Artist Series

The “Artist Series” was a group of concerts and lectures presented by Samuel Huston College during the mid-1940s. It was a response to the segregation of Austin’s cultural life and the exclusion of African Americans from the University of Texas’s art music programs and speaker events. During its short life, it brought many of the most important black American intellectuals and artists of the twentieth century to Austin, including W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Roland Hayes, and Duke Ellington.

TextMichael Schmidt
PublishedNovember 12, 2018

In 1944, Samuel Huston College initiated a short-lived, but significant program devoted to lectures and musical performances. Its “Artist Series,” a collaboration with Wesley Chapel Methodist Church, offered Austin’s wider African American community a longed for venue for intellectual and art music events. It was necessary for these institutions to create an all black event series, since African Americans were excluded from all other classical music concerts and other public talks hosted by the university and the Austin Symphony Society.

The lack of such cultural opportunities was poignant, for Austin was one of the major black intellectual centers in Texas and the Southwest. Although small in size in comparison to Houston or Dallas, the capital had two black colleges. Hoping to offer the wider community opportunities denied to them by the city’s segregated institutions, Samuel Huston created its own space to hear poetry, opera, piano recitals, and political speeches.

The reach and vision of the series was grand and, during its relatively short life, it hosted some of the most important members of the African American intelligentsia in the United States. In its first season alone, it hosted W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Roland Hayes, all seminar figures in black cultural life. The series soon became a key institution for asserting the intellectual and creative equality of African Americans across Texas. In 1945, it expanded beyond Austin and presented its events in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Waco, and Fort Worth as well.


The music on the program was predominantly Western art music. Roland Hayes, a tenor vocalist known for his performance of German Lieder and opera arias, sang pieces by Handel, Mozart, Schubert, and Debussy. Concert singers made up a large portion of the Artist Series’s musical offerings: Marion Jackson Downs, the wife of the president of Sam Huston College; Anne Brown; Kenneth Spencer; the Hallelujah vocal quartet; and Helena Strassburger Boatwright. The concerts were not all song but also featured pure instrumentalists: Phillipa Schuyler, a thirteen year old prodigy and the daughter of journalist George Schuyler, gave a piano recital; Orrin Sutherland performed on organ; and the Mexican violinist Samuel Marti played duets with a pianist.

The most prominent art music singer in the series was undoubtedly contralto Marian Anderson. In many ways, Anderson’s place in the program helped highlight the segregated environment in which the series operated. Six years before (1939), Anderson had appeared in an open air concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. after the Daughters of the American Revolution had denied her the use of their Constitution Hall because she was black. In his introduction to the concert before 75,000 people, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes declared that “genius draws no color line.” The well-publicized event, broadcast across America by NBC, became a clarion call against racism and segregation in the arts and an early contribution by music to the developing civil rights movement.

In spite of the weighty significance of her previous appearance before the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson’s concert in UT’s Gregory gym on March 19th, 1945 was before a segregated audience. African Americans who had season tickets to the Artist Series were allowed to attend, but were forced to sit in a separate section on the bleachers. Anderson’s concert was an exception in “high” culture events in Austin at the time. Typically, African Americans were not admitted at all. This was the limited accommodation that the University of Texas in the 1940s was willing to make to the growing voices of the African American community. The stage mirrored the audience: Anderson sang as a guest with the all-white Austin Symphony orchestra, just as blacks remained isolated as visitors amongst Anglo UT students (this was also the case when Anderson appeared in Gregory Gym a second time in 1949).

Many of the “Artist Series” singers had a repertoire unique to African American concert vocalists. Marian Anderson, like Roland Hayes, Kenneth Spencer, and the Hallelujah quartet sang spirituals alongside opera arias and German Lieder. Concert spirituals, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “The Gospel Train,” had their origins in the songs of enslaved African Americans. During the late nineteenth century, the Fisk Jubilee Singers—and the other Jubilee Singer groups that followed them—popularized a version of this song canon that crafted them within Western art music conventions. They represented a fusion of African American vernacular culture and the style and language of European sacred music.

