'American Idol' Candice 'represents something really significant'

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 18, 2013 

Candice Glover's win on "American Idol" Thursday brings to mind the day Marian Anderson came to Beaufort.

It was Feb. 5, 1957, and stars were being imported to this small town to show Lowcountry African American children that they, too, could grow up to be somebody.

The principal at the all-black Robert Smalls High School in Beaufort was the ringleader. "Professor" W. Kent Alston wanted his students to know they were worthy, valuable and quite capable -- things that society at the time was not telling them, to put it mildly.

"Professor" brought in Joe Louis, Lionel Hampton, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Sisters, the Wings Over Jordan Choir, the Harlem Globetrotters, and educators Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin Mays and Mordecai Johnson.

Let me tell you, Marian Anderson was indeed a somebody.

She was like Candice in that her first public singing came as a child in the church. And as a young woman, her career vaulted from small-town tours to international renown after she won a Philadelphia Philharmonic Society singing contest over 300 rivals.

By the time Anderson got to Beaufort, she was not only a leading operatic contralto, but an unwitting superstar in America's long battle for racial equality.

In 1939, Anderson was denied, because of her race, a performance at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Among those outraged was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the DAR and pushed for Anderson's free concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It attracted 75,000 people on Easter Sunday and millions of radio listeners.

In her performance that day, as well as her performance in Beaufort, Anderson was resigned to fact that "my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."

'ROLL, JORDAN, ROLL'

In Beaufort, Anderson was an overnight guest of Norman and Marie Mouzon. Their home on Scott Street was a fine example within the African American community, and was often used to house dignitaries who could not be housed in segregated public lodging.

Etta Mann of Lady's Island recalls the Mouzons hosting a reception for Anderson, which she said was attended by Maj. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg, commanding general at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, and his wife, and several of his wife's friends.

"That was most unusual for the time," said Mann, then a teacher at St. Helena High School.

Da-Renne Pazant Westrook has told me that Anderson visited the Pazant home on Greene Street. The home of Edward and Rosalie Pazant was always filled with music; when Lionel Hampton visited Beaufort, his band played on the porch.

Westbrook recalled this about Anderson: "She did not allow (the children) to touch her. She didn't want to get any germs that would harm her singing voice."

Anderson -- who would sing at the next two presidential inaugurations and later that year tour India and the Far East as an American goodwill ambassador -- was given a tour of Parris Island, visiting the historic home of the commanding general.

Her concert was held at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night in the Robert Smalls gymnasium, located on what is now the parking lot for the Beaufort County Courthouse. Anderson's policy was that she would not perform before segregated audiences. Mann recalls that whites and blacks attended the show here, but sat on different sides of the gym.

Muriel Smalley of Beaufort was an usher. "The crowd was mixed," she said. "Everyone was in their finest outfits and the place was packed."

An advance notice in The Beaufort Gazette said the concert would benefit the Robert Smalls marching band and "feature operatic selections from Handel, Schubert, and Saint-Saens; sentimental selections entitled 'Lullaby,' 'The Ploughboy,' 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' and 'Blow, Blow the Winter Wind'; and Negro spirituals entitled 'Go Down, Moses,' 'O, What a Beautiful City,' 'My Lord, What a Morning,' and 'Roll, Jordan, Roll.' "

HOMEGROWN MODELS

Robert Smalls graduate Delo Washington of Beaufort says 23-year-old Candice Glover's burst onto the national scene "represents something really significant."

It's proof that our children can be somebody, and that we can raise our own role models instead of importing them.

But that has always been the case, Washington said.

When given a level playing field and a bigger audience -- elsewhere -- Joe Frazier of Burton became the world heavyweight boxing champion.

Washington's brother, Kenny Washington, was discovered as a basketball player by Walt Hazzard in Philadelphia and became a key player on Coach John Wooden's first two national championship teams at UCLA.

Now from rural St. Helena Island comes the shy Candice Glover, whose untrained voice was so superior to the other "American Idol" contestants that if it had been a softball game they would've used the mercy rule to call it off weeks ago.

The question in Washington's mind is whether the community knows these stories, and whether gifted African Americans are recognized for their gifts in their own hometown.

Back in 1957, the only coverage of Marian Anderson's concert came from Jack Pitts, editor of the small "News of Particular Interest to the Colored Community" section near the back of the weekly Gazette. Perhaps these questions were on his mind when Pitts asked the star if she had a word of admonition for teenage girls.

"I would also include boys," Anderson said. "They must, for sheer advantage, be college trained to meet the demands of 15 to 25 years hence and even now. If there is a remote possibility of going beyond high school, take the advantage. The future will use mostly those who are prepared."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

It's Candice! Glover takes "American Idol" crown, May 17

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