When Racism Greeted
A Black Musical Genius
Perhaps the most significant black artist ever to perform in Pittsburgh was pelted with stones, rotten eggs and curses of “Nigger!”
You haven’t heard of this?
Well, community shame tends to have a short shelf life. And, it did happen a long time ago.
It was May 16, 1843. The protagonist of this story was the most important name in American music you never heard of: Francis (Frank) Johnson.
People who know the evolution of American music know about him.
Johnson, we’re told, had uncanny skills with a new instrument — the keyed bugle. That was a bugle with keys like a flute. Later, valves replaced the keys, leading to the cornet and trumpet.
He also was a whiz on violin. He combined those skills with genius-level composition talents. That fueled a cultural force that started the Brass Band Era.
Frankly, I’m not a fan of brass bands and marches, but for a long time, it was THE music of America; roughly between the mid 1800s and early part of the 20th Century.
A Divided Nation
Johnson, probably born in Philadelphia, was a free black traveling a divided nation. Much of it kept imported Africans and their offspring as slaves.
In nonslave states and territories, free blacks were seen by poor native-born whites and Irish immigrants as taking jobs away from them.
Then, as now, America was quite polarized. People had points they wanted to make to the stupid people on the other side.
There were those who thought slavery was wrong. Often, the same people favored restrictions on alcohol, and thought women should be allowed to vote.
Others — probably more — thought women could not vote responsibly, alcohol was a daily staple that should not be taken from free men, and black slaves were personal property that no American should have to give up to do-gooders.
It was into that rift that Frank Johnson and his bands played.
Not that he didn’t escape occasionally. Before coming to Pittsburgh, Johnson achieved great fame when he played for an 18-year-old woman in London.