“Whether Binghamton appreciates good music and other cultural programs was a matter of dispute today.” This observation in The Binghamton Press on May 3, 1946 arose when the newspaper interviewed residents about an upcoming music festival.
If the newspaper had conducted the same interview when Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Hazel Scott presented their “cultural programs” one year earlier, there would not have been many negative responses. As the Second World War drew to a close, the city welcomed three iconic African American artists.
The Binghamton Sun announced on March 20 that the city’s 10 year old, grassroots Interracial Association was sponsoring Hughes’ lecture and poetry reading two days later in Central High School’s auditorium. His address in Binghamton, entitled “Color Around the World,” differed from his presentation in Troy on March 12 in that it provided much more discussion on racial affairs in the Soviet Union which he had praised since his tour there for part of 1932.
According to The Press on the 23rd, he maintained that the U.S.S.R. “was the only country he has visited where there are no outer race manifestations… and this is because of enforced legislation… this has not completely eliminated animosity between races but it has eliminated any overt acts.” After his address, Hughes read a selection of his poems that were unidentified in either local newspaper.
Interestingly, instead of lodging at a hotel, Hughes stayed at the house of a friend, James Gitlitz, past President of the Interracial Association, who has described the stay in his book, Memos For My Children (1995).
Months passed before the next major “cultural program” — a Paul Robeson concert sponsored by the Jewish Sisterhood scheduled for October 11 in the high school – was announced a week earlier. Binghamton was a small venue compared to his stops during the year. In May, he finished a long tour with the Theater Guild’s revival of “Othello,” and soon after performed at 32 USO encampments in Europe, returning in August. Robeson’s full schedule required him on October 18 too be at NYC’s Hotel Biltmore to receive the NAACP’s annual award for achievement, the Spingarn Medal, but he did not treat Binghamton as an inferior venue.
In fact, the day after, The Sun presented a robust review of the bass baritone and two accompanying musicians, William Schatzkamer and Lawrence Brown. Songs on his program were in several languages but he was liked best in his group of spirituals. ‘Deep River’ was one of those especially well suited to his voice and temperament.” That same day, The Press declared that “his deep, rich voice filled the auditorium majestically in Beethoven’s ‘Creation Hymn’ and soothingly in such Negro spirituals… Not once did he lapse into indifference to the meaning of the words he sang.” The enthusiastic response of capacity audience of an estimated 1,500 prompted 5 encores, and a brief curtain speech.
After many years of a night-club career at NYC’s Cafe Society, Uptown, Hazel Scott in early 1945 began a concert tour. When the DAR canceled her recital at Constitution Hall in D.C. on October 20 because of her race, the St. Louis branch of the NAACP picketed. It remains unknown if there was a linkage between the protest and her accepting a concert invitation from the Kalurah Shrine Luncheon Club in its Temple on November 2nd.
There was a near capacity audience which she charmed for two hours with selections not only from Chopin and Bach but also boogie-woogie. The next day day, The Press’ praise included “Miss Scott slaughters Bach with an eight-bar beat and her subsequent victims, Liszt and Chopin, are dealt with fatally.” On the other hand, The Sun reported almost exclusively on its backstage interview before the performance. “When asked if she had met anywhere else a situation like that which developed in Washington, she laughed merrily, ‘That was vile… I think so little of the members of the D. A. R. that I don’t want to talk about them’.”
By the time of their appearances in Binghamton, there were accumulating accusations that each artist was associated with progressive, and even subversive, political postures which eventually would curtail their careers. In the early 1950’s, all three met with the House Un-American Committee which resulted in their nearly complete blacklisting. However, in 1945, Binghamton was fortunate — how many other communities hosted, and appreciated, “cultural programs” by Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Hazel Scott in less than a year?
Photos, from above: Langston Hughes receiving the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1946; the Binghamton Central high School Auditorium; Paul Robeson leading Oakland shipyard workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner in September 1942; and the St. Louis, Missouri branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pickets outside a luncheon meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) on October 16, 1945.