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News: Oral history of African American artists’ experiences with racism while touring the Segregated South

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The recent #blacklivesmatter protests brought to fore racism, an old issue that has plagued – and continues to plague the American society.

In this article by Steve Knopper, titled Racism on the Road, Billboard spoke with several notable African American artistes such as: Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Booker T. Jones and other legendary acts who faced extreme racism to bring their music to the American South in the 1950s and ’60s.

One day in the early ’50s, three jazz legends were on a road trip from East St. Louis to California. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Max Roach had eaten all the chicken they’d brought, so they stopped in Oklahoma for carry-out sandwiches.

But the restaurant refused to serve Mingus. So he returned to the car and, speaking heatedly with his colleagues, threatened to blow up the joint. Davis was more circumspect.

The trumpeter cautioned the bassist to sit down, shut up and not “end up going to jail over your loud mouth,” as he recalled in Miles: The Autobiography.”

They were Black. They were Black. It didn’t matter if they were Miles Davis or Mingus,” says The O’Jays’ lead singer Eddie LeVert, one of 15 African-American music pioneers Billboard interviewed for this oral history of Black touring artists in the ’50s and ’60s. “These are people that maybe sit there and enjoyed their music and danced to it.

But because they’re Black, we cannot serve you. Because you’re Black, we have to beat you. Because you’re Black, we have to have systemic racism, which goes on for years and years.”

Back then, giants of Black music, from the Supremes to the Temptations to Sam Cooke, following in the paths of forebears such as Marian Anderson, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr., had to eat sardines from cans on the highway because they weren’t welcome at white restaurants.

They couldn’t use restrooms at small-town gas stations. They couldn’t walk freely through the very Las Vegas casinos they were headlining. They slept on each other’s shoulders in station wagons because they couldn’t stay at white hotels. Police attacked their buses. 

“We were happy, we were singing, we were joyful, we were away from home for the first time, youngsters on a magical show,” recalls Martha Reeves, lead singer of the girl group Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, who toured through the South as part of Motown’s pioneering tours in the early ’60s. “But being met with the hatred, it was alarming — especially when the bus was shot at.”

Below, Billboard presents an oral history of Black touring artists in the ’50s and ’60s, including interviews with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and one-hit wonders, stars from the Motown and Stax soul labels, and veterans of the Motown Revue and Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. All remain shocked and angry at the racism they experienced, mostly in the South, but also — they point out — throughout the entire United States. “The segregated era crept into your psyche,” recalls hit Stax singer William Bell. “It made you examine everything around you and question a lot of things.”

Mary Wilson (singer, The Supremes): I was 17 and I was visiting the South because my father had died. My cousin, who lived there, said, “We’ve got to go buy you some socks.” We would go downtown in Greenville, Mississippi, and I was like, “These are cheap-looking socks” and “look at this tie, this is cheap.” The guy heard me and said, “I know she’s not from down here, because she’s talking like one of them northerners.” And my cousin said, “Mary, please, I’ve got to live here. You don’t have to live here. You’re going home as soon as you bury your father — so be quiet.” And that’s the way it was.

Sonny Turner (lead singer, Platters): We all knew the line you couldn’t cross. It was well-known. It was understood.

Shelly Berger, Temptations manager, former Motown executive: The racism in the North was insidious. It wasn’t as overt as it was in the South. 

Abdul “Duke” Fakir (singer, Four Tops): When I was really young in Detroit, in the ’40s, I lived near a factory where workers of all colors worked and lived. Even though it was a predominantly Black neighborhood, it was also Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish. They had a race riot. I saw some of the most horrific stuff you could imagine. I saw a Black man get shot out of a tree. I saw white guys get attacked with razors, their faces cut all up. It was horrific and I never forgot those images. Right after that, the neighborhood really cleaned out and started becoming all Black. That was my first experience with real racism.

Wilson: In the ’50s and the early ’60s, segregation in Detroit was still huge, but you lived in your Black area, and if you’re white, you lived in your white area. So we didn’t feel it as much in the North as people in the South did.

Smokey Robinson (lead singer, The Miracles): It wasn’t like Detroit was immune to segregation back in those days.

LeVert: You didn’t have to really go that far south. We were from Cleveland. All you had to do was drive down to Cincinnati and Louisville and you’d be in that place where “OK, Blacks must go through the back, you’ve got to go upstairs at the movie theatre, you can’t drink at this fountain, you can stay over there but you can’t eat here.”

Reeves: I remember, as a teenager, when the guys would be standing on the street corner, singing what we called doo-wop — because when you hit a wrong note, somebody would wop you! And police drove up in a truck with the biggest white guys you could find, with the biggest billy clubs. Some of the guys would be shooting quarters, but most of them would be singing. It was a control thing.

