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Honoring the Grand Central Red Caps

While charting out a more inclusive future, it is vital to face up to this unfortunate milestone in our Society's past

By Matthew Beals, originally published in The Harmonizer, Nov/Dec 2017 issue.

See what we've been working on since the writing of this article.

A note on language

This inquiry into our history is presented using direct and indirect quotations from contemporaneous accounts, correspondence, etc. For historical accuracy, we have not altered the language and usages of the era, although some terms might today be considered outmoded or sometimes insensitive.

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On September 10, 1935, in New York City, two giant shaving mugs flanked the entrance to Central Park. A crowd of 15,000 streamed between the mugs towards an incredible sight on the bandshell stage: four men donning fake handlebar mustaches and plaid suits as they crooned the sweet chords of "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland." Behind them loomed a set depicting an old barber shop from the 1880s. Three barber chairs lined the wall beneath oil paintings of boxers. Two enormous barber poles flanked the stage with their red stripes swirling upwards towards the words that titled the scene: "PARKS TONSORIAL PARLOR." No one knew it that night, but in a few short years, another quartet would sing on that stage and ignite one of the most regrettable moments in our Society's history.

Robert Moses, Parks Commissioner of New York City, known famously (and also infamously) as the "master builder" of bridges, highways and parks, was the organizer of that evening's first-ever "Amateur Ballads Contest for Barber Shop Quartets." When he first announced the contest, the New York Times proclaimed it a "Clarion Call to Male Quartets to Vie in a Revival of Ballads of the 90s." Men from all walks of life-- policemen, waiters, milkmen--emerged to form quartets and compete in borough contests with the hope of making it to the Central Park Finals. The event was so successful that it became an annual New York tradition.

It was only a few years later, across the Mississippi River, that O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall founded SPEBSQSA in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the summer of 1939, Hall sent Moses an honorary certificate in the mail, welcoming him as a member to the Society, "In view of your successful efforts in entertaining the people of New York with your Barber Shop Quartet Shows." The two struck up a pen-pal friendship, and when Moses heard they were looking for a city to host the second National SPEBSQSA Competition, he offered the New York World's Fair. When Hall and Cash accepted, they boarded trains for New York, along with dozens of quartets from across the country. The contest was an enormous success, and it left Moses and Cash looking forward to the next year's contest in St. Louis.

The following summer in Central Park, The Grand Central Red Caps were pronounced the 1941 New York Champs. The crowd "roared in approval" as the quartet stepped forward to accept their prize suitcases. As a group of reporters gathered around them, the singers expressed their honor at being chosen to represent New York at the upcoming National SPEBSQSA Contest. A Herald Tribune reporter overheard them saying, in reference to their profession [at least two members] as bellhops at Grand Central Station, that "it would feel good to go into a railroad station to take a train out of it."

The Grand Central Red Caps are pronounced the 1941 New York champions

"Such a procedure would be embarrassing"

When the New York Parks Department notified SPEBSQSA of their entry to the finals, there was a problem the Society had never faced: The Grand Central Red Caps were black. O.C. Cash immediately sent a telegram to Moses:

RELATIVE COLORED QUARTETS COMPETING ST LOUIS STOP BOARD OF DIRECTORS DECIDED SOME TIME AGO SUCH PROCEDURES WOULD BE EMBARRASSING AND RULED IT OUT NONE HAVE COMPETED IN SECTIONAL CONTEST IN SOUTH AND WEST. BEST REGARDS, O.C. CASH

The response sent a shockwave through the Parks Department. Probably suspecting the discomfort his telegram would cause, Cash took to his typewriter to explain himself. He mailed his letter the very same day:

The question of allowing Colored singers to compete with others in the contests, has been discussed a number of times at our meeting and last year the Board came to the conclusion that to keep down any embarrassment we ought not to permit Colored people to participate ... I hope this rule will not seriously embarrass you, as any other sort of arrangement would seriously embarrass us. Many of our members and chapters are in the South, where the race question is rather a touchy subject.
Neither Dr. Rathert nor I are narrow about such matters, but I know from discussing the matter with Doc and the St. Louis brothers, that they do not want to get involved in a question of this kind.

When Robert Moses saw Cash's letter, he grew furious. Moses took to his typewriter and crafted a response to Cash. It began "Dear Mr. Cash." Gone were the days of addressing each other "Brother."

When Moses mailed his letter, it arrived to an empty office in Tulsa. Cash was already in St. Louis, preparing for the big contest. With no immediate response from Cash, Moses grew impatient and did something very bold. It was, in fact, a classic Moses move he reserved only for those he disliked. He went to the press.

On July 3, the opening day of the St. Louis Contest, The New York Times ran an article whose headline blared "NEGRO SINGERS OUT, SMITH, MOSES QUIT." Countless other publications large and small carried similar stories. Moses had distributed copies of Cash's telegram and letter to all the reporters. They published every word. The bit about Cash wanting to "keep down any embarrassment" (so much for that), and the part about the Society's "rule" of not permitting colored quartets. It was all there in black and white for all to read.

