Student Committee for the Admission of Negroes (SCAN), Washington University in St. Louis, 1949
John Cotter Trio performs at a SCAN rally at Washington University, May 3, 1949. Clipping from Oliver F. Fink, “Campus Crusade,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 8, 1949. In scrapbook kept by Judith Saul Stix, 1949-50. From the Student Committee for the Admission of Negroes (SCAN) Collection, series 1, box 1, folder 3. University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis. Digital copy available.
Scrapbooks are personal archives that both preserve historical information and reveal the priorities and aims of their creators. Judith Saul Stix, who donated this scrapbook to Washington University’s University Archives in 2003, assembled it when she was an undergraduate member of the Student Committee for the Admission of Negroes (SCAN) during 1949 and 1950.
Photo of Judith Saul. Clipping from Oliver F. Fink, “Campus Crusade,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 8, 1949.
SCAN was founded in 1947 by Washington University students affiliated with the American Veterans Committee, the campus YMCA and YWCA, and the Brown School of Social Work. By 1949, the university’s graduate programs had begun accepting black students, but the undergraduate college continued to deny admission to African Americans. Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton told campus newspaper Student Life in March 1949 that “it (general admission) has been discussed, but there are no plans for changing our administrative policies at present.” 1
Left: Graham Memorial Chapel, 1948. The Hatchet (Washington University, 1948), 6.
Right: Roderick Palmer leading the Vanguards glee club at Washington Technical High School, St. Louis, 1947. “Tech Vets Form Male Glee Club,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 1, 1947
Music, and black musicians in particular, played a central role in attracting audiences to SCAN events and in promoting the group’s goal of racial inclusion. On April 29, 1949, African American tenor Roderick Palmer gave a recital sponsored by SCAN in the university’s Graham Chapel. While pursuing a career as a vocalist, Palmer also worked as a teacher at Washington Technical High School and completed an M.A. in English at Washington University.
Palmer, whom the Post-Dispatch credited with a “light and reedy” singing style reminiscent of Roland Hayes’s, had already presented recitals at St. Louis venues including Kiel Auditorium Opera House and the Sheldon Memorial Auditorium, and had toured throughout the United States and South America.2 His Graham Chapel program demonstrated racial integration musically by juxtaposing European concert music, including pieces by Handel, Delibes and Tchaikovsky, with pieces written by African American composers W.C. Handy and William Lawrence. During the recital’s intermission, Palmer made a speech advocating admission of African Americans to the university to an audience estimated at 150.3 After receiving his MA in English in 1949, Palmer went on to a PhD in Education from Ohio State and a successful academic career during which he became professor and chair of the Department of English at Southern University. 4
Advertisement, St. Louis Argus, November 26, 1948The following week, SCAN undertook one of its most widely publicized actions, a poll conducted May 4-6 that "called for a yes or no answer on whether the students favored admission of Negroes in September, 1949."5 On May 3, SCAN sought to generate student interest in the poll by staging a march across campus followed by a noon rally on the green area between Graham Chapel and the Women’s Building.6 The St. Louis Argus reported that between speeches by Eugene Buder of the ACLU and Norman Golden, vice-chairman of SCAN, the crowd was treated to "a generous helping of be-bop, provided by the John Cotter and Ben Thigpen combos."7 The Post-Dispatch noted that "attention was sharpened...when Ben Thigpen, leader of a Negro quartet, ‘The Be-Boppers,’ from East St. Louis tuned up for several fast numbers."8
Both Thigpen and Cotter played important roles in the St. Louis jazz scene. Thigpen, born in 1908, had moved to St. Louis in 1947 after a seventeen-year stint as the drummer for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, a popular swing band.9 In 1948, he led the “Interracial All Star Combo,” a band that (unusually for the period) included both black and white musicians, at the Glass Bar in the Midtown Hotel.10. By the 1960s, Thigpen was best known as the drummer of tubist Singleton Palmer’s Dixieland Six, a popular attraction in the Gaslight Square nightclub district.11
Singleton Palmer, The Best Dixieland Band, Norman LP NL-110, 1964. This album features drummer Ben Thigpen.
Although Thigpen’s band at the SCAN rally was called “the Be-Boppers,” they may have played New Orleans jazz or swing rather than the more modernist bebop style.
John Cleophus Cotter, “The Negro in Music in St. Louis” (MA thesis, Washington University, 1959), front coverPianist John Cotter, whose trio appears in the scrapbook photo at the top of the page, was a graduate of Sumner High School who had performed in USO shows in the Philippines and Japan with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in 1946.12 After attending Stowe Junior College and Wilberforce University and serving for eight years as the secretary of Local 197, St. Louis’s African American chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, Cotter earned an MA in Music Education at Washington University in 1959.13 His thesis, “The Negro in Music in St. Louis,” is a comprehensive history, encompassing genres from classical to jazz to rock and roll, that scholars continue to cite today.
When the votes in the SCAN poll were tallied, they revealed that 1767 students supported admission of black undergraduates, with only 516 opposed.14 It took three more years, but SCAN eventually achieved its goal. As historians Mary Kimbrough and Margaret W. Dagen explain, “the pressure finally proved effective. On Friday, May 9, 1952, the administration and trustees of Washington University quietly passed a resolution to open the doors, desegregating the undergraduate divisions.”15
Listen on YouTube Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, Froggy Bottom (1936), featuring Ben Thigpen, vocals.