Wilson: When Emmett Till died, I remember seeing it in a magazine. I don’t know if it was Jet or Ebony. That blew my mind, because in Detroit, I’d never experienced anything like it. But when we started touring, I was experiencing it firsthand.

Leon Hughes (singer, The Coasters): It was rough, man. It wasn’t like it is now. We were in danger all the while in the South.

Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time” singer): The deeper that we went into the South, it was horrible.

Wilson: One thing about being on Motown, they always had the planning worked out. We stood on shoulders of people like Sammy Davis, Lena Horne, Rochester. They always had to do that — know where to go and where not to go. That was just a way of life. That was going on for years. We weren’t the first. 

Reeves: We toured 94 one-nighters in ’63. Imagine three whole months on the bus, riding and performing, and not being allowed to go into facilities. We weren’t allowed in the restaurants and the hotels in the South.

Irma Thomas (“Wish Someone Would Care” singer): You had to be careful to stay within the speed limit. We all traveled with pillows, because you had to sleep in the car.

Hughes: Police stopped us a couple of times. They asked us why we were all together like that and where we were going, and then we had to show paperwork. It was scary.

Fakir: First time we went to Atlanta, which was 1955, we were booked to work one of the best Chitlin’ Circuit clubs in the country, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta. We came down on Greyhound buses. I’ve always been the front guy, almost like the business manager. I ran right into the waiting room, and as soon as I got in there, I felt this gun against my head and I said, “The fuck is this?” And it was a sheriff saying — used the n-word — “Get out of here.” Now, I didn’t know what he really meant. But there was this older white lady: “Son, you got to get out of here, he might kill you. You got to go to your own waiting room — the colored waiting room, right down the hall.” I hurried up and got out of there and went to this small waiting room. That was our first real bad encounter with segregation.

Sharp: I will never go back to Jackson, Mississippi, ever again. They actually stoned the bus. Stoned it! Stoned it. The Dovells [a white singing group on the same tour] covered my mother and I to keep the stones from coming into the bus.

Wilson: On the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, a multiracial bus tour from the American Bandstand days, you had Gene Pitney, Jan and Dean, a lot of white and Black acts. You had to know where to go to where people could eat, and most of the times that could not even happen. It was Mr. Dick Clark who said a couple of times, “If you don’t take us all, then none of us could come in.” He would say, “Get back on the bus,” and we’d get back on the bus and find the right place. If it was just a busload of Black people, then you can bet they would be weird. There was one policeman who told us, “I’ll help you out of town, but just keep on going through, don’t stop.”

Bell: We went through a lot of difficulty just getting from Point A to Point B to perform. We traveled with both Black and white musicians — this was early ’60s, and we were all on the bus, and you had the Freedom Riders also traveling at that time. Highway patrol would pull you over and have us all searching the instruments and pulling everything from underneath the buses. Sometimes we had to prove we were singers and play on the side of the highway for them. Then they said, “OK, fine, get back in the bus and go on.” This was just a form of harassment.

Mickey Stevenson (former Motown A&R executive, singer with Lionel Hampton’s Hamptones): One cop said, “So you’re singers. OK, sing me a song.” I said, “Well, we don’t have a band.” He looked in the car and said, “Get that ukulele you got there and sing a song.” While he was talking with the hand on the gun, I grabbed the ukulele and took it out and started playing and singing. When I finished, he looked at me, saying, “That wasn’t bad. OK, do your business.” It was frightening because the looks on their faces didn’t mean I was going to come out of this right. It was a blessing that I did.

LeVert: If we were in a city, and we played a club, and something happened that involved Black people, then that was just a night for everybody to get harassed in a Black neighborhood. [Police] would bust the club, put everybody up against the wall, entertainers and patrons, and search everybody, stop the show. So immediately, there goes my money. No pay for me!

Thomas: I learned the hard way what marijuana was, because that’s what most of the musicians used to smoke. When they were young, two of the Neville Brothers — they weren’t the Neville Brothers at the time, but they were working together — got arrested for having two or three cigarettes. From that, I got a fear of dressing in dressing rooms where I knew the musicians would be smoking. So I would dress in my car. I did not want to be guilty by association. If you were with them, you went to jail. I had children and I wasn’t about to go to jail and my kids get left unattended. 

Berger: We had people on the road, our road managers and valets, who would do basically double-duty, protecting the artist as well as their regular jobs. We had very, very imposing-looking people, and there might have been a case — I cannot swear to that — where there were arms used.