1941 SPEBSQSA convention attendees in St. Louis

Moses had also given reporters copies of his letter to Cash-- the letter that was still sitting in a sealed envelope in Tulsa. The New York Times published Moses' letter, which was responding to the "rule" of Cash's Society:

If we had known this before we should immediately have dropped out of the national organization, a step which we are now compelled to take.
It is difficult for me to see any difference between your National Ballad Contest and a National Track Meet in which colored men run relays or compete individually. This is not a social event, but a competition which should be open to everybody.
Let me add that if American ballads of negro origin are to be ruled out of barber shop singing, most of the best songs we have will be black-listed. There was a man named Stephen Foster who never hesitated to acknowledge his debt to the negroes for the best of his songs. Along with many others who found pleasure in the harmless amusement of American ballad contests, I am very sorry that this sour note has marred our pleasant harmonies.

The article went on to also include the resignation of Al Smith, the former Governor of New York. Soon enough, Cash would hear of the resignation of New York City Mayor LaGuardia as well.

Letters began to stream into Moses' office, praising him for the stand he had taken, calling him "an inspiration." The Paterson Interracial Commission sent him a note to "express our appreciation of the withdrawal by New York City from the National Society of Quartet Singing."

O.C. Cash responds

Meanwhile, Cash was enjoying himself at the St. Louis Contest, immersed in the sounds of four-part harmony. When he got word of what was being printed about him in the papers, he was dumbfounded. When he arrived back in Tulsa, he found the letter Moses had sent him-- the one he could have read by picking up a copy of The New York Times.

O.C. Cash

Cash went on to pick apart each paragraph of Moses' letter, boiling it down to a lack of understanding on Moses' part of the rules and nature of his Society. Cash disagreed with the analogy of his contest being compared to a National track meet, open to all. Cash flatly told him "our convention and contest is a social event. Our Society is a fraternal organization, incorporated as such. You know, of course, that other fraternal organizations--Shriners, Masons, Elks and Eages [sic]--have colored auxiliaries or similar organizations and that their conventions, ritual and drill team competitions are kept entirely separate ... I have heard no objections to any of these arrangements."

If Moses' Chapter was in good standing with the Society, having paid all its dues, Cash told him the Manhattan Chapter Secretary would have received notice that "Contestants must be bona fide members of the organization, and must sing barber shop harmony (not Negro spirituals). The two colored quartet winners in your contest would have been barred from competition on these two grounds anyway."

While Cash was always clear that the Red Caps' race was the central issue, his two non race-related grounds for disqualification were also unsatisfying. Contrary to news reporters, the Red Caps did not sing spirituals in the contest but instead performed two straight-up barbershop pieces: a "Railroad Medley" and "Mandy Lee." Additionally, on the brochures mailed by the World's Fair for the previous year's finals, it said affiliation with the Society was only "recommended" to compete, not required. Apparently the rules had been changed.

O.C. Cash, Robert Moses, and race: the more that you know, the blurrier the lines

The argument between Cash and Moses was bigger than the both of them. It spoke to their differing interpretations of the old America they were each reviving and "preserving" in their contests. It seemed as though, until that day in July of 1941, no one had asked the most basic question of all: What exactly is barbershop harmony?

The answer for everyone involved a wistful, utopian vision of old America. But the interpretations branched apart when that utopia had to be described in crisp detail. To the New Yorkers, with their streets a melting pot of ethnicities, it had a much closer association of blacks with barbershop singing. In Cash's mind, however, as a boy from the wheat fields of Oklahoma, his image of a barbershop quartet was a white experience. Somewhere along the way, the term "barbershop quartet" had been passed around, adapted and made to fit in with different ideals.

On the surface of this incident, it would seem easy to call O.C. Cash a racist and end the argument at that. However, it isn't that simple. For one, at the very contest they were arguing over, on the same evening that The Grand Central Red Caps performed, a popular black group called The Southernaires appeared as guest performers. As they took to the stage, they were introduced as members of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. And it was true.

Back in 1939, before The Southernaires had become famous, O.C. Cash's chapter hosted them in Tulsa. Cash and his buddies were such a fan of the group that they inducted them as "honorary" members of SPEBSQSA, even though the Society was limited to white men. Cash even went so far as to book them at a local music hall in town. To make the show happen, he had to make a special appeal to the hall, as it didn't normally allow "colored" acts. In a Detroit Tribune article of the same year, it listed as fan of the Southernaires, "every loyal member and sympathizer of the Barbershop Quartet Singing Society of America [sic], who could not more resist the soft, close harmony of the four Negro singers than a swing addict could close his ears to Benny Goodman's clarinet."

