St. Louis Symphony Society, 1923

Minutes of the Executive Committee, St. Louis Symphony Society, October 18, 1923. Box 1, folder “Minutes 1923 Jan 4 – 1924 Apr 17,” St. Louis Symphony Society Records, Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis.

The minutes of committee meetings normally detail dry bureaucratic discussions or formal motions to amend obscure bylaws. This document, however, tells a short story about racial discrimination in the world of high culture.

The details are straightforward. An African American named only as “Mr. Burgess” had recently visited the Symphony’s office to pick up a pair of season tickets belonging to his sister, “who is a music teacher.” In 1923, the orchestra performed at the Odeon Theater at the corner of Grand and Finney Avenues.

Odeon Theater, Grand Avenue and Finney Avenue. 1040 North Grand Avenue. Missouri History Museum.
St. Louis Symphony after 1922 at Odeon Building when Rudolph Ganz was Director. Missouri History Museum.

Mr. Burgess, surprised to note that his sister’s tickets, which had been in Section C, row 5 during the previous season, had been transferred to the last row of Section I, “in a gentlemanly and courteous manner objected.”

In the privacy of the Executive Committee meeting, orchestra manager S. E. Macmillen revealed a secret. During the previous season, “the management…was beset on several occasions by [presumably white] people who objected to sitting next to negroes.” In response, “without making it a matter of official policy,” the management had begun placing all black subscribers (a total of ten people during the 1923-4 season) in Section I.

Minutes of the Executive Committee, St. Louis Symphony Society, November 2, 1923. Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis.

Mr. Burgess might already have surmised the reason for the seat change, but Macmillen’s condescending response made it clear. Macmillen lectured Burgess that the “entire negro problem” was beyond the Symphony’s control and asked him to consider how “much had been accomplished for the negro race in St. Louis when they were admitted to such high class functions as Symphony Orchestra concerts.” Macmillen believed that Burgess “seemed quite appeased when he left the office,” but the report that others “took up the cudgel” for Burgess suggests that he continued to protest the decision. The sensitivity of the issue led the Executive Committee to adopt an informal policy of segregating black patrons while “avoiding in all instances use of the word ‘segregated.’” On November 2, the committee voted to make the policy official.

But who was Mr. Burgess? The minutes provide few clues, but they are sufficient. The Polk-Gould St. Louis Directory for 1923 includes dozens of Burgesses, but only one is listed as a music teacher: Myrtle A. Burgess, at 218 Elwood. The address was shared by Elmer A. Burgess, a clerk.

Polk-Gould St. Louis Directory, 1923.
St. Louis Negro Business and Trade Directory. (St. Louis: Urban League of St. Louis, 1934).

The St. Louis Negro Business and Trade Directory, published by the Urban League of St. Louis in 1934, lists Myrtle A. Burgess, now at 3817 Cook, under “Music Teachers.” Her appearance in this directory confirms that she was African American. It seems almost certain that this was Mr. Burgess’s sister.

First Negro Lawyer in St. Louis Completing Fifty Years of Practice," St. Louis Globe-Democrat Magazine, May 29, 1927.Further research into prominent Burgesses in St. Louis leads us to Albert Burgess, who in 1877 became “the first black attorney licensed to practice in St. Louis (and most likely the first in Missouri).”1 From 1894 to 1902, he served as Assistant City Attorney, making him the highest-ranking black officeholder in St. Louis. A 1927 profile of Burgess in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat Magazine reported that “Miss Myrtle A. Burgess,” his daughter, “is a music teacher in St. Louis,” while his son Wilmont A. Burgess is “principal of the Dessalines School and Fourteenth and Brooklyn streets,” and his son Elmer A. Burgess is “director of physical culture for the negro schools of Baltimore, Md.” All three had degrees from the University of Toronto, Myrtle from the university’s Conservatory of Music.

The Mr. Burgess who visited the Symphony office, then, was either Elmer or Wilmont, a member of one of St. Louis’s most prominent and professionally successful African American families. This status, however, did not entitle him to sit next to white patrons of the orchestra, or earn him the respect of the orchestra’s manager, who does not seem to have known who he was. At the Symphony office, even Mr. Burgess’s reputation as an educator and his “gentlemanly and courteous” demeanor could not overcome entrenched practices of racial prejudice and segregation.

Listen on YouTube St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolph Ganz performs Festival Overture by Eduard Lassen. October 30, 1923.

1Marshall Hier, Famous and Infamous Lawyers in St. Louis History, ed. John C. Rasp (St. Louis: Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, 2014), 50-53.