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Resurrecting an American star
By Edson Burton
As a pioneering exponent of Black economic independence, the name Harry Pace should be on the lips of every student of Black history. His dizzying biopic should have been made several times over. Instead, it was not until this year that his achievements reached a new audience.
Across three episodes of the Radio Lab podcast, presenters Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee chart the extraordinary story, the highs, lows, erasure and rediscovery of a forgotten hero. They’re joined along the way by an all-star cast of social commentators, journalists and authors including Margot Jefferson and Paul Slade whose book, Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black-Owned Record Label (2021), inspired the podcast.
In true detective story fashion, the prologue to Harry’s story is the discovery by his grandchildren of their famous ancestor. The following episodes dive into the various plot twists before coming full circle in the final episode.
Episode One explores the making of Harry Pace, up to the success of Black Swan records. Those years are inescapably the story of the colour line at its most acute. Segregationist Jim Crow laws were rigidly enforced by the state and the Ku Klux Klan.
A ‘fair skinned’ child protégé, raised by a single parent in a small town in Georgia, Harry was awarded a scholarship to Atlanta University where he fell under the mentorship of W.E.B Du Bois. The leading scholar activist of his time, Du Bois identified in Harry the attributes of the talented tenth. A concept espoused by Du Bois, the ‘talented tenth’ reflected a belief that by investing in the ‘brightest’ [and] ‘most intellectual men’, the position of African Americans generally could be rapidly improved.
This commitment to the talented tenth and racial uplift drove Harry, soon after graduating, to establish in 1912 the music publishing company Pace and Handy with composer and musician W.C. Handy. By creating their own firm, they side stepped the exclusionary practices of White music publishers. Alive to the opportunities of the emerging market in records and possibilities for racial uplift, Harry broke with Handy to establish the first African American label, Black Swan records, in 1921.
In what is a recurring theme, the success of Black Swan alerted White-owned labels to the fact that ‘there is profit to be made from producing and distributing’ Black music. The podcast’s contributors describe the attempts to undermine Black Swan through means fair and foul. The foul included various acts of sabotage; the fair through poaching its star performers. Faced with bankruptcy, Harry sold Black Swan to Paramount in 1923.
Episode Two explores Harry’s role in desegregating Chicago’s South Side as president of the largest African American insurance firm in the US, the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company. In 1937 he provoked a test case which overturned the racially restrictive covenants that governed where African Americans – also Jews and Armenians – could live in Chicago.
This should have been a stepping stone to further greatness in the life of the archetypal ‘race man.’ But Harry was living a double life. At work he was the African American polymath president of a proudly all Black company; at home in his suburban segregated neighbourhood, Woodlawn, Harry ‘passed’ as White. Threatened with exposure he withdrew from public life altogether.
Episode Three takes us to the discovery of Harry’s story by his descendants and its impact on their lives. Engaging and rich throughout, this episode is the most riveting in the series. Harry’s passing as White recasts his life as an enigma. Was Harry a Trojan horse or had he succumbed to the pleasures of White privilege? At what point in his internal life did he slip into this extra layer of consciousness? Can one who gave so much be denounced as a ‘traitor?’ Is it delusional for his previously White-identifying descendants to claim a Black identity?’ On these questions the contributors are entertainingly divided. They are however united in a shared sense of the tragedy that underlies Harry’s life and erasure.
The Vanishing of Harry Pace holds up a mirror in which we see our present. Contemporary hashtags #BuyBlack, #ShopBlack #TheBlackPound embody the kind of race-first philosophy that Harry put into practice. Jay-Z’s sale of Tidal, his short-lived streaming service, to Twitter is a more recent example of the challenges facing Black capitalism in the face of its White counterpart.
Current debates suggest both a hardening and a loosening of identity constructs. Britain has never seriously entertained a ‘one drop rule’ (the historical racialised classification in the USA that suggest just one drop of so-called black blood in your heritage determined that you were black). How then might we make sense of Blackness in generations to come? The question is of course upon us now.