African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War
| The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II

Part 1
Part 2: Cultural Expressions in the 1940s | Breaking Barriers in Sports

Cultural Expressions in the 1940s

William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony

William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony, written in 1930 and first performed in 1931, epitomizes the African American composer's right to be heard in the concert hall. It is one of several symphonies written by black composers in the early 1930s, including the Florence Price E. Minor Symphony, the Negro Folk Symphony by William Levi Dawson, and the Harlem Symphony by James P. Johnson.

The Library owns two manuscripts of the Afro-American Symphony: the original 1930 version and the second revision of the original (or the third version) done ca. 1935. The second is exhibited here. In the symphony's opening, the English horn melody changes into the driving blues tune that is the symphony's unifying motif.

Image: Caption follows

William Grant Still.
Afro American Symphony, 1930.
Composer's holograph manuscript.
Music Division. (8-2)
Courtesy of Novello and Company
c/o Shawnee Press
49 Waring Drive, Delaware Watergap, PA 18327-1099.
Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, born in 1915, was the definitive voice of jazz singing from the late 1930s through the 1940s. Like her predecessor Bessie Smith, she excelled in taking any old tune and transforming it into a major human statement. Of her own songs, the most famous are "Billie's Blues" (1936) and "God Bless' the Child That's Got His Own."

Arthur Herzog, Jr., and Billie Holiday.
"'God Bless' the Child,' a swing-spiritual based on the authentic proverb 'God Blessed the Child That's Got His Own.'"
New York: Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, 1941.
Sheet music.
Music Division. (8-17)
© 1941 by Edward B. Marks Music Company. Copyright renewed. Used by permission of Carlin America, Inc. 126 East 38th Street New York, NY 10016.

"God Bless the Child" builds on the tradition of Bessie Smith's, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" (1929), which in its turn builds on Cecil Mack's "All In, Down and Out" (1906). Thus, generations of African American songwriters joined together to bring the message that in times of trouble individuals have to rely on their own resources.

Music and Music Publishing in the 1940s

Langston Hughes's first published poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," appeared in the June 1921 issue of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. Since that time it has been set to music repeatedly by African American composers seeking a worthy poem for an extended art song. The best known of these settings is this one by Chicago composer Margaret Bonds, published in 1942 by the Handy Brothers Music Company. Run by W. C. Handy, that company used the money made by "The St. Louis Blues" and other early Handy blues songs to finance the publication of classical music by a generation of African American composers, including J. Rosamond Johnson, Eubie Blake, Noah Francis Ryder, and Harry Lawrence Freeman.

Image: Caption follows

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
Words by Langston Hughes and Margaret Bonds.
New York: Handy Brothers Music Company, Inc., 1942.
Sheet music.
Music Division. (8-1)
Courtesy of the Handy Brothers Music Company, Ed Sullivan Theater Building, 1697 Broadway New York, NY 10019

Anniversary of Freedom
Library of Congress.
An Exhibit of Books, Manuscripts, Music, Paintings, and Other Works of Art Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, December 18, 1940.
Interpretive Programs Office. (8-31)

December 18, 1940, was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery or "involuntary servitude" in the entire United States. To commemorate this anniversary, the Library of Congress sponsored an exhibit of books, manuscripts, music, paintings and other works of art, and a concert series.

African American performers during the concert series included soprano Dorothy Maynor and tenor Roland Hayes. Howard University scholars Alain Locke and Sterling Brown participated in the program, and bibliographer Dorothy Porter, historian Carter Woodson, and renowned musicians Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, Lulu Childers, and W. Grant Still served on the advisory committees.

Duke Ellington--Cultural Ambassador

Band leader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was a musical genius. A composer of over one thousand works and a performer, Ellington traveled all over the world with hos band. They were also featured in motion pictures made by several studios. The Valburn Collection in the Library's recorded sound archives includes eleven thousand Ellington recordings on disc. Performers like Ellington and sports greats like Jackie Robinson helped to break down barriers of racial hostility in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. In 1959, the NAACP awarded Ellington its coveted Spingarn Medal for his contribution to the African American cultural heritage. This image was taken by the famed African American photographer Gordon Parks.

