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A Contrary Path to Social Justice: The De Porres Club and the fight for equality in Omaha

May 1, 2010 1 comment

 

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This article is an example of my social justice writing. The publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) asked me to do the piece because of his own social justice bent. I am glad I did the story, which was originally published in The Reader.  This is an expanded version of that story.  It profiles two men, John Markoe and Denny Holland, some followers, and their fight for equal rights in a discriminatory, intolerant time.

A Contrary Path to Social Justice

The De Porres Club and the Fight for Equality in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

For a band of troublemakers, they were an unimposing lot. Yet, in an era when defacto segregation ruled, a small, racially mixed group of well-scrubbed, mostly college-age reformers — many with little experience beyond the classroom — rose up in the late 1940s to challenge the embedded discrimination and division that defined Omaha then. Along the way, they forced Omaha to confront some unpleasant truths and to make some long overdue changes.

Using fairly bold strategies and tactics in the fight against racism, ones duplicated later by more famous civil rights campaigns down south, the activists were viewed as militants. Staging non-violent sit-ins, marches and boycotts, they helped overturn unfair employment practices and opened public places to all. In the process, they took on powerbrokers and exposed inequality. They made enemies. They fell short of goals. They won small victories. More importantly, they broke down barriers and initiated changes whose reverberations are still being felt today.

These unlikely radicals formed the De Porres Club. Its patron namesake was Blessed Martin de Porres, a 16th century black friar who devoted his life to serving the disadvantaged. Led by a stubborn old priest, Fr. John Markoe, and his loyal young acolyte, Denny Holland, the Club worked in large and small ways to assist minorities. It helped some find jobs. It distributed food and clothes. It acted on individual complaints about discrimination. It studied “the race problem” by organizing forums and gathering data. It rallied support for wrongfully accused persons. It kept vigils when blacks moved into hostile white areas. It launched public pressure campaigns against companies that did business in north Omaha and yet refused hiring blacks.

“The problem was to get the damn wall knocked down that was holding and locking people, both physically and mentally, in this terrible system racism had built on Omaha’s near north side,” said the late Denny Holland in Camille Steed’s 1992 Nebraska Educational Television documentary A Street of Dreams. “And so we turned our efforts to what some, I suppose, would term more militant” means.

In one of his most famous denouncements of racism, the late John Markoe said, “Racism is a God Damned thing. And that’s two words — God Damned.” In an article he penned for the Interracial Review, he said, “…the race problem is a moral one.”

The first De Porres boycott targeted a dry cleaners. When that action prompted the firm to integrate its employee rolls, the Club moved on to other employers. Faced with pickets, leaflets, petitions and boycotts, the Coca Cola Bottling plant, Reed’s Ice Cream Co. and the Omaha Street Railway Co. gave-in to De Porres demands and hired blacks. The Club took on its biggest target in the local board of education, which didn’t hire blacks to teach at the secondary level and excluded them from teaching in white schools altogether. The years-long fight finally got the desired remedy. The Club also got such businesses as Dixon’s Restaurant, Crosstown Skating Rink and Peony Park to open their facilities to everyone.

Walking the Talk and Lighting the Torch

In an era when the Catholic Church discouraged blacks from its own congregations, Catholics Markoe and Holland lived their faith. “They walked and talked what they believed in. They were very brazen and unusual” for the time, said Omaha Star publisher and editor Marguerita Washington, a De Porres member in the late ‘50s.

During the Club’s 14-year life, volunteers came and went. When Holland stepped aside, Wilbur Phillips took up the mantle. Most regard the work as a defining moment in their lives. For white De Porres veterans Agnes (Wichita) Stark, Millie (Heifner) Barnet and Virginia (Frederick) Walsh it was an eye-opening experience that sparked a lifelong commitment to social causes. “It was kind of a social awakening,” said Stark, a Creighton student at the time. “I didn’t realize all the problems that existed for blacks. I felt the injustice of it all. That’s how I got interested.” Barnet recalled going to her first De Porres meeting “and just in that one evening, I felt my whole world turned around. It was like suddenly I saw how appalling things were. I was immediately put in touch. It made quite an impact on my life.” For Walsh, “It made college so much more meaningful. I learned we had to change what could be changed. I was just glad to be part of it.” All three women credit the De Porres experience with, as Walsh said, “lighting a torch” for their later involvement in the women’s and peace movements.

