Remembering the Negro Fine Arts School

How should we remember this program that taught music lessons to local Black children when Southwestern and Georgetown were segregated?

A note about terminology: This entry is about race relations during the Civil RIghts Movement era at the height of the white supremacist system of Jim Crow segregation in the South, where racial discrimination was legal in many institutions, including Southwestern and Georgetown I.S.D. At this time, Black people in the U.S. were referred to and self-identified as “Negro” or “Colored.” When referring to the language used at the time of the Negro Fine Arts School, we will use the terms used then. When referring directly to Americans of African descent, we will use the terms “Blacks,” “African Americans,” or “people of color.”

The Negro Fine Arts School was founded in 1946 by three students–Nettie Ruth Brucks, Elmina Bell King, and Barbara Leon Scheef–and one professor, Ms. Iola Bowden Chambers. It was a school of music for Black children when both Southwestern and Georgetown were still legally segregated. This is one of several Placing Memory entries about the School.

Today, the Negro Fine Arts School is generally remembered at Southwestern as an early attempt to bridge the racial divide in Texas. It also is remembered as the program that ultimately paved the way for the peaceful integration of Southwestern with the admission of Southwestern’s first student of color, Ernest Clark, a Negro Fine Arts School alum, in 1965.

Despite all the good this program did, it is important to remember that this was not an official Southwestern project. There was no direct funding from Southwestern and none of the program was housed on school property due to the fact that there was a strict ban on educating people of color on campus at the time.

More to the point, although today the University remembers the School as the “Gracious Gift” given by Southwestern to people of color in Georgetown, Southwestern leaders, including the President and Dean of Fine Arts and the Board of Trustees at the time, actively worked to sustain racist policies in their decisions to not allow the School to be housed on campus.

Symbolically, I have located this pin in the center of campus because I think this is a story that should be central to Southwestern’s collective memory even though the Negro Fine Arts School itself was literally not allowed to be placed here in the past.

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Most of what we know about the the Negro Fine Arts School today is the result of the work of Southwestern’s first Black full-time professor, Dr. Gregory Washington, who was a professor of philosophy and the University’s first Director of Multicultural Affairs in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Dr. Washington worked to research programs and events involving African Americans in Southwestern’s past. As part of his research, Dr. Washington rediscovered the story of the Negro School of Fine Arts. In the summer of 1990, Dr. Washington organized a campus event to remember the School and all the people still living who were involved in it. Between that event and his departure from Southwestern in 1991, Dr. Washington collaborated with Dr. Martha Mitten Allen, a Southwestern professor of history, to officially document the story. That work eventually resulted in Dr. Allen’s pamphlet published in 1998 by the University, titled The Gracious Gift: The Negro Fine Arts School, 1946-1966.

In Gracious Gift, Dr. Allen brings together archive research and oral histories to tell the story of how the Negro Fine Arts School was established, how it worked, and where it fits into the history of Southwestern. Most of the details that follow are derived from Dr. Allen’s work but looked at from my perspective as a current Southwestern student trying to understand how Southwestern should remember the Negro Fine Arts School today.

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One day in 1946, Professor B.F. Jackson was teaching a lesson on Christian ethics and social issues when the question arose from a student, “What is Southwestern, or you, or anybody, doing about race relations?” Nettie Ruth Brucks was in that class. After that class, Nettie came up to the professor with an idea. She, and the other two piano majors she took classes with, wanted to teach piano lessons and they thought they might ‘go over the ridge’ [to the Black section of segregated Georgetown] and look for students who might be interested. Nettie was always a natural leader, and Mrs. Iola Bowden was seen as one of the most kind, and giving professors at Southwestern. Everyone then knew that if she asked someone to do something, no one would hesitate.

As Dr. Allen argues in Gracious Gift, the timing of the creation of this project was extremely fortunate. The War and the Depression were over, and citizens were in high spirits and desired to do good. Southwestern students and faculty were required to attend Chapel services, but most were happy to attend anyway. Many student organizations, including the Student Christian Association, were active in trying to do good for their “fellow man.”

Mrs. Iola Bowden wanted the University to get credit for this project that she was overseeing. One of the things she had to do for this goal was to get permission from the president of Southwestern, Dr. J.N.R. Score, and the Dean of the School of Fine Arts, Dean Henry E. Meyer. Both of these men were described as ‘wanting to aid the negros’ and Mrs. Bowden had no trouble getting their blessing for her project in general. However, there was still a color ban implemented on campus.

It was within their power as administrators to either lift or work around the color ban, yet they were still unwilling to make the controversial change. This poses the question, how much was the administration really willing to ‘aid the negros’?

In the end, faced with opposition from Southwestern leaders, Mrs. Iola Bowden had to turn to the First Methodist Church down the street to get permission from Reverend Mr. James William Morgan. As Bowden was already teaching a few lessons at the First Methodist Church, and Reverend Morgan was actively looking for ways to connect Southwestern students to his Church, First Methodist was happy to house the new project.

The students at the Carver school [the segregated school for Blacks in Georgetown at the time] and the surrounding community were thrilled at this new opportunity. The first year of the school Nettie, Elmina, and Barbara all started with four students from the Carver School who used their study period to attend a piano class at First Methodist. They taught harmony, improvisation, and rhythm. Because they had access to only one actual piano, one student would play on the piano while the others followed along on cardboard keyboards. The Negro Fine Arts School was finally being written about in school and local newspapers in 1950, four years after the project started.

In its twenty years of existence, the Negro Fine Arts School taught over 200 students, one of those students being Ernest Clark. Ernest Clark was the first Black student admitted to Southwestern in the year 1965. He was a star student of the Negro Fine Arts School and thanks to his connections here, he was able to integrate into Southwestern in a very quiet, low-stakes manner in keeping with the University’s official policy around integration at the time being something that the University would allow to occur but not actively pursue.

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The Negro Fine Arts School was an important project and a Southwestern story that has simply been collecting dust. We should be very proud of this story, but we also need to look into the true story behind it to make sure that we don’t make this a story of Southwestern’s generosity as an institution.

Every existing public representation of this School endorsed by Southwestern shows Southwestern as the generous savior of people of color and the creator of this project when in reality it was the small group of Southwestern piano students and a professor that made it happen by working closely with First Methodist and the African-American community in Georgetown. There was no direct funding from the school, only indirectly from student organizations within, and recitals couldn't even be held on campus because of the color ban that was enforced by the President, the Fine Arts Dean, and even the Board of Trustees.

As this vignette shows, the Negro Fine Arts School did not happen because of Southwestern as an institution; in many ways, it happened in spite of Southwestern. Let us always remember that Southwestern is amazing–not only because of the school itself or even its leaders, but because of the magnificent students and faculty that have often had to work against the school’s leaders to make things happen that the University ultimately takes credit for as it officially remembers its past in a linear progressive narrative.

Images

E. J. Johnson, Margie Nell Johnson, and Iola Bowden Chambers doing piano lessons as part of the Negro Fine Arts School Source: SU Special Collections & Archives Creator: unknown Date: circa 1950s

Location

Metadata

Harper Randolph '25, “Remembering the Negro Fine Arts School,” Placing Memory, accessed July 25, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/69.