African Americans Charlotte Hawkins Brown Greensboro Civic Music Association music Palmer Memorial Institute Walter Clinton Jackson

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Walter Clinton Jackson, and Segregated Facilities at WC

February is Black History Month. To celebrate, our Spartan Stories this month focus on remembering important people and events related to the history of African Americans and UNCG.

Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a prominent African American educator who, in 1902, founded the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, NC (in eastern Guilford County). Due to its proximity to Greensboro, there was an established relationship between Brown, the Palmer Memorial Institute, and the educational leaders at the school now known as UNCG. In the Summer of 1924, Brown spoke on “inter-racial relations” at the annual YWCA Conference attended by many students from Greensboro. Some alumni recall the Sedalia Singers, the Palmer Memorial Institute’s traveling choir, performing at the mandatory chapel sessions.

Brown in 1912

Lula Martin McIver, widow of founding president Charles Duncan McIver, served on the Palmer Memorial Institute Board of Trustees. In a heartfelt letter written on September 17, 1926, to Mrs. McIver, Brown discussed her pride at three of her students (including her adopted son) leaving the Institute to attend college. Brown wrote that McIver should “take a share of the credit to your own dear self for if you had not stood by me all these years, I could not have done for them what has been done.”

Brown faced constant challenges to retain adequate funding for her school. While the school had a strong performing arts curriculum, students lacked an appropriate venue for local performances, and, because of the strict Jim Crow segregation laws in North Carolina, they were forced to travel to northern U.S. cities in order to attend the top-notch musical performances she wished them to experience. On July 22, 1928, she wrote to Wade Brown, head of the school of music of what was then the North Carolina College for Women (now UNCG) asking if her Institute might use the newly-constructed Aycock Auditorium as a venue for their annual concert. She wrote, “I always have tried to make friends of my neighbors, and it hurts me to feel that there is no place in Greensboro where we can give our program.” Her request was denied, based on the state’s strict rules regarding segregation in public buildings.

Aycock Auditorium interior at the 1930 Commencement

The issue of segregated seating in Aycock Auditorium was again raised by Brown in May 1935 when she wrote then president Walter Clinton Jackson to request that she be allowed to purchase 50 tickets for her students to attend performances by the Greensboro Civic Music Association in Aycock Auditorium. Jackson responded with his desire to allow her students to attend, but offered segregated seating — “a block of 55 seats on the mezzanine floor of the auditorium” with “two stairways that give easy and comfortable access to these seats.” He assured her that these seats “are regarded as being as good as any in the house.”

Brown, however, declined the offer, noting that after talking with Jackson and other educators she felt “that perhaps after all it will be better for us and our students to forgo the pleasure and inspiration of the fine music for the time being.” She felt uncomfortable with the segregated seating arrangement, feeling that her students may think that she asked specifically for this seating arrangement. After thought, however, she stated, “I asked for the opportunity of hearing the music. It would be impossible to hear it in North Carolina without accepting segregation.”

Jackson in 1948

While Jackson was viewed as socially progressive on racial issues for the time, he was bound by the state’s Jim Crow laws. He apologized to Brown for the situation and wrote, “I hope the time will speedily come when the difficulties which confront us may be more easily resolved.”

Two years later, however, Brown was forced to write Jackson again, this time asking for a block of 50 seats, “segregated as offered.” Her budget no longer allowed for the students to travel to New York City and Boston for any performances. While she was adamantly opposed to segregation, she wrote that “the souls of Negroes are starving for fine music.” She saw musical performances as integral components of her students’ education. And she optimistically wrote that, “when this segregation is wiped away, as it is going to be in public places of this kind within twenty-five years, leaders who have been developed at Palmer Memorial Institute shall have taught their children such appreciation of these fine things in life that they will be able to go to these musicals and listen with appreciation.”

Article by Erin Lawrimore

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