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Baritone Singer Paul Robeson and the Segregation Policies of the Asheville Auditorium

Henry A. Wallace served as vice president of the U.S. under Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1941-1945. He made his final public action in a failed bid for the presidency of the U.S. in 1948. Still commanding a modest following from left-wing groups, he ran on the Progressive ticket, campaigning against Truman, the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, and the  candidate Strom Thurmond.

Henry Agard Wallace 33rd Vice President of the United States

During his presidential bid as a Progressive party candidate, Wallace campaigned against what he feared would be W.W. III and against segregation of the races. Wallace made a tour of Southern states in the late summer of 1948. Prior to his arrival in North Carolina, the Mayor of Gadsden, Alabama wired Wallace he was not welcomed there as planned, the Mayor of Little Rock denied him speaking, and the Governor of Arkansas said he was prohibited from speaking at the state capital which did not allow political rallies.

Once Wallace’s tour led him into North Carolina, his speech was interrupted with egg and vegetable throwing at Durham, Greensboro, High Point and Burlington. Three men were arrested for throwing eggs at Wallace in Charlotte. The New York Times weighed in saying they were “sure the decent people of the South are as ashamed of the exhibitions some of its citizens have given as are all decent Americans.”

A general view of the crowd that assembled in front of the Buncombe County Courthouse to hear Wallace speak.

Wallace’s previous encounters in the South did not deter him and he ended his tour in North Carolina at Asheville on October 31, 1948. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported on September 1, 1948 that Wallace appeared “slightly harried” and a “little tired and a little nervous” as he took the podium. Reportage called it a “good-natured crowd.” In a broadcast “recorded for ABC network, Mr. Wallace said he was “very pleased” with the way he was received in Asheville. “It seems the citizens of Asheville save the eggs and tomatoes for their children. That is a splendid custom.”

 

Wallace speaking in front of the Buncombe County Courthouse; to the far left, the woman with her hand upraised is Mrs. Hortense Pattison of Asheville. A Latin and Greek scholar with a PH. D. from the University of Chicago, she taught at Grove Park School and the Asheville School for Girls. She also taught Thomas Wolfe, who characterized her in “Look Homeward, Angel” as “Sister Sheba and her consumptive husband”, referring to her husband, artist James W. Pattison. [From “The People and Places of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” by Joanne Mauldin.]

Buncombe County employees took time off from their jobs to hear Wallace speak.

After his appearance in Asheville, Wallace stayed at the home of Dr. Karl Schaffle at 10 Normandy in Kenilworth. Progressive party members there “sang songs, including “Allelula, I’m a Traveler,” led by folk singer Pete Seeger accompanied by an all-Negro trio of Asheville.” Unfortunately, the Citizen-Times also reported that, “several blocks from the Schaffle home, a group of children–all of them apparently under 12 years of age–burned an effigy of Mr. Wallace on Kenilworth road.”

Wallace greets Karl Schaffle, Jr. with his sister Elinor Schaffle at his side, at a reception at the Schaffle home.

Some of Asheville’s “comparably peaceful reception” to Wallace may be explained by reportage of the event covered by The Baltimore Afro-American, September 4, 1948.

“Two white men stood talking after the meeting.”

“Why in the h . . didn’t you throw them eggs,” asked number one.

“You know d–mn well why I did not. Didn’t you see them ‘n —-rs’ around me? They were saying that there wasn’t gonna be no egg throwing.”

“You didn’t let a few ‘n…rs scare you.”

“Well you was right there. You know where the eggs were. You could have thrown them. Why you want to wait until the speaking is over and start bothering me.”

The Baltimore paper added that “a group from Asheville’s Eagle Street went over to the Wallace meeting and let it be known they did not exactly approve of egg throwing white folks. They began a little song, “There won’t be any egg-throwing here today” and there were not.”