Many intellectuals and folklorists in the decades around the turn of the century believed that spirituals were the most representative form of African American culture. W.E.B. Dubois, for example, saw them as both the musical embodiment of black experience in the United States—a reflection of the soul of black folk—and the best example of a native American folk form. Dubois characterized them as “the singular heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”

The presence of spirituals next to pieces by Mozart and Schubert asserted a place for African American music within the Western concert tradition. It declared that African American musical forms—and thus African American performers and audiences—deserved a place in the art music world. Since the late 19th century, many musicologists had argued that classical music demonstrated the superiority of white Europeans; people of color, in their eyes, created a primitive music that betrayed their inherent lack of civilization. White audiences also favored hearing spirituals by black choirs and quartets, but they typically only wanted to hear them next to demeaning plantation songs, not pieces of the Western canon. Concert spirituals, coupled with a song by Schubert or Debussy, were a counter-argument to this claim. They showed that African Americans could not just perform arias and Lieder as well as whites, but could also add significant, unique compositional contributions to the tradition.

The series was not entirely classical music, however. Popular music and folk songs also had a place in the series. A number of the singers included pieces from musicals as well, showing the broad range of these groups while hinting at the expectations of their audiences. The final shows in the series in 1946 were Duke Ellington and the Golden Gate quartet, two of the most recognizable groups in jazz and gospel at the time. The pop music engaged some of the same themes as the classical, however. Ellington performed a set that repeated his recent appearance in Carnegie Hall. Ellington at the time was concerned with representing the history of African Americans and African American music. His Carnegie Hall concert—which evidence shows was duplicated in Austin—offered a section taken from his large scale masterwork, Black, Brown, and Beige. These pieces, “Spiritual (Come Sunday)”; “Work Song”; and “Blues,” offered twenty minutes that thematized the transformation of black music from slavery into the early twentieth century. These songs, in the Ellington’s vision, also represented the changing social and cultural life of its makers as a whole.

The Golden Gate quartet, on the other hand, were a jubilee gospel group. In the history of gospel music, they were somewhere in between the concert jubilee style of Marian Anderson and the emerging blues-influenced postwar gospel music made famous by the Dixie Hummingbirds and Austin’s Bells of Joy. Their rhythmically-brilliant harmony work brought many of the characteristics of the older style of spiritual singing into contact with swing drumming, pop guitar, and piano. They showed the spiritual’s contemporary transformation into popular music.


The choice of speakers in the Artist Series communicated a clear sense of pride in the literary and intellectual accomplishments of African Americans and, at the same time, gave it a rights-activist character. During its three year life, it hosted W.E.B. Dubois, author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and a co-founder of the NAACP; Langston Hughes, possibly the most recognized poet and playwright of the Harlem Renaissance; Margaret Walker, a poet who had just won the Yale Series for Younger Poets Competition for her book For My People; Adam Clayton Powell, a Baptist minister, New York City Councilman, and (after 1945) U.S. Congressman who was one of the most recognizable leaders of African American social protest in the 1930s and 1940s; and Mary McLeod Bethune, a founder of the National Council of Negro Women and a powerful voice in the integration of education and religion.

The first two speakers in its inaugural season were back-to-back, tour de force engagements. Dubois was one of the United States’s most original and significant contemporary thinkers. He, in fact, already had many intellectual connections to Texas before he appeared in Austin in 1944. He had been involved in an economic survey in Texas in 1935 and had worked on a program with William Jones, a professor at Tillotson College, in 1941.

Langston Hughes gave a lecture the week after Dubois. Unlike Dubois, who had traveled to Texas specifically to speak to Huston College, Hughes stopped in Austin on a larger speaking tour throughout the South. Less than a month before, he had delivered an inspired attack on segregation on NBC radio’s debate show “America’s Town Meeting on the Air.” Electrified by the publicity and praise he received, he delivered talks at more than fifty different venues.

