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Professor Maurice Jackson on Jazz and Desegregation in Washington, D.C.

August 25th, 2014

Should we think of Washington, D.C. as one of America’s great jazz cities? What kind of contribution did Great Black Music make to the struggle for desegregation in the nation’s capital? Did you know that the two sons of the Turkish ambassador to the United States had a profound impact on both jazz and the history of American desegregation during the 1940s?

Georgetown professor Maurice Jackson takes on these fascinating topics in a recent article for Washington History. For me, a southerner starting on my fifth year of living in Washington, the city has a liminal character. It is both northern and southern. It is both federal and local. It has its own particular history deserving of a close look and Professor Jackson’s work for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. provides a great service in that respect.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed an act emancipating more than three thousand slaves in the District of Columbia. Nearly a hundred years later, the District was desegregated in response to civil protest seeking the enforcement of anti-discriminatory “lost laws” from the 1870s. During that interim period African Americans “gave full expression to their pride and determination through music in all its forms, from folk, gospel, and spirituals to the blues, classical, and jazz (13).” Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, sons of the Turkish ambassador, developed a passion for jazz and sponsored concerts for integrated audiences at the embassy and local concert halls during the 40s. At one point a southern senator complained to the ambassador himself and Jackson cites his terse reply, “In my home, friends enter by the front door—however, we can arrange for you to enter from the back (24).” This story of music’s power to unite people from different backgrounds reveals the best of D.C and the best of America.

Professor Maurice Jackson’s “Great Black Music and the Desegregation of Washington, D.C.” is available in a special jazz-focused issue of Washington History that he co-edited with Blair Ruble.

Joshua Canzona

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