Then there’s the effect blacks felt. “We not only formed a family, we got along very wonderfully. We tried our best to bring people together,” said Irv Poindexter, one of the Club’s youngest members. “You know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to Omaha’s black community,” said Helen Jones Woods, a member along with her late husband, Alfred. She said De Porres contributed “to better jobs and better advantages for blacks” — she and her husband included. “Today, I would say because of the De Porres Club a lot of places that didn’t want us, do now, or at least they tolerate us,” Washington said. “A lot of things I am doing today I couldn’t do then. It started changing things. It helped in ending Jim Crow.”

 

 

 

A Renegade

Unless one lived then, it’s hard to understand just how separate and unequal Omaha was for racial minorities. “Omaha had a bad reputation among African Americans,” said Washington, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., but often visited Omaha, where she attended UNO. “The segregation here was very bad,” said Woods, who grew up in segregationist Mississippi.

Choose any quality of life index and blacks lagged far behind whites. On average, they made less money, lived in subpar housing and had less formal education. Blacks were frozen out of a wide spectrum of jobs, restricted to living in certain areas and refused service or admittance at many establishments. They were denied basic rights as part of an insidious, institutional Jim Crow culture that made segregation the rule, if not the law. An unspoken state of apartheid existed in all but name.

It was amidst this pervasive oppression the De Porres Club was born. It took an outsider to do it. De Porres founder John Markoe was a strapping, charismatic Jesuit priest regarded as a renegade by peers and superiors at Creighton University. A few years before, he’d been booted out of St. Louis, where he’d agitated for similar changes to the status quo. He’d also made waves in Detroit and Denver. In his life, his ministry and his writings, he attacked “the heresy of racism.”

Running against the current was a way of life with Markoe, who left behind the comforts of privilege for a hardscrabble life. Before ever joining the priesthood, he was a railroad foreman, an athlete, a cavalry officer, a lumberjack and a derelict. Alcoholism plagued him for years. During a checkered military career he rode in campaigns against rebel Yaqui Indians and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Between his drunken brawls — that saw him break up more than one bar and spend more than one night in jail — and his penchant for standing up for minorities, he was always in hot water. He was nearly expelled from West Point and was leading a 10th cavalry regiment of black troops when court martialled and relieved of both his command and commission.

His rebel ways followed him into the Jesuit order, where he became an unpopular champion of civil rights before the cause had a name. In 1917, he, his priest brother William Markoe and a third priest made a covenant “to give and dedicate our whole lives…for the salvation of the Negroes in the United States.” As he later did here, Markoe heeded this calling by immersing himself in the black districts in and around St. Louis, where he set up community centers, chapels and programs. After helping integrate St. Louis University, he was sent packing to Omaha.

Soon after forming the De Porres Club at Creighton in 1947, the group was kicked off campus. The Club next operated from a storefront on North 24th Street. The Omaha De Porres Center began as a grassroots social service mission before finding a niche as a social action group. Early on, center staff maintained a library, held youth programs and rallies and gathered clothes and food for the needy. As part of its education/advocacy calling, the Club: held public forums on racism; organized a lecture series featuring such nationally renown speakers as NAACP general secretary Walter White and baroness Catherine de Hueck, the founder of havens for the poor known as Friendship House; presented such anti-discrimination plays as Trial By Fire; and pressed city, civic and business leaders, to little avail, for more progressive policies. These efforts did spur the creation of a city human relations committee.

Although too controversial to be sanctioned by any religious body, the Club did draw many members from St. Benedict’s the Moor Catholic Church, then a separate “mission” church reserved for blacks, who were unwelcome anywhere else. Markoe and St. Benedict’s pastor, John Killoren, both sought a change at St. Ben’s from its mission status — which condoned segregation — to standard territorial standing. Their different approaches to the issue left them at odds when solidarity, not friction, was needed. In the end, St. Ben’s was made a regular parish church.

Allies

Markoe’s staunchest ally was Mildred Brown, founder, publisher and editor of the Omaha Star, which she made the group’s crusading mouthpiece. The Star printed  summaries of minutes from weekly Club meetings, featured stories charting the progress of De Porres actions and ran Club-penned editorials critical of racial bias. When the Club could no longer afford leasing space in its storefront site, Brown took in the orphaned group, who made the Star’s back rooms their offices.

