Generation 5: Musicians

Marvelettes 1966
Photo of Marvelettes from The Tiger Newspaper. Source: TigerPrints.

From the Great Depression to the early 1970s, numerous Black musicians and groups played for sponsored dances, balls, and concerts at the request of Clemson cadets and the student-run Central Dance Association (CDA). In addition, many of these groups also performed at local clubs as a part of the Chitlin’ Circuit across the South where many famous bands found their big break. These performers often gave concerts and headlined dances in front of an exclusively white audience at Clemson College which was, until 1963, whites-only in its student admissions and faculty and administrator hiring policies. Many performers, even prominent artists like Duke Ellington, had to lodge overnight in nearby Greenville, South Carolina, since the town of Clemson was whites-only in most public accommodations. Nevertheless, Clemson drew some of the biggest names in R&B, swing, bebop, and jazz, beginning with bombastic big-band performances in the 1930s through the 1950s and transitioning toward vocal groups in the 1960s. These musicians’ experiences often illustrate the cynical logic behind segregation and the legacy of Black performances in front of a white audience.

Clemson’s white students were, for the most part, willing to accept Black people as performers in the same way that they accepted them as workers in the mess hall or the laundry. They compartmentalized roles that were deemed “acceptable” for Black men and women to remain visible in, and the praise the white students often heaped on the visiting performers in the student newspaper contrasted sharply with the way these performers were treated once they arrived on campus. At the same time, many students eventually began to grumble about the profusion of Black groups being invited to Clemson in the first half of the 1960s, creating some backlash against the CDA. These examples illustrate the resistance and reaction of members of the white student body towards both Black musical excellence and at the same time foreshadowed the coming struggles over desegregation, Confederate symbology, and reckoning with Clemson’s racist past.

Jimmy Lunceford from 1939 Tiger Newspaper. Source: TigerPrints.

The earliest mention that Call My Name has been made aware thus far of a Black group performing at a college-sponsored event comes from an article in the March 9, 1920 issue of The Tiger, Clemson’s long-running student newspaper.

That article mentions a “negro orchestra” that performed at the College for Junior Prom, describing the concert as a “very novel feature, and as for jazz music, they ‘put it out.’” The band was delayed in their arrival by missing a train en route to the campus, but the overall reception to their performance seemed very positive. Throughout the next two decades, there are scattered mentions of Black performers who gave concerts, including Graham Jackson, the famous pianist and close friend of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jackson performed at Clemson with his group, the Seminole Syncopators, for the Athletic Ball in 1931. This concert’s reception matched that of the earlier 1920 group, with The Tiger hailing it as a rousing success.

In 1939, Jimmie Lunceford, one of the biggest names of the swing era, performed at Clemson after an extensive series of negotiations. Lunceford and his band were such a hit that they were invited back for headlining performances in 1940 and a posthumous performance by his band in 1948. Lunceford’s 1939 performance marks the beginning of a trend that would continue until the early 1960s, wherein the CDA would invite more Black performers to campus, reaching bigger names in the industry, until just after desegregation, when declining profits and student complaints forced the organization to scale back its operations. Lunceford’s performance was also the result of an extensive negotiation process, with his marketing agents trying to convince the college to book him and his group, while the CDA expressed concerns about the students’ reaction to a Black group headlining a student dance. 

From the CDA’s reticence to hire Lunceford, who was a nationally prominent name at the time, it can be inferred that there are quite possibly other Black musical groups that tried to perform at Clemson but were turned down. That ended up being the case with Edward “Duke” Ellington. As early as 1938, his agents had been reaching out to the CDA, trying to get them to book him for a headlining performance; however, the CDA’s representatives shrugged off the requests, stating that the Duke was ostensibly too expensive for its budget. The CDA was indeed concerned with its bottom line—though they feared the effect inviting a Black performer might have on the student organization, not necessarily the performance’s cost itself. Eventually, the Duke did perform at Clemson, over a decade later in 1955. His performance was widely praised by white students at the time, but it foreshadowed the growing discontent among white students that would manifest itself later in 1963, when some began to complain about the profusion of Black artists that were being invited to headline CDA-sponsored events in the same year that Clemson was forced to accept its first Black students. Eventually, Ellington’s son would bring the orchestra back to Clemson in 1978 for a concert in September of that year, with far less advertisement and acclaim, partly due to the declining bottom line of the CDA and its decision to scale back from large dance events headlined by big bands.

Autographed photo of Duke Ellington made out to Central Dance Association (CDA) from 1955. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

Ultimately, the experiences of the Black musicians who visited campus in the years before and immediately after desegregation put the attitudes of the Clemson student body and the media that represented them on full display. Black performers were palatable only so long as they conformed to the specific role they were given. White students showered praise on them for their performances and the quality of their work while Black men and women were confined to service jobs around campus. Until 1963, the Black musicians had to seek lodging elsewhere because of segregation laws. Unlike many of the other generations, the musicians’ lives and careers are comparatively well-known and their experiences at Clemson are somewhat well-documented. However, the information available reveals some disconcerting attitudes that existed among white Clemson students that influenced their reception of Black music and musicians and their rejection of Black students. As always, Call My Name continues to dig deeper to uncover personal stories and experiences behind these headlining names that appear in bold font in the student newspaper. Behind the façade of grandeur and praise lie the realities of these musicians’ experiences and the social structures under which they lived, performed, and operated.

Autographed photo of Cat Anderson made out to Central Dance Association (CDA) from 1955. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

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Works Cited

Special thanks to Dr. Maya Hislop, assistant professor in Clemson’s Department of English, for pointing us to this reference.

  1. The Tiger, Vol. XV No. 21, March 9, 1920, p. 1.
  2. The Tiger, Vol. XXVI No. 27, April 15, 1931, p. 1.
  3. The Tiger, February 15, 1963, p. 1.