A year after his appearance in Austin, he reported on the indignities of travel in the South:

I have just come out of the South, having been during this lecture season from the Carolinas to Texas. On some trains heading southward from Washington through Virginia, I have been served without difficulty at any table in the diner, with white passengers eating with me. Further South, I have encountered the curtain, behind which I had to sit in order to eat, often being served with the colored Pullman porters and brakemen. On other trains there has been no curtain and no intention for Negroes to eat… On some dining cars in Texas, I found that they have colored stewards, although they do not term them stewards, but “waiters-in-charge.” It happened that I knew one “waiter-in-charge,” an intelligent and progressive young Negro, who invited me to be his personal guest at dinner. He told me that he seated colored passenegers right along with the others. Certainly there is great variation in railroad dining for the race these days in the South. Just exactly what to expect still remains a mystery for Negroes—but it has the aura of adventure.” I would advise Negro travelers in the South to use the diners more. In fact, I wish we would use the diners in droves…If we are refused service or ejected on grounds of color, we can sue. Sever cases have been won and damages assessed recently…Even if you are not hungry, eat anyhow—to help establish that right. Besides, it will be fun to see how you will be received.1

In addition to their own individual statures as intellectuals, the presence of Dubois and Hughes together represented a link between Austin and the larger world of the African American press and letters. Dubois was the long time editor of Crisis, the house journal of the NAACP, and Hughes had begun to write for the Chicago Defender, probably the most important African American newspaper of the time.

Not all the talks were with individual speakers. In 1945, the series held a town hall style discussion entitled “America Faces the Future.” Originally, Huston College had envisioned a discussion between Dubois, former UT president Homer Rainey, and a member of the Jewish community. Huston College president Karl E. Downs communicated to Dubois that he thought the panel was crucial, for “at an hour like this, when so many liberal minded whites are so eager for techniques, this affords the N.A.A.C.P. and the entire race one of the most challenging opportunities.”2

Dubois had to pull out at the last moment, however, and instead of Dubois and Rainey, J. Mason Brewer and J. Frank Dobie appeared instead. These two men, both writers and folklorists, represented Austin intellectuals from across the color line. The program focused on the 1944 decision of the Supreme Court to outlaw white primaries, which had been the most effective way that the State of Texas had disenfranchised its black voters. Dobie published an account in the Austin American newspaper after appearing in the first two of the panel’s meetings:

Each was in a negro church, with a sprinkling of white attendants, among them several soldiers. After each discussion there is a reception with light refreshments at which the men on the program and members of the audience who care to attend get to speak with one another…

What has struck me most forcibly is the serious, decorous and altogether reasonable way in which negro citizens, both men and women, are eager to assume responsibilities as well as the privileges of enfranchisement. In working, often in owning property, in paying taxes, in teaching and learning in their own schools, in military service, where they fight and die like white soldiers, Southern negros have for generations been regarded as citizens. But in the South of the one party political system, where elections are decided in the primaries, they have been barred from voting. The recent United States supreme court decision declaring their right to vote in primary elections came too late for many of them to go to the polls in 1944. For the first time in their lives the electors among about a million colored people in Texas, between a sixth and seventh of the state’s population, are about to share the rights of political democracy…

It has been truly inspiring to me to look into the faces of hundreds of negroes, as clean and as decently dressed as any other audience, in a church as well built as white churches, and to realize that these people want to help their country as well as themselves by cooperating, by informing themselves, by thinking…I do not see how any fair-minded person who honestly faces the future can be otherwise than glad that the Negroes are coming to have a better chance in this land so boastful of being the home of the free.3

Despite its extraordinary calendar of guests and its rapid expansion in 1945, the Series did not last beyond its third year. After 1946, it ended. The reason was not reported in any of the Austin newspapers.


  1. Langston Hughes, “Adventures in Dining,” Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945.
  2. Samuel Huston College. Letter from Samuel Huston College to W. E. B. Du Bois, February 20, 1945. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
  3. J. Frank Dobie, “Dobie Sees South Thrown Into Days Worse Than in Carpet-Bagging With Moore Bill,” Austin American, March 18, 1945.