Cash's disallowance of The Grand Central Red Caps had nothing to do with racism, he argued. It had everything to do with his desire to keep the fraternal spirit and camaraderie of SPEBSQSA alive. "If we should permit colored quartets to compete in the contests, it would be extremely difficult and embarrassing to separate them, their wives and families, in the social affairs and functions ... [With] the fact that wives and daughters of the members participate in these gatherings, I know you will agree that the colored race itself would feel out of place at these meetings."

While the above could be fairly interpreted as a diplomatic excuse, a charitable reading would grant that Cash was also expressing a sincere personal concern. He had seen The Southernaires treated poorly because of their race, and in that case had used his influence to intervene on their behalf. In the case of the Red Caps, the Society founder wrote as if he were entirely powerless to affect policy. While he may have had genuine concern for the way the quartet would be treated, his actions suggest that he was more concerned with keeping the peace among his all-white patrons.

While Moses was receiving his letters of praise, there were at least two supportive letters that black writers sent to Cash. One letter from a black lawyer in Boston read, "The Negro race does not want to be patronized or defended by any group who by their pretended interest, continually remind us that there is even a question of our inferiority ... We want our separate lodges, churches, and organizations so that our advancement will be ours alone." The Southernaires, who had been inundated with letters demanding they resign their "honorary" membership, sent a letter of support and loyalty to Cash.

Black barbershop origins erased

It seems possible that neither Cash nor The Southernaires grasped the irony of excluding blacks from a barbershop quartet society. In 1941, the Norman Rockwell image of four white men singing in a barbershop was the prevalent assumption. Few knew that all the early barbershop singers were black or that their connection to barbershops was tenuous. Unfortunately, some influential early BHS leaders knew these facts but did not share their knowledge with the masses, effectively helping to "white-wash" barbershop's origins.

In a written 1946 exchange, two of the Society's most respected historians (today, both are members of the BHS Hall of Fame) privately acknowledged that barbershop music originated with African-American singers. Celebrated musicologist Deac Martin publicly attributed barbershop's origins to European singers but privately wrote, "In my opinion, the American Negro is the very fountain head of barbershop harmony singing." Joe Stern agreed, and contrary to his published positions, wrote, "There is considerable evidence that Barbershop harmony in America sprang from Negro groups singing during slavery days ... [they sang] the old original Barbershop harmony. ... As far as the seventh chord is concerned, I believe the Negroes must have invented it ..."

It wasn't until the 1990s that the African-American origins of barbershop were conclusively established, largely thanks to the exhaustive research of jazz historian Lynn Abbott. [See Dr. Jim Henry's "The Historical Roots of Barbershop Harmony," The Harmonizer, July/August 2001, pages 13-17. See also David Wright's "The African-American Roots of Barbershop Harmony (and why it matters)," Jan. Feb. 2015 issue, pages 10-15.] In gratitude for his impact on barbershop history, Mr. Abbott was made an honorary member of the Barbershop Harmony Society in 2015.

Moving forward from 1941's "embarrassment"

It is true irony that the desire to avoid embarrassment led to what remains the Society's most shameful episode. Ironic that the man fondly remembered for bringing so many men together was the point man for an unfortunate milestone that underscored the exclusion of so many others. The damage inflicted by this decision continues to this day.

As we look at the Barbershop Harmony Society today, we can hope that a story like that of The Grand Central Red Caps could never happen again. At the 2017 International Convention in Las Vegas, the Society honored the Red Caps with posthumous memberships, and plaques devoted to each quartet member now reside in Harmony Hall. When Marty Monson spoke of making our Society "radically inclusive," the crowd of thousands thundered in applause, causing him to halt his speech and take in the moment.

The symbolism of that moment was an important break from the past. It is the hope of the Society that those waves of applause will continue to ring loud and clear to all races of men, encouraging them to join us in harmony.

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Continuing the journey

Grand Central Red Caps Endowment Fund

In 2018, we celebrated Black History Month with the announcement of scholarships and an endowment in honor of the Grand Central Red Caps. An initial $50,000 commitment by the Barbershop Harmony Society and a $50,000 gift to Harmony Foundation International from Dr. Bart Campbell of Nashville launched the initiative.

A Barbershop Revival

In 2019, we captured the remarkable story of a community in North Carolina working to bring barbershop harmony back to its roots. The Barbershop Revival event in at North Carolina Central University Durham, North Carolina was organized by Warren and Andy Fuson and Dr. Bill Adams, and funded in part through BHS provided by Harmony Foundation International. .

The goal of the Revival event was to re-introduce barbershop harmony to the African-American community, where it originated, and to celebrate the African-American roots of our art form. The project, as a restoration of a cultural heritage to its founders, was aimed at furthering our strategic vision of Everyone in Harmony.

Louis Armstrong and the 2019 Satchmo Summerfest Festival

Louis Armstrong repeatedly said that his jazz playing was derived from his early quartet experience. In a lecture/demonstration at the 2019 Satchmo SummerFest in New Orleans, barbershop historian David Wright and jazz historian Vic Hobson demonstrate the ways in which jazz replicates musical devices of barbershop harmonizers.