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Gordon Parks.
Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club.
New York, N.Y., May 1943.
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (8-11)

Breaking Barriers in Sports

Paul Robeson--Singer, Athlete, Actor, Civil Rights Leader
"Thirteenth Spingarn Medal awarded to Paul Robeson, October 18, 1945."
NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (8-26)
Courtesy of the NAACP

Paul Leroy Robeson, born in New Jersey in 1898, earned an academic scholarship to Rutgers College in 1915. After graduation, Robeson went on to Columbia Law School. He paid his fees there by playing with the National Football League for three years. However, after briefly working in a law firm, Robeson turned to theater. He acted in films and on stage, and sang in concert, winning international acclaim. Outspoken in his criticism of racism, Robeson was blacklisted in the 1940s and 1950s because he refused to repudiate his leftist affiliation. Nonetheless, the NAACP gathered this large group of people to celebrate their presentation of the Spingarn Medal to Robeson for his achievements in 1945.

Battling Discrimination at the 1936 Olympics--An Unsent Letter

This letter from NAACP leader Walter White to Jesse Owens urges him not to participate in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, which was under Nazi rule, but it was never sent. In the letter, White writes: "The very preeminence of American Negro athletes gives them an unparalleled opportunity to strike a blow at racial bigotry and to make other minority groups conscious of the sameness of their problems with ours . . . But the moral issue involved is, in my opinion, far greater than immediate or future benefit to the Negro as a race. If the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the world are successful it is inevitable that dictatorships based upon prejudice will spread . . ."

The U. S. did send an Olympic team to Berlin, and Owens was its star, winning four gold medals.

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Walter White to Jesse Owens, December 4, 1935.
Unsent, typed letter, concerning participation by black athletes in the 1936 Olympic Games.
NAACP Collection, Manuscript Division. (8-24)
Courtesy of the NAACP

An African American Woman on the Courts

Althea Gibson, born in 1927 in Silver, South Carolina, first became a champion among African American tennis players. In 1949 Gibson began competing against white players, and in 1956, won the French Open becoming the first African American to do so. The next year at Wimbledon, Gibson won her first singles title and repeated her win the following year, as well as winning the U.S. National Championship titles at Forest Hills, New York, in 1957 and 1958. After several more tennis championships, Gibson turned to golf, playing with the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

In this image Gibson is reaching high for a shot during the women's single semifinal match against Christine Truman at Wimbledon, England in 1957.

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[Althea Gibson, of New York, reaching high for shot during women's singles semifinal match against Christine Truman, of England, in the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, England, July 4, 1957].
Silver gelatin print.
New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (8-28)
Courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos

Wilt the Stilt Captures Basketball Records
Fred Palumbo.
[Wilt Chamberlain, three-quarter length portrait, wearing uniform of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, 1959].
Prints and Photographs Division. (8-29)

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Wilton Norman Chamberlain grew to be seven feet one inches tall. From his youth he dominated the basketball courts. Attending the University of Kansas for two years, Chamberlain led his team through twenty-four wins and three losses in 1956, his first year on varsity. He became a Harlem Globetrotter briefly, and signed with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. Although he was lured away to other teams, Chamberlain dominated the National Basketball Association (NBA) for fourteen years. Named to the NBA Hall of Fame, he still holds many records, including the honor of being the first player to earn thirty thousand points.

Olympian Wilma Rudolph

Born to a large family in Clarksville, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph was stricken with polio. As a child, there was scant hope that she would ever walk. However, with the help of her family, who massaged her legs, and regular visits to the hospital, she did not need her brace or corrective shoes by the time she was a teenager. She came to excel at track. Rudolph earned a place on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team and won a bronze medal in the 440 meter relay. In the 1960 Olympics, she won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter dash, and the 400 meter relay, breaking world records in all three events. Rudolph was the first American woman--black or white--ever to win three gold medals in the Olympics.

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Wilma Rudolph at the finish line during 50-yard dash at track meet in Madison Square Garden, 1961.
Silver gelatin print.
New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (9-23)
Courtesy of CORBIS

The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War
| The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List