Fakir: We were traveling on the Motown Revue and a couple of us drove in cars. We were stopped in Georgia late at night coming from one concert. [The officer] said we were speeding. We say, “Ah, no, we weren’t.” He said, “Well, y’all follow me.” They had two or three state police, one in back of us, one in front of us. We went all through the woods. We were frightened to death. In both cars, we were armed. We were ready, because it looked like we were going to a KKK meeting. We were frightened. We didn’t know what to do. We had our guns handy, not visible, but where we could get to ’em if we had to. Fortunately, back in the backwoods, he took us to the judge’s house and gave us a rider. We were so relieved. He gave us a ticket for speeding. I’ve never been so happy to get a ticket in all my life.

Otis Williams (baritone, The Temptations): In Kentucky, when the Tops went on, the Temps and the stage crew would stand on each side of the stage, and we had bats and sticks because some white guys were threatening to break up the show. As we were packing to go to the next city, here comes some white guys, and they started shooting at us. The Temps, the Tops and the stage crew pulled out guns. I never knew so many Motownians had guns. I just dropped real quick, you know? A white boy shot at us, and as God would have it, nobody was hit. 

Fakir: I did have a gun. I knew how to use it. I had a little shooting gallery down in the basement. I came up in a real hard neighborhood. We knew how to do a lot of things.

Wilson: We were girls! We didn’t do all that kind of stuff. Maybe the guys did. I didn’t know anything about it.

Robinson: I never had a gun, I never had any of that. And I didn’t know that the Tops had them. [Laughs.] But it’s understandable.

Fakir: The first time we went to Vegas, in 1959, we were hired to work in the lounge at the Dunes. Of course, we couldn’t stay on the Strip. We had to stay on the other side of town, which was called the Dust Bowl, and it had a Black casino and all of that.

Turner: We played with the Flamingos. There were only four hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas. We took a car up to the Tropicana. We walked in and four security guards met us at the door. They didn’t say much. They followed us. We walked around the damn tables and through the casino and walked out the door.

Robinson: We couldn’t even stay in the hotels in the South. We had to go to the Black side of town to stay in rooming-houses and places like that to have a place to spend the night. It was really rough. Everything was planned out on a tour. Where we could stay in hotels, we did. But in the South, most of the places we could not, so we didn’t.

Turner: We were on tour with the Caravan of Stars — Brook Benton, the Platters, the Jarmels, the Drifters, Gene Pitney. The bus would stop at the hotel downtown and the white performers would stay at the other end of town. A lot of the white performers wouldn’t do it: “I’m not going over there. To hell with them people! Sonny, what room are you in? Give me a room next to yours.” They resented that crap. We’re on the road together, we sing together, we perform together, we eat together. A lot of white guys are like, “Shit, this is America, isn’t it?” 

Bell: We usually found some Black family that had an extra room that would put us up. Sometimes at the colleges, they would have a dorm room that was vacant that they would let us stay in.

Fakir: A lot of times, in some of the hotels, you walk in an elevator, some people would get out. We would feel that. 

Dionne Warwick (“Walk on By” singer): They wanted to know what we were doing there. And my attitude was, “We’re staying here.” I was looked upon as something less than what I really am. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.

Williams: Our bus driver would find a lonely road and everybody would go off the bus and handle our business because they wouldn’t let us use the bathrooms in general.

Turner: We had a mixed band. “Oh, we don’t have a bathroom, no.” We had to go to the next one.

Robinson: They had three toilets — one said “men,” one said “women,” and around the back somewhere, if it wasn’t an outhouse, it said “colored.” So that meant, if you were colored, you weren’t a man or a woman. You were just colored and you could go in there. White people, they were men and they were women, and so they had restrooms labeled “men” and “women.”

Reeves: We had three of the guys run inside a gas station and ask the attendant to use the facilities. They said, “Hey, man, where’s the bathroom?” That’s not the protocol. The rule in the South we experienced in show business was you say “yassir” and “no suh.” [The man from] this little gas station, maybe two pumps, got very upset and came to the room with the shotgun. He said, “Y’all n——, go back on the bus.”

He called somebody on one of those crank-up phones, and here comes the sheriff. They told us all to move on, the jail didn’t want any trouble, and we didn’t want any trouble, either. We were mistaken for the Freedom Riders, who were protesting for the right to use the facilities and be treated equally.

Thomas: It took a long time for me to stop traveling with toilet paper in my car. Because we had to stop along the highway and use the woods.

Wilson: Most of the time in the South, you would stop at a restaurant and you could go to the back and order — like they’re doing now, curbside — and have the food taken out, and that was perfectly fine. However, sometimes if you stopped at a place where you tried to go in to eat, they said, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve Black people here.” 

