Barbershop Singing in San Antonio Fights The Music’s Racist Past, Embraces Its African American Creators

Page 2 of 3

In a 1992 essay called “Play that Barber Shop Chord: A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop,” historian Lynn Abbott wrote that “the contemporary image of barbershop harmony is couched in a romanticized perception of the ‘Gay Nineties,’ with dapper, white, middle-American barbers and their patrons posed next to barber poles in attitudes of harmonizing,” explaining that the period’s mainstream literature seldom reinforces that image, while early African-American literature was “shot through with references to barbershop singing.”

“Not many years ago, singing as an amusement prevailed above all others,” the black publication New York Age wrote on November 24, 1888. “At these meetings of friends, as soon as the small games were exhausted, the proposition to sing was gladly accepted and nature’s musical instrument filled the place with pleasing harmonies … the gentlemen would unite and for hours make the night melodious with their tuneful voices.”

Vaudevillian Billy McClain once said that, in the late 1880s, “about every four dark faces you met was a quartet.” But African-Americans were barred from theaters and concert halls, so those meetings took place on the street, barbershops or on people’s homes. Gradually, white barbershoppers adopted (and adapted) the sound to what is known today as barbershop singing, and white historians often offered a whitewashed version of the music’s history. By the time the Barbershop Harmony Society was established in 1938 (originally, and impractically, titled Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQSA), the membership was all white. How did it happen?

“Two words: Jim Crow,” Valerie Clowes told the Current, speaking from Toronto. She’s the daughter of Lana Clowes, the Canadian singer of Afro descent who, in 1963, had to leave the Sweet Adelines and join the rival Harmony Incorporated, which had been formed in 1958 as a protest to Sweet Adeline’s whites-only policy.

When the all-black, all-male, Harlem-based Grand Central Red Caps quartet won the New York district competition in 1941, they were denied participation in the International finals. “Relative colored quartets competing St. Louis,” wrote SPEBSQSA (from now on BHS for clarity) founder O. C. Cash. in a telegram sent to the New York chapter, “Board of Directors decided some time ago such procedure would be embarrassing and ruled it out. None has competed in the South and West. Best regards.”

The civil rights movement helped correct the wrongs in Barbershop, and in 1962 the BHS lifted the ban on African-American membership (Sweet Adelines would do the same in 1966) and, in 1970, banned the use of minstrel performances (white singers with black painted faces). The BHS’ “Everyone in Harmony” plan of today lists amongst its goals the sharing of the barbershop gift “with young and old, with people of every color and every background,” and plans a posthumous recognition to the Grand Central Red Caps.
click to enlarge Barbershop Singing in San Antonio Fights The Music’s Racist Past, Embraces Its African American Creators
Courtesy of Alamo Metro
Most notably, in 2016, the all-female Sweet Adelines International did what was unthinkable not too many years ago: to give a lifetime membership to Lana Clowes (the black Canadian singer who, in 1962, faced expulsion from SAI due to her race) and to celebrate the Adelines’ establishment of a Diversity Task Force, meant to “build bridges with potential singers, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression or physical abilities.”

“While we cannot change the past, today we dedicate ourselves to being an example of real change and hope in our world,” Sweet Adelines president Paula Davis said in the ceremony, fighting back tears. “Today, we will begin to be a living example of what it means to harmonize the world.”

“That messy, painful past, is here to teach us, not haunt us,” said Valerie Clowes in accepting the award on behalf of her mother. It was a moving, heartfelt moment, and even Harmony Incorporated acknowledged it.
“We held our heads high knowing that we stood on the right side of this issue for many, many decades,” said Christina Llewellen, International President of Harmony Incorporated. “But we were mostly glad and proud of Sweet Adelines for taking a really brave step, which probably opened them up to quite a bit of criticism.”


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.