As the Club became more entrenched, it allied itself with the local chapter of the NAACP, the Omaha Urban League and ministers of area black churches, who helped give the fledgling group credibility and spread word of its actions. A key De Porres supporter and advisor was Whitney Young, who left the directorship of the local Urban League to head the national organization. The Club also aligned itself with CORE, the national Congress for Racial Equality. De Porres chapters sprung up in Kansas City, Mo. and Denver, Co.

If Markoe was the De Porres Club’s conscience, then Denny Holland was its passion. Holland was a quiet Kansas World War II vet in whom Markoe saw a kindred contrariness. It was as a Creighton student Holland became a protege and confidante of Markoe’s and the Club’s original president. His social consciousness was peaked by a stint working at Chicago’s Friendship House. As he did there, he lived among the poor black residents he dedicated himself to, often boarding with families with whom he carried on the fight. Even after stepping away from the Club to work full-time as an insurance salesman and to raise a family of seven, he still kept watch and occasionally made waves.

Acting Against A Torrent of Disapproval

Markoe and Holland are gone now, but De Porres members well recall their guiding the struggle to get a resistant citizenry and leadership to do the right thing. Agnes Stark said Markoe was “a consummate leader” who “pushed us laggards along. Although a gentle man, he could get pretty angry.” Holland, meanwhile, was “very calm, always had the right words and was prepared. They worked very well together” in devising strategies, said Virginia Walsh.

The two men often began anti-discrimination campaigns by first appealing, either in person or by letter, to employers. De Porres delegations would meet with owners, managers or CEOs. If no corrective measure was taken, they organized more direct actions. They might hold a demonstration or distribute handbills. Or, in the case of the street-railway company, the public was urged to not ride streetcars and buses and, if they must, to wage a nuisance protest by paying the fare with 18 pennies.

They did all this in the face of criticism and opposition. Threats were made. Some suspected a snitch in the De Porres ranks. Holland’s suspicions that the phones were tapped, the mail monitored and certain members followed were more or less confirmed years later when his Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request netted a cache of FBI files that had been kept on he and the Club. Marguerita Washington said her aunt, Mildred Brown, was offered a top advertising post by a major Omaha employer on the condition she stop her civil rights advocacy in the Star.

“What we were doing was very much socially disapproved of,” said Walsh. She recalled soliciting signatures for a petition aimed at getting the transit system to hire black drivers. “People would say, emphatically, ‘No.’ They called us N…lovers. There was this confidence people had that God wanted it this way. I didn’t know religion could be used to justify a status quo so pernicious. Fr. Markoe was trying to reform the church at a time when it really didn’t want to be reformed.”

Early De Porres member Tessie Edwards said, “It was very scary, because the climate in Omaha was not ripe for” change. Markoe and Holland soldiered on despite having “doors slammed in their face. They had courage and commitment. And they convinced high-powered people this change was necessary,” she added.

In Street of Dreams, Holland described what it’s like pushing against stiff resistance. “It’s like you’re going up a mountain in a great big semi. All the tires are flat, and you’re the only one pushing and everybody that comes by says, Don’t go too fast. The problem isn’t going too fast, the problem is — can you move the damn thing? You soon see that what’s inferred by don’t go to fast is — don’t change anything.”

Markoe had seen it before elsewhere and anticipated Omaha’s opposition. He even welcomed it, writing it was evidence the Club had “at least done something.” to get people’s attention. He also wrote about his own precarious role: “The leader in the field of interracial relations is pretty much like an acrobat walking the tightrope of justice, supported by charity. His only safe course is a straight line. Let him lean too far towards either side, and he loses his balance and falls.”

The priest encouraged members to carry the fight with them wherever they went. For example, interracial groups would go to eateries and occupy a counter or table. “We would be told to go to the back…and we’d refuse to go,” Millie Barnet said. Sometimes, they were harassed. Once, Barnet said, a member flung a donut in disgust and was arrested on trumped-up assault charges. When his court hearing came up, a throng of De Porres supporters were in attendance. The case was thrown out. More often than not, Agnes Stark said, “we wouldn’t get waited on, but eventually they (eateries) came around” after a bit of discussion. If a proprietor didn’t comply, he was reminded of the law. If he still didn’t, a warrant was sworn out for his arrest. The Club rarely, if ever, lost a case.

Working on the front lines of racial justice often elicited raised eye brows and nasty remarks even among De Porres members’ friends and family. “I felt like an outcast,” Barnet said. “My parents looked askance at my involvement,” Stark said.

