Music in the Margins: Blog

Resources for diversity, equity, and inclusion in music.

Bayard Rustin

by Kelly Shea on 2021-02-22T12:05:00-05:00 | 0 Comments

Bayard Rustin

By: Hunter King, Presser Music Library Staff

If you grew up in and around the town of West Chester you probably know the name Bayard Rustin. Rustin (1912-1987) was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement and is perhaps best known for his role as the chief organizer of the March on Washington, during which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin was a West Chester native and has the distinction of having one of its three area high schools named for him in addition to a public park on the corner of South Walnut Street and Rosedale Avenue, directly across the street from the campus of West Chester University. Rustin was a great orator (who famously debated Malcom X), a staunch pacifist who was incredibly courageous in the face of violence, and a proud gay man who never stopped fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community. Rustin was all these things, but before he was any of them he was a gifted singer. Throughout his life he carried with him his love of song and singing and used his gift to uplift the hearts of those he fought tirelessly to defend and to help bridge the gap between those whose backward thinking he fought tirelessly against.

Rustin was raised in one of the most well educated and well respected families in West Chester’s African American community. His grandmother, Julia, who raised him as her son, was brought up as a Quaker but later joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church when she married Bayard’s grandfather, Janifer Rustin. Julia was a member of the NAACP and their home often played host to visiting leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. Julia always remained firm in her Quaker beliefs and her philosophy of nonviolence was to have a major impact on Rustin.

Rustin attended West Chester Senior High School where he first studied music under the tutelage of Floyd Hart. Another of Hart’s students, Samuel Barber, who graduated two years before Rustin, would go on to have a distinguished career as a composer. Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was to become one of Rustin’s favorite pieces of music. Hart was also the choirmaster and an enthusiast of early music. Hart steered Rustin toward the singing of classical music in favor of Negro spirituals because he felt they would inhibit his vocal technique. Rustin sang tenor in the West Chester Senior High School Chorus when the group won all-state honors at a competition hosted by Temple University in Philadelphia. 

Rustin graduated high school in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression and at the time there were few prospects for young black men in America. His grandmother, Julia, through her contacts at the AME Church, was able to secure him a scholarship to Wilberforce College, a historically black college in Ohio. The President of Wilberforce, who was an AME leader and had heard Rustin sing in high school, offered him a music scholarship. At Wilberforce, Rustin eventually gained an appreciation for the singing of Negro Spirituals which were a large part of the music curriculum there, as well as the blues music and work songs he learned from southern black students with whom he had no previous contact. At Wilberforce Rustin sang as a member of their famous quartet that toured the country as ambassadors for the school, and partly to raise funding for the college. Rustin was the first tenor and the principle soloist for the group. Rustin left Wilberforce without graduating in 1933 and spent some time with his Aunt Bessie in Harlem before returning home to West Chester.

After his return home, Rustin enrolled in the nearby Cheyney State Teacher’s College in 1934, also on a music scholarship. While at Cheney, Rustin formed a quartet and served as first tenor and soloist, just as he had at Wilberforce. Their group toured South Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey and were occasionally broadcast on local radio station KYW. During this time, the quartet was asked to perform at the first solo exhibition for the African American artist Horace Pippin, which was held at the West Chester community Center on Market Street. Among the speakers at the event were local dignitaries, N. C. Wyeth and Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill, then president of Cheyney State Teacher’s College.  Again Rustin would leave school without a degree (1936), and again he would return to Harlem, this time for good.

In Harlem, Rustin found a black community in which he could thrive. In January 1940, he performed as a member of the chorus for the short-lived musical, John Henry, staring Paul Robeson. Although the show was not well received and ran for only five performances, it was a great experience for Rustin and he came away from it with connections to the music scene in New York at that time. Rustin soon joined a group put together by Joshua White, who had been a cast member on and who wrote some of the music for John Henry. The group, Josh White and his Carolinians, released an album for Columbia Records in June of 1940. “Chain Gang” was a critical and financial success and secured the group a regular gig at the Café Society in downtown Manhattan. In New York, Rustin traveled in many circles both politically and artistically. It was around this time that political activism would begin to compete with his artistic pursuits. Rustin briefly became a member of the communist party and more regularly began to pursue his interest in pacifism. It was his pacifist conviction that would bring him to work the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).

Rustin worked for the FOR at their offices in Manhattan and later he traveled the country spreading their message of equality and nonviolence. When he spoke, he often used his singing to help disarm hostile audiences. Many who encountered Rustin during this time have recalled that they were moved to tears by his eloquent and beautiful singing. Rustin would eventually leave the FOR in 1953 but before he did, he recorded two LPs on their Fellowship label to help raise money for the organization. “Bayard Rustin Sings,” a collection of twelve spirituals on the life of Christ, and “Elizabethan Songs and Negro Spirituals,” both released in the early 1950s, remain as the best recorded examples of Rustin’s music.

Rustin would go on to become one of the greatest leaders in the fight for civil rights, although his involvement in the movement and the important role he played would eventually be pushed toward the margins of history. Rustin always remained steadfastly true to the ideals of peaceful nonviolence and equality for all, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Rustin’s life and work took him far past the limits of his hometown of West Chester, and wherever he marched he took with him his love of music and singing, and he used his gifts to help unite and inspire all those people whose lives he touched.

Link: Josh White and His Carolinians, "Chain Gang" , re-released on Document Records (DOCD-5405).  Rustin appears on tracks 1-8.

Link: Bayard Rustin, the Singer ( Rustin's two LPs on Fellowship re-released on one CD) 

Link: Bayard Rustin Sings Spirituals, Work & Freedom Songs. A live concert featuring music from the award-winning documentary, Brother Outsider : The Life of Bayard Rustin.

Link: Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin  

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.

West Chester University   ---    WCU Libraries  25 West Rosedale Avenue, West Chester, PA 19383  610-430-4400