Williams: We were hungry. Our bus driver, whose name was Bobby, pulled up to a restaurant in Texas, and we got off the bus thinking we could go in and order what we want. We walk in, they saw we were Black folks, they said, “Oh, no we don’t serve . . . ” They said the n-word. We said, “We don’t eat ’em!” We went back to the bus and down the road until we found a place that would serve us.

Thomas: We carried Vienna sausages — I still don’t eat them, I hate them — with crackers. We carried that with sardines, with the can openers. 

Bell: If we were going 300, 400 miles to get to a college, we had to drive until we could find a grocery store to stop at and make sandwiches. 

Sharp: My mother would not have us get off the bus other than to go to the bathroom. She would ask the guys that were on the bus with us to get food. We would eat on the bus. We did not eat in these restaurants. We just wouldn’t.

Berger: I was driving with Diana [Ross of the Supremes], who was so painfully thin at those times, so anytime she ever wanted to eat we would immediately go someplace where she could eat. As we were getting to the hotel, Diana said, “Oh, look, there’s a pizza place, let’s stop and get a pizza to go.” So we go into this dive, and she goes to the jukebox. I go up to the counter and ask for a pizza to go, and while I’m waiting, Diana comes over and says, “Did you hear someone say the n-word?” — only she actually used the word. I said, “No, I didn’t.” “Oh, OK.” 

She goes back to the jukebox and five minutes later, a gentleman comes up to me and says, “That table of six men over there is coming to beat you up, and don’t try to fight back because they’re going to kill you.” Diana says, “Come on! I’ll take ’em on!” I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and we went back to this chauffeur-driven limousine to go back to the hotel.

Booker T. Jones (frontman, Booker T. and the M.G.’s): My band was integrated, so we had white people to go in and get the rooms and the food when a Black hotel wasn’t available. But my guys preferred the Black hotels because we were playing in the Black neighborhoods. Many times, Duck [Dunn] went in and got a big bag full of hamburgers. “What are you doing with all those hamburgers?” “Who’s going to eat all those hamburgers?” He had a good sense of humor. He was pretty good at getting out of the restaurants with big bags of food. 

Bell: Most of the time, we would go back around to the back window, and we would let Steve [Cropper] or Duck come to the front. But they would refuse to do it. And that just solidified our bond as a Stax family, because if we had problems, they would be with us.

Robinson: We would sit in a restaurant and it would be at least an hour before somebody came in and said, “We wish you would leave.” And we said, “No, we’re not going to leave.” Then another hour would pass by, and somebody comes in: “Well, what do you want then?” Then you tell them what you want. Then another hour would pass by and they’d come and throw some food at you and it’d look like something you wouldn’t want to eat anyway.

Wilson: Most of the places in the South were always divided. A lot of times — they called us “colored” then — the colored people would be in the balcony and the white people would be down on the floor. When I visited [pre-Supremes], my cousin said, “OK, Mary, even if you see someone else throwing popcorn on the white people, don’t you throw any.” The Black people would throw popcorn down on the white people.

Bell: We were working on the weekend at the Flamingo Room, off Beale Street, an all-Black club. We did two shows a night there, and we would drive across the bridge to West Memphis to the Plantation Inn, an all-white club. This was like living in two worlds. You realized, “Yeah, the white audiences loved us,” but after we come offstage, we can’t fraternize or can’t get together and just have a conversation without having policemen or someone authoritative interrupt you.

Robinson: It was ropes down the center. There were barriers down the center. There were Black people upstairs and white people downstairs or vice versa. It was all that. Sometimes the stage was in the center of a big arena and Black people would be on one side and white people would be on the other side. It was ridiculous. 

Reeves: We had maybe 5,000 people in the stadium. There was a barrier down the floor. They were being controlled with these big white guys with clubs in their hand who would threaten anyone who would get up and dance and show any excitement except applause. Here we are on stage singing, and it’s a finale, and Smokey sees people [being] hit in the heads with clubs. Smokey said, “All right, you guys with those baseball bats, just get out of the way and don’t hit another one of those friends of ours in the heads.” And they did move away.

Robinson: That story happened in a lot of places. Especially in the South. We ran into a lot of bigots, you know?

Warwick: It was the Sam Cooke tour. We played one place in the Carolinas, or wherever it was — it was in the South, that’s for sure. When you walked on stage, the white people were on one side of you and Black folks were on the other side of you. The stage actually separated the audience. Sam, because he knew me and my whole attitude, [said], “Dionne, please do not turn your back on the white folks,” And I wanted to know why. He said, “Because you just don’t do that! Just play in front of you and do your show.” Of course, I ignored that and turned my back on the white people and sang to those who not only appreciated me, but looked like me. Nobody said anything to me about it.

