The Urban League and the Municipal Auditorium, 1934-35
The Urban League and the Municipal Auditorium, 1934-35
The Urban League of St. Louis was founded in 1918. Its “major objectives…were to improve the socio-economic and cultural conditions of the Negro and to bring about better understanding and cooperation between Negro and white citizens.”1 The Urban League’s records, housed at Washington University’s University Archives, reveal the organization’s persistent struggle during the 1930s against racial discrimination at St. Louis’s major cultural institutions.
“St. Louis Municipal Auditorium Dedication, April 14-28 ,” brochure in folder “1917-1934,” box 2, Ernst Christopher Krohn Papers, Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis.
The Municipal Auditorium at 14th and Market Streets, which opened with great fanfare on April 14, 1934, was a six-million-dollar building project that occupied an entire city block and included an opera house, an arena, an exposition hall, and four assembly halls. Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann touted its opening as “the greatest civic event since the World’s Fair” of 1904. Promotional material described its two-week Dedication as a “seven-ring circus,” headed by “Grand Opera” and including religious pageants, music, dance, an industrial exposition, drama, and art.2 The Municipal Auditorium was renamed Kiel Auditorium after former mayor Henry Kiel in 1943 and continued to host major events until its demolition in 1992.
The auditorium’s opening events appeared to extend a warm welcome to St. Louis’s African American community. John T. Clark, Executive Secretary of the Urban League, was a member of the General Reception Committee of the Citizens Committee for Dedications of the St. Louis Municipal Auditorium, an official position that involved reviewing the “Parade and Dedication ceremonies” from the portico of the auditorium as well as a seat at a luncheon for distinguished guests.3
Left: : Letter from Bernard F. Dickmann to John T. Clark, March 28, 1934. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 2, box 15, folder 22. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Right: Ribbon labeled “Dedication Municipal Auditorium – Citizens Committee – Reception.” [1934.] From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 2, box 15, folder 22. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
On April 20, the auditorium hosted a pageant, advertised first as “Black Majesty” and later as “Forward,” that highlighted what the St. Louis Argus described to its black readership as “the contribution of the Negro to the development of Saint Louis.”4 Musical performances included “Negro Spirituals and classical selections” sung by “a chorus of three hundred voices in Forty Minutes of Song under the leadership of Mr. C. Spencer Tocus, director of music at the Vashon High School”; classically trained singers Abbie Mitchell and Bessie Cole performing works by Massenet and Rubinstein; and “a rendition of the St. Louis Blues by Charles Creath’s Orchestra and a Blues singer and chorus.”5 3500 free tickets to the pageant were distributed by African American organizations.6 On April 21, another pageant, “The Origin of Sports and History of Dancing,” featured black children from St. Louis, with boys performing acrobatics before girls “from kindergarten to high school age, gave performances of folk, interpretive and tap dancing with inherent sense of rhythm” (by “inherent” the Post-Dispatch reporter appears to refer to racial stereotypes of African Americans as “natural” musicians).7 The National Folk Festival, held from April 29 to May 2, included a massive local chorus of one thousand singers performing spirituals as well as an African/African American folk dance troupe from Bethune-Cookman College led by anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.8 The Argus assured readers that “officials have announced that there will be no discrimination in seating during the Folk Festival which will last four days.”9
This assurance was necessary because of a controversy over seating at the auditorium’s opera performances, for which black patrons were allowed seats only in the gallery section. While the Post-Dispatch proclaimed the Municipal Auditorium “a Center for the Community,” the black press and groups such as the Urban League argued that the African American community was not fully included.10 Floyd J. Collins of the Argus pointed out that African Americans paid taxes to support the auditorium but were not allowed to make full use of it: “our money is counterfeit at one affair, except for seats in certain sections, and that is during the grand opera….we must help pay for the building but forget about enjoying it, for there is no enjoyment in a segregated seat (at least not for me).”11 On April 16, Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman of the Social Justice Commission “offered a motion that there be no segregation in the new auditorium,” and on April 18, a group of protesters including the Urban League’s Assistant Industrial Secretary Sidney Williams met with Mayor Dickmann, City Counselor Charles M. Hay, auditorium manager James Darst, and opera representative Guy Golterman. Golterman argued that the opera season was “promoted by a private enterprise and was not a municipal affair.”12
Left: Letter from Sidney R. Williams to Dr. Charles S. Johnson, April 21, 1934. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 2, box 15, folder 22. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Right: Letter from Robert N. Owens to Bernard F. Dickmann, April 21, 1934. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 2, box 15, folder 22. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis. On April 21, Robert N. Owens, chairman of the Emergency Advisory Council for Negroes, wrote Dickmann to request an official statement advocating “indiscriminate admission of Negroes to all subsequent affairs open to the general public.”13. On the same day, Golterman “read a prepared statement in which it was set forth that white patrons holding box seats had threatened to cancel their reservations if the house was opened to Negroes and that only the few tickets already sold Negroes would be allowed them.”14 Despite continued activism and scathing editorials in the Argus, the opera’s policy remained in place.15
On February 5, 1935, the Urban League sponsored a concert at Municipal Auditorium by tenor Roland Hayes, at the time one of the most famous black musicians in the world. The concert was a benefit for the Urban League’s Building Fund, which raised money toward the purchase of a permanent headquarters for the League, but it also served a political purpose: Clark wrote that the concert would “demonstrate in the Municipal Auditorium that Negroes will attend high class performances and that there will be no problem whatever resulting from both races occupying whatever seats they desire.”16 The League secured funding from “50 prominent citizens of both races,” including Wilmont Burgess, and they aggressively promoted the concert with flyers and newspaper advertisements.17 The Argus even featured a poem, “To a Black Singer,” dedicated to Hayes and written by John Adolph Turner, a young member of the paper’s Kewpie pen-pal club.18
Left: Letter from John T. Clark to “M,” . From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Center: Advertising flyer for Roland Hayes concert at Municipal Auditorium, St. Louis, February 5, 1935. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Right: John Adolph Turner, “To a Black Singer,” St. Louis Argus, February 1, 1935. Turner's stereotyped references to "jungle rhythm" and tom-toms likely reflect an interest in the African origins of black culture common among African American writers during this era.