The Club’s interracial makeup was not for appearances sake. It was practical. Agitating for change was “fraught with hazards” for blacks, who were considered second class citizens, said Walsh. Besides, it was intimidating for anyone to go up against prevailing social mores and the entities that enforced them. “I was scared spitless when we were doing this work,” said Walsh, who was part of a De Porres delegation rebuffed by officials at old St. Catherine’s Hospital for questioning their segregation and hiring policies. “It was so frightening to buck social customs when the highest level of authority in organizations like the school board and the archdiocese approved of segregation.”

 

 

Filling the Void

A challenge made all the more daunting, Walsh said, as the city’s conservative daily newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, imposed a veritable news “black out” on “all the things that would have contributed to social justice. Reading the Herald, you would have thought the civil rights movement never happened.” When her husband Tom Walsh met with a top Herald editor to discuss inequality, she said he was met with indifference. The same “don’t rock the boat” response came from the archbishop, say De Porres members. Walsh said that when her mother, Mary Frederick, asked Omaha Public Schools superintendent Harry Burke to assign black teachers to white schools, “he told her, ‘Over my dead body.’”

Years later, a federal court found the Omaha Public Schools guilty of a decades-long pattern of segregation and ordered the desegregation of its schools. Much of the evidence in the lawsuit brought against OPS was supplied by the De Porres Club’s own Denny Holland and Wilbur Phillips, who remained ever vigilant watchdogs.

De Porres actions didn’t always didn’t always get the intended results, but at least they tried to affect change when no one else dared or cared to act.

“What they did right was having a mixed group of dedicated, responsible people that followed through on their ideas and were unafraid to tell the truth and speak out, with concrete examples, of injustice,” Tessie Edwards said. Prior to Markoe, Holland and company, she said, “There was no one here to say, Let’s lift these people higher. There was no one asking, Do they all have to work service jobs? Do they all have to live in one segregated area? They educated Omaha on a level Omaha had not been educated on before. They raised the awareness of Omaha to the problems. So many people in Omaha had their head in the sand. They did not think there was a problem here. The De Porres Club really opened the doors.”

Agnes Stark said the De Porres Club was the impetus Omaha needed then. “It was moving things forward that were just at a standstill.”

By the 1960s, Markoe was ill and the Club on its way out. New voices were speaking out for change, including the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL, a religious-secular coalition led by black churches that staged large demonstrations for fair employment and housing policies.

The Men Behind the Mission

The driving force behind the Club was the enigmatic Markoe. He not only preferred working behind the scenes, but had to since he was persona non grata within official Catholic circles. Protest letters from the Club were signed by Holland but often written by Markoe. Even though Markoe kept a low profile, Tessie Edwards said his presence was always felt and his commitment never swayed.

“Father set the example,” Edwards said. “When he finished teaching for the day, he’d take off his Roman color and put on his nice Panama hat and walk North 24th Street. He’d be sitting on the steps of storefronts talking to people. He’d talk to bums and alcoholics. He visited the homes of poor people. He could see the need because he’d hit bottom himself. Part of the Jesuit philosophy is being a man for others. How can you be a man for others if you don’t know them and their hurt? He really did. He loved people. If you asked him a question, he gave you a straight answer. He didn’t just try to proselytize. He was tough. He said things to people at the bottom and at the top that the average person wouldn’t say.”

Virginia Walsh recalled the “very forceful” yet “gentle” and “completely persuasive” Markoe. Helen Jones Woods recalled Markoe as the man who arranged a loan for her to attend nursing school, encouraged her husband to pursue an accounting degree at Creighton and sponsored their daughter Cathy at Duschene Academy. “He did a lot for young people.” Marguerita Washington said Markoe stood tall: “As far as African Americans who were interested in the movement were concerned, he was a hero. As far as I was concerned, he was some type of saint.”

For much of his life, he was a contentious figure. Only later in life were he and his work recognized as righteous. The legacy of Markoe, like De Porres, lives on. Roger Bergman, director of Creighton’s Justice and Peace Studies Program, said that as Markoe’s been “rehabilitated” in Jesuit circles, he’s gained honored status within the order and the wider social justice-peace community. In ‘94, Bergman began the Markoe Lecture Series. “Ever since Fr. Markoe, Creighton has made it a major concern to reach out to the (black) community,” said Edwards. She and others also credit him with helping more widely integrate the campus. Markoe died in 1967.