Bell: When you would get on the road, you had two shows you had to do — the matinee show at 4 p.m. for the Black audience, and the white show at 8 p.m. for the white audience. We did the exact same set. That’s what was so weird about it. After we had a little more success in recording, we just started protesting: “Wait, we are only booked to do one concert, not two concerts.” So they would have the white audience on the floor in the bottom of the concert near the stage and then the Black audience upstairs in the nosebleed section. But at least we were doing one concert. So it was just a little bit at a time that we made a difference.

Thomas: It was a little small town in Florida, in a club that was out in the middle of an orange field somewhere that the guy had built. Evidently, it was a popular place. This particular night, the man didn’t get the money he was expecting to make, so when we left, he concocted a lie and said one of the musicians had stolen an instrument. Well, from experience, all of the musicians kept their receipts in their pockets. Nevertheless, they didn’t discover that until they got us to the jailhouse. The jailhouse was so small, they had a spot for the guys, but they didn’t have anywhere for me. [The police] told me, “I’m going to take you home.” I said, “No, I’m going to stay right here and be arrested with the rest of the band.” When the young man produced his receipt, the judge said, “Well, you have no reason to hold these people.” So he let us all go.

Fakir: The Motown Revue didn’t finish the tour because of that. They stopped the tour and they said, “The next time we come back, it needs to be all-inclusive.” Esther Gordy Edwards, Berry’s sister, just wouldn’t have it. The next time the Motown Revue went out, that was one of the first times the congregations were together and they would be dancing in the aisle during the show.

Williams: One in South Carolina had a rope right down the center. We came back the next year, same venue in South Carolina, and there was no rope, and Blacks and whites were sitting side by side and booty-banging and just enjoying the music.

Robinson: We cured all that with the music, man. I knew there were more people there who came to enjoy themselves and listen to the music and have a good time then there were those who came to cause a ruckus.

Jones: The picture that comes into mind is Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act. 

Reeves: We saw the audiences integrating themselves.

Robinson: It pretty much disappeared. I noticed the crowds before I noticed the hotels. We would go back to the same places we had been to a year before, and there’d be white boys in there with Black girlfriends and Black boys with white girlfriends. 

Warwick: It was well into the mid-’70s when I saw any real openness of allowing and seeing people sitting close together, and some even sitting at the same tables.

Hughes: Well, it’s still happening. It’s not over.

Bell: We played a place that had this big rebel flag all over the back of the stage. We were doing sound check, so Jackie [Wilson, the headliner] saw this and said, “What is that up there?” “Well, that’s what they got on the backdrop for the stage.” “Well, I’m not performing with that.” We said, “Well, if you’re not performing, we’re not performing.” They had to take it down to put the show on. We made some inroads doing stuff like that.

Williams: I was talking to a lady and she said, “Otis, I believe God sends a marker to do what is necessary.” I really believe that’s what George Floyd’s calling was. To see how this young man’s life was taken, and he was saying “Mama, mama, mama,” it had such a profound effect on America and the world. We are in the 21st century and we still have to deal with this kind of crazy thinking. I’d like to think, behind this man losing his life the way he did, that it will bring about a profound change.

Bell: Three or four years ago, you started seeing the attitudes popping back up. And I’m going, “Have we not learned anything yet?” 

Turner: It’s too bad America hasn’t learned. I guess we’ll all disappear from the planet and a new species will start.

Warwick: It’s horrible what’s going on in our country, it really is. I have awakened on many a morning saying, “What country am I in?” We practically don’t have any leadership and that’s sad. What’s thrilling to me is to see how youngsters, those who would be running our country, [are] so enthusiastic about getting this done the right way. They’re all very anxious to vote.

Robinson: In the movement that’s happening now, everybody’s involved. Just like in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. When you look in those crowds at the protesters, there is everybody there. It’s not just Black people.

Fakir: It’s so refreshing to see all the different faces and all the different colors and they’re mostly young people. I’m watching it every day. 

LeVert: If you’re fair, if you’re trying to do the right thing, I’m with you. I’m 78 years old. I can’t really get out there and walk the streets and demonstrate like I used to do. I have done it. I’ve done the bridge down there in Selma. I’ve done marathons. But my back is not as good as it used to be. I can’t dance like I used to. None of it.

Wilson:  I’m 76. I don’t want to see violence at all, period. But I do want things to change so that people will not feel like I had to feel when I was growing up — that I was not good enough, that I was not human. This is in our lifetime. This is in your lifetime. It’s time to get beyond it.

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1 comment

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