During Henry Wallace’s campaign, nationally known baritone singer Paul Robeson had also gained national prominence for his political views. Robeson was the co-chairman of the National Wallace-for-President committee and the Progressive party booked him across the country to sing as well as to talk in support of Wallace. On May 31, 1948, Asheville city officials denied Robeson the ability to perform at the Asheville City Auditorium for an unsegregated mass meeting. City Manager P.M. Burdett was quoted in the Asheville Citizen-Times on June 1, 1948 as saying, “The city’s policy is to lease the auditorium either to white or Negro groups.” When the white people rent it, they may designate where the Negroes will be seated. When the Negroes rent it, they may designate where the white people will be seated. We saw no reason to change the policy for Mr. Robeson.” Co-chairmen of the Buncombe County Progressive party committee, Edwin Bjorkman and Mrs. L.B. Michael said “Neither Mr. Robeson nor the Progressive party would sponsor a program before a segregated audience.”

Paul Robeson standing next to the speaker at a 1948 rally for Henry Wallace.

Floyd B. McKissick, an Asheville native who grew up on Madison Street went before City Council on June 3, 1948 as an adherent of Henry Wallace for president to ask that the city’s policy in regard to segregation of the races at the City auditorium be abandoned. “McKissick, speaking with considerable feeling, told the council he wanted “Justice” and asserted that it would be “bad publicity” for Asheville if Robeson were barred from using the auditorium.” Mayor C.E. Morgan, and City Manager P.M. Burdette said that Mr. Robeson was not barred from performing, but the policy has always been that the races will be segregated. McKissick responded that “Mr. Wallace promises to do away with race segregation.” Rev. S.P. Manning, pastor of Brown’s temple, also appealed to council, that he was not interested in Robeson’s politics, but in Asheville taking a liberal policy in the matter of race segregation. Manning said that “Robeson as an artist has been a great inspiration to members of his race”–as in his 1927-28 performance on Broadway of Showboat seen here on YouTube. Council listened to the group for 40 minutes but took no action in the matter. McKissick, along with three others, later integrated the UNC School of Law, and went on to take over CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) making him one of the leading civil rights leaders in the country.

Hardy Scott of Asheville, a representative of District 5 of the International Leather Workers, CIO, appeared before City Council along with a delegation of “about evenly divided between Negroes and white persons” to ask “that the regulations which have been in effect at City auditorium since it was erected, be set aside in order to permit Robeson to appear under the banner of the “Third Party.” Councilman L. Lyons Lee, presiding in the absence of Mayor C.E. Morgan and Vice-Mayor Fred Seely, told Scott that the council had already taken the position that it would not alter its established policy and if any changes were made they would notify Mr. Scott’s delegation at once. [Asheville Citizen-Times June 18, 1948.]

Robeson’s attempts at being allowed to perform in other cities were also met with resistance. Durham took the stance that he could sing but not talk in municipal-owned Carolina theater. But he still couldn’t sing there “unless whites and Negroes are seated separately in the audience.” [Asheville Citizen-Times June 4, 1948.] On October 7 the paper reported that Savannah, Georgia canceled the singer when they learned that there would be mingling of the races. The paper also reported on June 10 that Raleigh council did “amend their policy of segregation on a vote of 7-6, providing a policy of segregation were followed.” A June 13 article said that Robeson would sing in Winston-Salem on June 21. Speaking in Greensboro on June 20th, Robeson “told Greensboro Negroes to join Henry Wallace’s Progressive party ‘so there won’t be any Jim Crow cars on the Freedom Train.'”

Click here to read Cissy Dendy’s “The Heart of Chestnut Hill” which is a part of the North Carolina Room’s Cissy Dendy Collection MS338 where she talks about well known Asheville black residents who lived in her neighborhood, including the McKissick’s, Cissy’s father John Brooks Dendy who was a black golf champion, Lehman Williams and Harold Fields–two of the first black policemen in Asheville, educator Lucy Herring and Dr. and Mrs. Frank Toliver, principal at Stephens Lee High School, among others.

Post by North Carolina Room librarian Zoe Rhine

One comment on “Baritone Singer Paul Robeson and the Segregation Policies of the Asheville Auditorium

  1. Michael J Strong
    November 9, 2017

    Thanks for the posts, always fascinating look at the Asheville of my boyhood.

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