Denny Holland also casts a long shadow. Before his death in 2003, he was honored with a humanitarian award by the organization formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews. “He was a torch bearer. He was a remarkable gift to the city of Omaha,” Walsh said. In later life, Holland worked on human relations committees, aided a scholarship program for blacks, volunteered at Sacred Heart Parish and found a new crop of troublemakers with whom to stir things up in Omaha Together One Community. He also penned protest articles.

When the De Porres Club disbanded in the early ‘60s, civil rights laws were being shaped and the black power movement formed. De Porres veterans could see the fruit of their labors. Public places were integrated and blacks were employed in jobs and living in areas once off-limits to them. A foundation had been laid. A dialogue begun. The late ‘60s riots that torched black communities like Omaha’s were an expression of a people’s rage over continued oppression. “It kind of had to happen that way,” Holland said of the riots. “Change doesn’t come smoothly. Change only comes, it seems to me, with a threat or with a bit of violence.”

All these years later, the pro-active, interracial coalition that was the De Porres Club remains a model for achieving social justice and economic parity. As one black Omaha leader said, “It’s not so much what ‘they’re’ going to do for us, it’s more about a partnership of what we’re all going to do together — to affect change.”

Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real: Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

April 29, 2010 4 comments

Microphone (MXL 990)

 

 

UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process.  As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service.  Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.

“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry.  As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference.  Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”

“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”

– – –

I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before?  I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject.  That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.

I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.

 

Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real:

Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.

To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.

 

 

 

 

Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.

It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.

Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.

Love Affair

Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.

“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.

Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”

Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”

She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”

Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.

Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.

Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.

Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.

Fascinated and Inspired

By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.

“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”

Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.

A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”

Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.

The Quiet Storm

It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.

So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”

When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.

“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”

Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Networking and Visioning

Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.

Cathy Hughes accepting the NAACP’s Chairman’s Award

 

 

Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”

Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.

“Black folks own more stations, but there are fewer owners. Sixty-nine of them belong to me. It costs several million dollars before you can get a station. It’s very difficult, unless you’re independently wealthy, to put together the financing and go through the rigors and the process of securing the license. There’s some great (black) individuals who would do a great job of running a radio station, but they’re not able to get the start-up money and organizational revenue they need.”

No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.

 

 

 

 

A Passionate Woman

She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”

Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”

Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”

Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.

Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.


Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

April 29, 2010 8 comments

I believe it was one of two dear departed friends, either Billy Melton or Preston Love Sr., who first told me about the International Sweethearts Rhythm and Helen Jones Woods. It’s a story about race, culture, gender, music, and history coming full circle. I was taken with the story as soon as I heard it, and I’ve never lost my affection or fascination for it. This story was published in a monthly Omaha newspaper called the New Horizons that caters to the so-called senior population. I’ve long tried to get it published elsewhere in my hometown but to no avail. This is where the Web, courtesy this blog spot, allows me to share the story with a new audience.

 

 

 

Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

©by Leo Adam Biga Originally published in the New Horizons (2005)Revised and updated for this blog

Back in the day, when big bands blew wild and made swing America’s most popular music and dance craze, touring orchestras tore it up at juke joints and dance halls across the land. At the height of swing, in the 1930s and ‘40s, the number and range of bands was astounding. There were the name bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and many others. There were novelty bands, like the one led by Spike Jones, that played for laughs. There were the Latin-flavored bands of Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. And then there were female bands that ran the gamut from Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears to Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band.

Female performers have generally played second fiddle to their male counterparts. The one time they got a fair shake was World War II. The stock of women musicians and bands rose then as military service depleted the ranks of male artists. Girl bands flourished, but none compared to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular period band with strong Omaha connections. Taking the “international” of their name from the blend of ethnicities among their members, this jiving outfit laid down their hot licks on stage, record, radio and film.

The Sweethearts played gigs at jumping live music spots from coast to coast, touring every big city and little town in between. They shined at the Apollo Theater in New York and shared the stage with everyone from Basie to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Earl “Father” Hines. On their Midwest tours, the band jammed at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom.

Omaha claims many ties to the Sweethearts, whose brief but event-filled run lasted from 1937 to 1947. It’s where their glamorous leader and vocalist, Anna Mae Winburn, once lived and fronted for the Lloyd Hunter band. It was the hometown of manager/chaperone Rae Lee Jones. And, it’s where Sweethearts lead trombonist Helen Jones Woods (no relation to Rae Lee) lived from the early 1950s until a couple years ago. Images of the Sweethearts are included in a photo exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center at 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha.

