitted its first 80 students, all African-American, in 1900 and within a few years boasted an enrollment topping 500. By the early forties, though, the student population had dwindled to about 200, prompting administration officials to search for someone to turn the school’s fortunes around. They made a wise choice by plucking twenty-nine-year-old Karl E. Downs away from Scott United Methodist Church of Pasadena, California and making him the youngest college president in the country. Born in Abilene and educated at Huston, Gammon Theological Seminary and Boston University, Downs brought a fierce energy to a campus in desperate need of it. Immediately upon his arrival in 1943, Downs began a building program that eventually added five new buildings to Huston’s campus. When the school’s athletic director quit, Downs convinced a young man he had known in Pasadena to take the job. Although Jackie Robinson would spend less than a year at Huston, he credited Reverend Downs with rekindling a spirituality that the baseball pioneer would rely on during his difficult early days with the Brooklyn Dodgers. And, as he had done at the California church, Downs organized an artist series to draw much-needed attention to Huston College. As a friend recalled years later, “Nothing like that had ever happened [at Huston] before Karl came.”
The Sam Huston College 1944 Artist Series ran March 5 through April 30, with an event held every Sunday evening at Wesley Methodist Church. Founded in 1865 by a group of ex-slaves, Wesley occupied the corner of and Ninth streets until 1928 when white city leaders pressured the congregation to move to East Austin. The church building erected that year on San Bernard Street is now in its 85th year.
Karl Downs opened his artist series with his own wife, singer Marion Jackson Downs. Like her husband, Marion Downs had also attended Huston College, after which she studied at Coppin State, the Juilliard School and Columbia. She later received a Fulbright scholarship that allowed her to spend a year at the Guiseppi Verdi Conservatory of Music in Milan, Italy. Downs employed her “rich, surging soprano voice” to deliver an “extensive repertoire” of classical songs and spirituals.
Next in Huston’s series came a man whose writings influenced Martin Luther King. Until King came along, W. E. B. Du Bois stood arguably as the most towering figure of the post-Civil-War struggle for African-American civil rights. Du Bois’ most famous work, a 1903 collection of essays entitled The Souls of Black Folk, serves yet to inspire those who struggle against the effects of racial bias in American society.
In 1910 Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the years following his Austin appearance, he received the International Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize, a Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.
W. E. B. Du Bois would have been a hard act to follow, but the next artist in the series proved equal to the task. The series brochure described Langston Hughes as “one of America’s clearest poetic prophets for justice, liberty and equality.” Today Hughes is recognized as one of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote short stories, novels, plays, essays and children’s books. Among his better-known works are the 1921 poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and the 1934 short story collection The Ways of White Folks.
Next to perform was the husband-wife team of Howard and Helen Boatwright. At the time of his appearance at Wesley, violinist Howard Boatwright was a member of the UT music faculty. An accomplished composer as well as musician, Boatwright published over 100 original compositions and later wrote a widely-used music theory textbook. He served as dean of the Syracuse University School of Music 1964-71. Howard met future wife Helen in a Los Angeles elevator in 1941. The pair’s 1943 marriage formed a “power couple in the music world” that endured until Howard’s death in 1999. A soprano with “pure, unfussy sound, impeccable diction and thoughtful, sensitive interpretations,” Helen Boatwright wowed audiences for decades. A career highlight was her 1963 performance for President John Kennedy in the East Room of the White House.
Karl Downs included poet Margaret Walker in his artist series on the strength of the latter’s recognition by Yale University as the best young poet in America. Of Walker, award panelist and renowned poet Stephen Vincent Benet had written, “Straightforwardness, directness [and] reality are good things to find in a young poet.” Walker’s better-known works include her poem “For My People” and the historical novel Jubilee, which she based upon the experiences of her great-grandmother. Beginning in 1949, she taught literature at Jackson State University for thirty years. Her 1944 performance for Huston College involved her reading “For My People” in a joint recital with the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Kreuz.
Child prodigy Philippa Duke Schuyler was 13 when she performed on behalf of Huston College. Daughter of a prominent black essayist father and white mother descended from Texas slave owners, Schuyler had been performing in public for years by the time of her Austin concert. In the 1930s and 1940s her fame made her a role model for children across the country. As a young adult, Schuyler became disillusioned with the racial prejudice that she regularly encountered in the United States and began spending most of her time overseas. Later still she abandoned music altogether to become a journalist. In 1967 Schuyler went to Vietnam as a war correspondent. She was killed in a helicopter crash later that year. Adding to the tragedy, her mother committed suicide on the second anniversary of her daughter’s death.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the next featured guest in Karl Downs’ artist series, had been the first black elected to the New York City Council in 1941. A few months after his Austin appearance, Powell won election to the U. S. House of Representatives to become the first black congressman from the state of New York. A mainstay in the House until 1971, Powell fought tirelessly against racist policies and practices. His career ended clouded in financial scandal, but Adam Clayton Powell occupies a rightful place among the giants of the civil rights movement.
Karl Downs ended his 1944 artist series with a man who had risen from poverty to worldwide fame as “America’s greatest native-born concert tenor.” Born on a Georgia plantation to parents that had worked the land as slaves, Roland Hayes began life behind a plow. When his father died, his mother moved with her children to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where young Roland began earning money by singing on the streets of the city. Hayes continued singing after enrolling at Fisk College in Nashville. His talent gained him an invitation to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk accompanied the group on a tour to Boston, saw opportunity there and decided to stay. Hard work and persistence brought him recognition and invitations to perform in Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall and other large venues throughout the country.
A 1920 tour of Europe culminated in a command performance for King George and Queen Mary of Great Britain. Within a few years Hayes had become the highest paid tenor in the world. He achieved the unique satisfaction of purchasing the 600 acres in Georgia on which his mother had toiled as a slave and given birth to him.
Roland Hayes’ fame and fortune did not shield him from the racial prejudice of his era. In 1942 he confronted a clerk at a Georgia shoe store that had evicted his wife and daughter for sitting in a section designated for white customers. Police responded by arresting and beating the international star. When the story made headlines, Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge responded by warning anyone who disagreed with the state’s race laws “to stay out of Georgia.”
Hayes denied any bitterness, but later sold his farm and left the state for good. A small measure of redemption for the mistreatment came with the 1991 posthumous induction of Roland Hayes into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Sadly, Samuel Huston College president Karl Downs died unexpectedly of kidney disease in 1948. He was thirty-six years old. Who knows what he might have achieved at Huston College had he survived. (Huston College merged with Tillotson College in the 1950s to become what is now Huston-Tillotson University.) But, if the recollections of one friend are accurate, his 1944 artist series at least had the desired effect. According to this friend, Downs’ program “made some very influential local whites take notice of our college.” One of those local whites was an equally energetic young congressman named Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson, Jackie Robinson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell and Roland Hayes; these are the people that Reverend Karl Downs attracted to his little school in East Austin. What a shame that we lost him so soon.