Planning for Hayes’s visit involved a serious obstacle, however—despite his prominence within the world of classical music, St. Louis’s major hotels would not allow a black guest. Even the promises of Hayes’s manager that the singer would eat meals in his room, would not loiter in the lobby, and would make himself “entirely inconspicuous” had no effect on hotels’ policies.19 The Hotel Mayfair appears to have booked Hayes but then cancelled the reservation upon realizing that he was African American—in a letter to Clark, the assistant to the manager explained that “when I spoke to you I had no knowledge that the gentleman was colored.”20 Clark, in a dignified response to a similar rejection from the Hotel Coronado, asserted that “I feel certain that it will not be so many years hence when our hotels will recall the instance with shame of refusing an artist of the caliber of Mr. Hayes solely because the managements of hotels fear objections from the patrons.”21 Finally, Clark found a room for Hayes at the Poro Building, owned by the African American cosmetics magnate Annie Turnbo Malone, where he could be “comfortably housed” with a “room with bath adjoining so as to give you the most intimate facilities.”22
Left: Letter from Frank E. Andrews to Berthoud Clifford, January 15, 1935. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Center: Letter from Roy Keller to John [T.] Clark, January 24, 1935. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Right: Letter from JTC [John T. Clark] to Roland Hayes, January 26, 1935. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Although the concert failed to turn a profit, Clark believed that it “achieved its aim in promoting and focusing better relations between the Negro and White races.”23 The Argus agreed:
Incidentally, we might mention that there was no segregation on account of race or color. The white and the colored people sat together in all parts of the auditorium with their minds evidently fixed upon the feast they anticipated. No one seemed to be ill-at-ease because of this mixture. Of course, we did not see James Darst, the manager of the auditorium, present, but we did see City Counselor Charles M. Hay. Even he seemed not to be disturbed.24
Left: Ticket for Roland Hayes recital, Municipal Auditorium, St. Louis, February 5, 1935. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Right: Program for Roland Hayes recital, Municipal Auditorium, St. Louis, February 5, 1935. From the Urban League of St. Louis Records, series 1, box 3, folder 38. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.
Moreover, Hayes’s performance was a critical success—the Post-Dispatch critic called it “as splendid a performance as has been heard on a St. Louis concert platform in many a year.”25 The tenor performed the work of Europeans such as Debussy and Handel as well as “Dawn” by the black British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor and a set of spirituals. The Post-Dispatch critic was surprised to prefer Hayes’s renditions of European classics, writing that “it does not seem reasonable that a Negro should be a master of German music and an unsatisfactory singer of spirituals, but that is true in the case of Hayes.”26 The critic for the Argus preferred to celebrate Hayes’s mastery of multiple musical languages, writing that “we could not but think of the fact that this young man whose parents, less than a century ago, were forbidden to read or write their own language, comes forth as a master in his artistic line, not only in his own language and composition, but in that of the foreign lands.”27 Racial segregation at grand opera performances was finally defeated thanks to the help of another national organization, the NAACP. After persistent legal challenges against the city of St. Louis that worked their way from the St. Louis Circuit Court to the St. Louis Court of Appeals to the Missouri Supreme Court, “who declined to hear the case in 1938 because no Constitutional issues were involved….what had been sought by litigation was achieved without court order. Soon after the case was decided, the city changed its position.”28
Listen on YouTube Roland Hayes sings Maledetto sia l’aspetto (1632) by Claudio Monteverdi, ca. 1940. Reginald Boardman, piano.