The Sweethearts achieved fame in their short life — small wonder, given their unusual composition and origins. For openers, there’s the story of how this interracial band got its humble start in the heart of Jim Crow before bolting for the bright lights and big cities. The man who formed the band, the late educator Laurence C. Jones, was founder and head master of the strict vocational institution Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. He dedicated his life to Piney Woods, a still active foster home for poor black children from broken homes.

Helen was given up as a baby by her mixed parents and brought to the school, the only home she ever knew. She was later adopted by Jones and his wife. Never feeling fully accepted, she found solace in the band, which became her surrogate family. Made up exclusively at first of young urchins and orphans from the school, band members had few prospects outside Piney Woods other than the domestic-service jobs they toiled in.

As Helen said, “We were just glad to get away from the school.” The band was formed as a social experiment by Laurence Jones, who felt the group gave the girls another outlet, showcased minorities in a positive light and proved that racial harmony was achievable. His idea for the band was inspired by seeing Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears play in Chicago and by hearing Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band on the radio. He also used the band as a public relations/fund raising tool for the school. The monies collected from their early paid performances supported the fledgling facility as much as they covered the girls’ tuition and room and board.

To create the group, Jones picked promising members of the school’s all-girl marching band and turned them over to a veteran musician to learn syncopation.

The band began by playing at school gymnasiums and small dance halls. “We traveled around just in Mississippi for quite a little while,” said Helen, an original member who was just 14 at the start. “As the band got better, we traveled more and more and we ventured out and played better places.” Soon, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender championed them.

The Sweethearts made a big impression wherever they went. And why not? They were an attractive troupe of nicely-coiffered, well-mannered young “colored” girls who not only looked great but could flat out play. The majority of original band members were untrained, but over the years their ranks grew to include well-schooled musicians from outside Piney Woods. In their heyday, they featured some top-flight players and some of the music industry’s finest arrangers.

Then there’s the fact the Sweethearts were integrated at a time when segregation ruled. Comprised mainly of African-Americans, their members also included Latinas, a Chinese, an Indian and Caucasians, all of which gave the Sweethearts an exotic charm that was played up in publicity stills and posters. Diversity also made traveling, especially in the South, difficult and dangerous in an era when few lodging-eating places were integrated. Down South, white members wore black face as a hedge against harassment. To avoid further hassles, the band usually stayed overnight aboard their sleeper bus, Big Bertha, or in black hotels.

As the band added older musicians, playing for peanuts at small venues became less palatable, particularly when the school raked in all the fruits of their labor. Exposed to new places and better lifestyles, members felt exploited. The band also attracted sponsors who saw the potential to cash in on their discontent. Convinced to strike out on their own and take a stab at the big time, the band’s 17 original members “ran away” en masse to Arlington, Va., to become a full-time professional orchestra independent of the school. It was 1941. Helen was 17.

 

 

 

Aided by their backers, the Sweethearts took up residence at a brick home in Arlington dubbed “Sweetheart House.” Meanwhile, school officials outraged by the rebellion, which made headlines, tried securing the return of their wards. Helen stood fast. “My father was very much upset, but he didn’t say anything about me coming back. He sent his sister Nellie to bring us to Piney Woods, and she just said, ‘It would be wise if you came home, Helen.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to stay with the band.’ I was glad to stay with the group because I felt more comfortable with them than I did being at Piney Woods. I didn’t know what future I would have there.”

Helen said a strong camaraderie existed among members. “We all got along. You must remember, most of us were out in the world and had nobody but each other in the band. We began to bond like a bunch of sisters. We all needed each other. So, therefore, we had to get along.” Going back home wasn’t an option anyway. Some had no home but for the school. Those that did had little to return to.

“In those days, going back to a home in Mississippi didn’t amount to much once you’d gotten out and seen better things,” she said. “And we were blessed to have seen better things. Where we all came from we didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing and all those things.” Besides, she said, the band “was the way we made our living. It kept us from having to be a cook or a dish washer. It showed us an exciting time beyond the same old dull life. So, it was a pleasant change. Plus, we got a chance to see the world. That was our reward. It wasn’t money, because we certainly didn’t see any.”

