In a music-filled ceremony Tuesday the International Sweethearts of Rhythm turned over memorabilia from the days in the 1940s when they toured a segregated America. They were worshipped at places like the Howard Theater and Apollo Theater and in France and Germany where they performed during World War II.
They were pioneers — an integrated all-female swing band, formed in rural Mississippi that stood with the best of their era. These legends received a standing ovation at the National Museum of American History for the robust sound of their youth and their longevity. The youngest of the six who came to Washington is 86 years old.
The group, then all teen-agers, was founded in 1937 at the Piney Woods School in Rankin County and disbanded in 1949. Helen Jones Woods, a trombone player, was the daughter of the school’s founder and the mother of businesswoman Cathy Hughes, the founder of Radio One/TV One.
Hughes, standing by the women who have formed a lifetime family, said,“They weren’t seeking recognition. And for too long they’ve gone without public appreciation for their contributions and sacrifices. They were indeed freedom riders and freedom fighters.”
Their donations, said museum director Brent D. Glass, expanded the museum’s deep collections in music and social history. “They overcame gender and race discrimination,” he said. “The history of American cannot be told without music. Jazz is made in America and is our gift to the world.”
The program was the official kick-off of Jazz Appreciation Month, a national celebration sponsored by the Smithsonian for a decade. This year many of the events celebrate the contributions of women singers and musicians.
Giving a sampling of what made the Sweethearts such a phenomenon in their day was the Jen Krupa/Leigh Pilzer Quintet and a choral group from Archbishop John Carroll High School, which sang the Sweethearts signature song “Jump Children.”
In addition to Woods, the representatives of the group were Lillie Keeler Sims, a trombonist; Willie Mae Wong Scott, a saxophonist, Sadye Pankey Moore, a trumpet player; Johnnie Mae Rice, a pianist and Rosalind Cron, a saxophonist. Pankey spoke of the prejudice they faced in Europe. “We were such an oddity. Some people thought our faces were just dirty,” she remembered.
Cron had saved a 1945 hat and beige shirt from the USO tours that she donated along with dozens of snapshots. Also given to the museum were press clippings from the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, and an album cover advertising their 16 hits. Memorabilia from the Piney Woods school, including 1,000 photographs, was also donated to the museum. And Reginald T.W. Nichols , the current president of the historic boarding school, gave each woman a souvenir diploma.
Hughes found an excerpt from a Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. speech, given at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964, that fit the occasion. “Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”
The audience rose to their feet for the legendary women.
The display of artifacts is on view until May 31.