Music and Racial Segregation in Twentieth-Century St. Louis: Uncovering the Sources

Music is one of the primary means by which racial and ethnic categories are maintained and understood.  As Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman put it in their foundational 2000 book Music and the Racial Imagination, music both “contributes substantially to the vocabularies used to construct race” and “fills in the spaces between racial distinctiveness”—in other words, music sometimes helps build racial barriers and sometimes challenges and undermines them.  The fundamental connection between music and race is especially notable in urban areas, where musical institutions, both formal and informal, reflect and shape racial inclusion and exclusion. 

St. Louis, notorious for its history of racial segregation but also widely celebrated for its vibrant musical heritage, provides a significant test case for questions about the connections between music and segregation in urban life. The archives of both Washington University (WUSTL) and the Missouri History Museum (MHM) hold many materials related to this rich history.  This website 1. provides researchers with a database of relevant sources at these two institutions and 2. draws upon those sources to create an online exhibit exploring key moments in the history of music and segregation in mid-twentieth century St. Louis.  We intend this project to be useful to scholars of music, race, and/or urban studies; instructors at high schools and universities; and St. Louisans interested in the cultural and political history of their city.

The Divided City: An Urban Humanities Initiative, a project of the Center for the Humanities and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.


The Database

During the 2016-17 academic year, Patrick Burke (Associate Professor of Music, WUSTL), with the assistance of undergraduate interns Logan Busch and Courtney Kolberg and the expert archivists and librarians credited below, conducted extensive research in the collections of WUSTL and MHM, searching for any source related to music and racial segregation in twentieth-century St. Louis.  That research resulted in a database of over 500 items with full citations and synopses of their content.  The database is available here as an open-access Excel spreadsheet that may be downloaded and used by anyone interested.


The Exhibit

The online exhibit tells the stories of five moments, spanning the years from 1923 to 1949, when St. Louis musical institutions either perpetuated practices of segregation or sought to resist them.  These stories serve as sobering reminders of the daily indignities that African Americans endured in St. Louis during this era of official segregation.  They also reveal the courage and persistence of St. Louisans who fought against racial discrimination and inequality.  And they demonstrate that music, often seen as a diversion from politics, was actually central to political struggles over race and the city.

Each page of the exhibit includes images that have been scanned from the archives and information on the kinds of sources featured and what researchers can learn from them.  

(A note on language: archival sources from the 1920s-40s often use racial identifiers, such as “Negro” and “colored,” that were considered polite at the time but may now seem dated or offensive.  When quoting such sources, this exhibit retains their original wording; otherwise, it follows modern usage.) 



Project Director: Patrick Burke (Associate Professor of Music, WUSTL)

Text: Patrick Burke (page on W.C. Handy written by Courtney Kolberg and Patrick Burke) 

Site Design and metadata creation: Shannon Davis (Digital Library Services Manager, WUSTL)

Research Interns: Logan Busch (WUSTL ’17), Courtney Kolberg (WUSTL ’17)

Image Scanning: Patrick Burke, Jaime Bourassa (Associate Archivist, MHM), Teresa Yarber (Digital Imaging Specialist, WUSTL)

Valuable research assistance was provided at MHM by Emily Jaycox (Librarian) and Molly Kodner (Archivist), and at WUSTL by Douglas Knox (Assistant Director, Humanities Digital Workshop), Vernon Mitchell (Curator of Popular American Arts), Miranda Rectenwald (Curator of Local History), Sonya Rooney (University Archivist), and Brad Short (Associate University Librarian for Collections).