Despite the Piney Woods rift, success came fast for the Sweethearts, who proved they were more than a curio act or shill for the school. “They were a heckuva band. Some of those cats could blow. Enough to make the guys take notice,” said the late Paul Allen, a longtime Omaha club owner. As word spread of their ability, the Sweethearts became a hot booking on the night club and after hours circuit.

Actually, the band enjoyed a national reputation before ever cutting strings with Piney Woods. These darlings of the black press set box office records at an impressive roster of venues. By 1940, they’d already appeared at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and competed in a school band contest at the New York World’s Fair. Seeing the sights in the big cities was a thrill. “I think the thing that really excited us was the first time we went to Washington, D.C. and to New York,” Helen said, “because we were just a bunch of country girls and these things, you know, you only read about in history books.”

After severing ties with the school, they worked hard preparing for their major coming out party at the Apollo Theatre, the mecca for black artists. “When we first left Piney Woods we spent two or three months just rehearsing so that when we got ready to be presented, the band sounded really good,” said Helen.

Their engagement at the Apollo, where lousy acts got hooted off stage, was a hit. “The first time we played the Apollo Theatre there were lines all the way around the block. We were amazed to think we’d come that far,” she said. Their “show stopper” was a rendition of W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. Handy himself came to hear them and met them back stage. For their debut, the Sweethearts worked with comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley and tap dancer Peg Leg Bates. From that auspicious start, the band played the Apollo twice a year.

The Piney Woods girls were used to hard work and close supervision and that discipline was used by arrangers like Eddie Durham to sharpen their precise arrangements. The Sweethearts also developed a sense of style and showmanship — from Winburn’s elegant manners and gowns to members’ high spirits and beguiling smiles. Always well-turned out, their smart ensembles epitomized class.

 

 

Unusual for a women’s band then, the Sweethearts cut recordings for RCA Victor and Guild Records. They also appeared in short films — called soundies — that were that pre-TV era’s music videos. Soundies were viewed on Panorams, a jukebox-with a screen popular at bars, diners and drug stores. The band also took part in gimmicks pitting them in staged “Battle of the Sexes” with male groups. “At that time, money was scarce and the more you offered people the more you got them to come,” Helen said.

Just as the band’s success made it easy to attract new blood into the group, it led other bands to steal away talent. There were bigger problems. When still a school band, the girls spent far more time playing and traveling than studying, which hurt their formal education. Even after breaking away from Piney Woods and adding non-students, players were expected to follow rigid rules. Some balked at the early curfews and the ban on fraternizing with the opposite sex. “The ones that did not adhere to following the orders would leave” — voluntarily or not, said Helen.

 

 

 

 

Then, as many Sweethearts have described, the band’s crooked sponsors made empty promises and pilfered their already meager earnings. “They promised us everything, but we never got anything. In fact, they stole everything from us. Most of us were left with nothing,” said Helen, whose $3,000 in savings were spent by manager Rae Lee Jones. Despite the betrayal, Helen later moved to Omaha to help care for the ailing Jones. After she died, Helen stayed on here.

During the war the band became a favorite with servicemen via broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio’s Jubilee Programs. The group was requested, by popular demand, to join an overseas USO tour. In their crisp dress WAC uniforms, the Sweethearts played for appreciative, mostly black troops in France and Germany. Everywhere they went in bombed-out Germany, Helen said, the band drew stares from natives fascinated by these women of color. For their camp shows, the girls played on makeshift stages before troops sprawled out on open fields. Helen recalls one show being interrupted by an officer. “He walked up and said, ‘Stop the music. I have an announcement to make. Japan has surrendered.’ That was the end of our concert, because everybody started hollering” and celebrating.

The Sweethearts “came apart” shortly after returning from their rousing USO tour. The girls had matured into women. They wanted to get on with their lives. Some left to marry and have kids. Others to reunite with families they’d been long separated from. And still others to continue making music, including a few — like Mary Lou Williams, Vi Burnside and Carline Ray — who went on to individual fame.

Helen met and married her late husband, William Alfred Woods, in his native Tennessee and made a life with him in Omaha, where they raised four children. She played a while with Cliff Dudley’s Band before becoming a nurse and social worker. Her husband became Creighton University’s first black accounting grad. The couple were active in the De Porres Club, an Omaha civil rights group, and in St. Benedict’s Church. Their daughter Catherine Liggins Hughes went on to found the Radio One network, which she heads today with her son Alfred Liggins Hughes.

