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.
The woman was about to become Queen Victoria.
The American had been invited to perform at one of her pre-coronation events. Princess Victoria was so impressed she invited him back for an encore concert and awarded him a silver bugle. Such things got noticed.
Not that he wasn’t already held in the highest regard.
It was a very big deal in 1824-25 when the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who helped America win its revolution, toured the young country. It involved many, many parades and marches. Johnson was commissioned to write the march compositions.
Here’s a sample of his work, Johnson’s March.
So, while Johnson and his band were playing to appreciative audiences in Pittsburgh, a promoter of alcohol abstinence asked a favor.
Johnson Agrees to Benefit Concerts
Johnson agreed to play two benefit concerts in Allegheny City, now the North Side, to help pay for a recently built “Temperance Ark.” The “ark” was a gathering hall intended to transport drunks to sobriety.
It was part of a phenomena that briefly swept the nation. In 1840, several self-described drunkards in Baltimore invited fellow drinkers to sign a pledge to stay away from strong drink. In a few years, close to a million inebriates joined them.
They called themselves the Washingtonians after George Washington, who died in 1799. They selected George because he was still so popular. It is ironic, though. George made a good living distilling liquor.
You can get a feel for the drunkenness of the nation in this clip from Ken Burns’ documentary, “Prohibition” .
So, who was the reformed Allegheny drunkard who enlisted Johnson’s help? That’s where it gets even more interesting.
The Stephen Foster Connection
He was the father of Stephen Foster, the man who would become America’s most famous composer of popular songs.
Many of his ditties were written for black minstrel shows, and he is credited with being the first white songwriter to cast a black woman in a positive light. In fact, it’s in the title, Nelly Is a Lady.
Stephen was 16 when Johnson performed in Pittsburgh. The boy had already composed a few songs, including the Tioga Waltz, which he did when he was 14. It’s highly unlikely he did not attend at least one ofJohnson’s concerts.
One reason is that Foster’s father, William, was mayor of Allegheny City. He was also the main local Washingtonian.
So, what happened in Allegheny?
It Made National News
Here’s what a correspondent wrote for the New York Tribune.
More details of the attack and William Foster’s involvement in it are reported in a 2016 book, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster by JoAnne O’Connell.
She quotes a local newspaper:
During the evening, the mob on the outside of the Ark in which the Band were performing for the benefit of the temperance cause, were with some difficulty kept quiet and after the performance had closed, Wm B. Foster, Esq., the Mayor of Allegheny City, advised the members of the band to remain within the building, and he went out and appealed to the better sense of the mob in a short speech, after which he conducted a portion of the band through the crowd, the remainder intending to await the arrival of a carriage from the city (Pittsburgh).
So, the first group got safely back to Pittsburgh. O’Connell wrote that Mayor Foster made another speech to the mob at the corner of Diamond and Federal streets and tried to escort the rest of the band through the increasingly hostile crowd.
The musicians ran for the bridge under a barrage of thrown objects. Many were injured and one man got a deep cut in his forehead.
The next day, newspapers reported pools of blood at the bridge.
Jury Finds Four Not Guilty
O’Connell wrote that four men were brought before Mayor Foster on charges of riot and assault.
“Although at first it appeared that the citizens of Allegheny were determined to see color-blind justice carried out, when the rioters came to trial, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.”
That would not surprise modern-day blacks. They have seen similar verdicts issued in police-abuse trials.
Astonishingly, Johnson and his battered 10-member band did go back to do the second benefit concert the following Saturday night. They played to a sold-out crowd as shamed citizens and law enforcers policed the event.
Four decades later, Judge John E. Parke compiled a history of Allegheny that includes a chapter on the attack. He notes the band traveled worldwide and “never ran into any trouble until they came here.”
If only that were true.
Racism Everywhere They Went
Often, white hecklers claimed the band was just pretending to read music. They insisted the blacks were really playing by ear. I guess that was important to them — to maintain a racist sense of superiority.
Johnson’s composure and grace were required everywhere he went. A history written of Philadelphia marching bands in 1913 relates how he and his 25-member, all-black band went to Boston to perform in a parade. They arrived only to learn white units would not participate if blacks were permitted in the line.
A Capt. Page, who apparently was in charge of arrangements, told Johnson and the band to go to their hotel and wait. Indignant, but resigned, they did.
Then, an immense crowd formed outside. Perhaps, Capt. Page arranged it. He directed Johnson to set his band up on the porch.
“Frank never got so much out of his bugle before!” Capt. Page reported.
The band played for three hours, captivating the “Yankees,” the history notes. Presumably, the impromptu concert occurred during the parade of white bands. They likely wondered where everyone was.
Last Rose of Summer
Johnson was 51 when he played Pittsburgh. He died the next year.
William R. Bayley, a Philadelphia band leader, recalled Johnson’s last performance in a piece he wrote for the Philadelphia Evening Star in 1893.
“The Philadelphia State Fencibles, prior to my contract with them on June 27, 1843, had on a number of occasions employed Frank Johnson’s colored band. Race feeling was then pronounced and bitter, and although Johnson had a band which few could equal, he often suffered from this foolish and ill-natured prejudice.
“Johnson was a good natured, gentlemanly fellow. Many of my musical confreres, alas! now dead and gone, have partaken of his hospitality. He would give dinners to his numerous musical friends, but always made a mark of distinction by not taking a seat at his own table.
My band was a favorite of Johnson’s. On one occasion …. ‘Old Frank,’ as he was familiarly called, came in. He had been playing somewhere and had his bugle under his arm. I saw him, and, although he was not feeling well, urged him to play a solo. He favored us with The Last Rose of Summer. Poor fellow, it was the last time he ever played. His illness became serious, and he died a few days afterwards.” (Quoted in William Carter White, A History of Military Music in America. New York, 1944).
Then, there was his funeral. Obviously, it is written by a white journalist to white readers.
Victoria’s silver bugle lay atop his casket.
Perils of the Black Traveler
If you think traveling the United States was difficult and dangerous only during Johnson’s time, you are probably not black.
America increasingly took trips in automobiles in the 1930s and 1940s. Most blacks didn’t dare. They may not find a place to eat or sleep, and they worried they could well be arrested for sleeping in their cars. Then, Victor Hugo Green, a black postal worker from Harlem, started publishing the Negro Motorist Green Book.
It was a guide to where they could find accommodations or service throughout the nation. We’re told most blacks wouldn’t hit the road without consulting it.
The book was still being published and used in 1967. You can learn more about it here.
More on Johnson
— Philadelphia Firemen’s Cotillion It is said Johnson astounded listeners as he made his bugle shout out “Fire! Fire!” while performing this. Others tried to imitate his ability to make a bugle speak, but supposedly none succeeded.
— Summary of Johnson’s contribution to Pennsylvania history.
— Summary of Johnson firsts.