 

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Attempts to re-form the band fizzled and the Sweethearts faded away like their contemporaries. They were destined to be a lost chapter in jazz history until 1980, when the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Mo. recognized them. The event, which Helen attended and called “wonderful,” brought many Sweethearts back for a reunion celebration that sparked interest from authors, journalists, musicians and filmmakers. Since then, their story’s been retold and their music revived.

Recently, the New York-based all-women Kit McClure Band has released a tribute CD, The Sweethearts Project, that faithfully performs the Sweethearts’ music. To ensure authenticity, the Sweethearts’ original charts were transcribed from recordings and band leader McClure recruited Sweetheart Carline Ray to sing and play guitar on a couple of the tracks. A new McClure Band CD, The Sweethearts Revisited, reharmonizes the earlier group’s musical themes.

It’s a homage of the highest order and an ironic one, too, since women musicians were seldom taken seriously. As Helen said, “Some thought we did very good — for being women. Others thought we were just cute. They wanted to date us.” Articles often discussed the band’s looks more than their music. Now, 60 years later, major jazz figures respect what the Sweethearts did. Their achievements are documented in books by D. Antoinette Handy, Marian McPartland and Sherrie Tucker. The McClure Band’s tributes acknowledge the debt that today’s women musicians owe the Sweethearts for paving the way.

McClure said of all the women bands, “it was the Sweethearts’ music that caught my imagination the most. It’s dazzling. And in trying to play it, we found it’s very, very challenging. Their tempos were really, really fast. Their precision is incredible. They must of had a lot of rehearsal time. And they had a lot of talent and so much energy. When we sat down to try and play it, we all said, ‘Oooh, these women really had it going on.’ We had to step up to the plate to try to fill their shoes.”

For McClure, the Sweethearts are both “pioneers and an inspiration. The band really gave women a chance to have a voice in the music. I feel it is so important we have some women role models that went before us who had great bands and who were great musicians,” she said. “That’s the difference I hope our CDs make. That maybe finally we can get into the school systems with this music and the kids can learn the Sweethearts’ music like they learn Ellington’s and Basie’s. And maybe young girls will come up believing they can go into jazz. Things haven’t changed much since the ‘40s. It’s very difficult for even wonderfully talented women to be accepted in the major bands. Unless these women are recognized in jazz history, it’s going to take longer to change the face and gender of jazz.”

This renaissance is sweet for Omaha’s own Sweetheart, Helen Jones Woods. She’s been interviewed by jazz pianist/author Marian McPartland and award-winning film documentarian Ken Burns, whose segment on the Sweethearts didn’t make the final cut of his jazz opus. She said it was “a proud thing” when a framed portrait of the group was displayed at the Loves Jazz & Cultural Arts Center in north Omaha — a stone’s throw away from the group’s old 24th Street haunt, the Dreamland.

While appreciating their rediscovery, her homespun humility downplays any notion they were “all that.” McClure insists it was the music that had crowds queuing up to see them. Helen isn’t so sure. “I didn’t know whether it was to see the girls or to hear the music,” she said. “I have a serious feeling the music was secondary. People wanted to see a bunch of good looking black girls together who were clean and neat. A lot of the women entertainers were shake dancers and partiers and all that, where we weren’t allowed to. That wholesome image was really our selling point, because I don’t think people said we were the greatest thing since snuff.”

McClure “respectfully disagrees,” saying Helen and her mates had some serious chops as musicians. “I know she does downplay her ability, but I’m sorry, that trombone section was slammin’,” she said. “My hat is totally off to Helen Jones, because she was just a wonderful, funky musician. The whole band was funky, but that trombone section stood out.”

For Helen, her time with the Sweethearts wasn’t so much about the music or the history they made, as it was the experience it afforded. “I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have come up out of those conditions in the South and to be with the band, which gave me a chance to see every state and different countries and the privilege to meet some of the great old musicians. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

One of only a few surviving Sweethearts, Helen filled her days working with kids at Skinner Magnet Center in Omaha, until moving in with her daughter Cathy back East. Helen long thought about writing a book on her life, but never quite got started. If a book ever were to be written about her poignant Sweethearts journey, it would be a page-turner filled with sweet nostalgia for that chapter in her life.

Now wasn’t that a time?


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