Sunday, August 20, 2023

When Grinnell College Pursued Affirmative Action....

The recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has understandably generated much comment.  An official statement from Grinnell College took issue with the decision, and pledged to continue to value "diversity, equity and inclusion" as the college moves forward.

Source: Unofficial Tally by the Author, using Yearbooks, Herd Books, and Other Records

What may surprise commentators is how far back in the college's history affirmative action goes. No later than immediately after World War I Grinnell College sought funding from the Rosenwald Foundation to enroll and finance Black students, a project that ran out of steam (and money) by 1925. Afterwards only a few Black students enrolled at the College. Then again in 1964, thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Grinnell College, along with a handful of other liberal arts institutions, received $275,000 each to help recruit and finance minority students. This initiative, renewed in 1967, led to the first significant increase in Black enrollment at Grinnell College. Today's post examines how this second attempt at affirmative action changed the face of Grinnell College's student population and contributed to a generation of influential Black leaders.


In 1964 the Rockefeller Foundation selected seven liberal arts colleges "to discover talented Negro and other minority group students," providing $275,000 each "to improve the quality of [minority students'] undergraduate education." Grinnell was one of the colleges to receive this funding on a three-year trial. "Enduring gains in equality of opportunity for American Negroes and other minority groups in our society depend on improved education at all grade levels and in all parts of the country," the grant announcement said (Rockefeller Archive Center, RF RG.1.7 Series 200, Box 789). A specific ambition was the "improvement of education for those Negroes and other minority group members who are more likely to be...outstanding leaders among their own groups and in the nation. For this purpose special efforts are required to provide enlarged opportunities and increased encouragement for Negro and other students of high potential to benefit from the best that our system of higher education has to offer" (ibid.).

The Foundation announcement observed that the grantee institutions (Antioch, Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, Occidental, Reed, and Swarthmore) 

have been admitting and assisting Negro students over varying periods of time. All have undertaken in recent years more active programs to identify and enroll talented minority group students. All are allocating increased funds from their own budgets to intensify efforts and to provide the extra level of financial assistance which Negro and other minority group students require to a greater extent than the other students in these colleges. Each of the colleges has approached the Foundation for assistance to enable it to enlarge and intensify its efforts to visit Negro high schools in its area, identify talented students and provide such assistance as is required to assure their full and successful participation in the college. Special emphasis in the program would be devoted to Negroes, but other needy minority group students would not be excluded....The aim of the program at each college would be to increase the flow of Negro and other minority group students through these colleges at outstanding levels of performance and to develop the procedures necessary to attain this objective (ibid.).

The bulk of each Rockefeller Foundation grant ($240,000) went toward student financial assistance at an average level of $2000 a year throughout the four undergraduate years for a total of 30 students recruited during the three years of the trial program. The grants awarded another $35,000 toward increased "efforts to locate and recruit qualified Negro and other minority group students" along with whatever additional programming and counseling might be necessary to guarantee success of the recruited students (ibid.).

A 1967 renewal sent another $275,000 to each of the seven liberal arts colleges. The renewal depended upon the Foundation's finding that the select colleges "have widened their contacts with high schools enrolling many minority-group students," resulting in a "significant" increase in applications from and rising enrollment of "Negro and other minority students. At Grinnell this enrollment has increased since 1964 from seven to fifty-three" (ibid.). The Foundation reported that, despite numerous economic and social disadvantages, the minority recruits, "with very few exceptions,...are succeeding in college, some with excellent records," beginning what officials hoped would be a "growing and permanent flow of minority-group graduates from these colleges" (ibid.).


Edward Tocus (1950 Grinnell College Cyclone)

Even before Grinnell accepted the Rockefeller Foundation grant and while the numbers of Black students at Grinnell were trifling, the college enrolled Blacks whose careers made them into models of excellence that the Foundation grant hoped to multiply. Edward C. Tocus '50 (1925- ), for example, began college at Iowa State in 1942, but two years later enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war, he transferred to Grinnell and later obtained graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and fashioned a distinguished career with the Food and Drug Administration. Andrew Billingsley '51 (1926- ), who transferred into Grinnell from the Hampton Institute, became a prolific and respected sociologist who later served as provost of Howard University and then president of Morgan State College. Robert F. Austin '54 was one of the country's leading experts in pediatric hematology. Donald M. Stewart '59 took degrees in political science and public administration at Yale and Harvard before serving as President of Spelman College for ten years, later heading the College Board for twelve years. Herbie Hancock graduated from Grinnell in 1960 and embarked upon an outstanding career in music performance and composition. Henry "Hank" G. L. McCullough '61 was among the first Blacks to work in nuclear science and engineering for NASA, later serving as nuclear energy advisor to President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George W. Bush. James H. Lowry '61 took a Master's in Public International Affairs and became the first African American recruit for McKinsey Consulting, later founding his own consulting firm.
Randall Morgan, Jr. '65

Randall Morgan, Jr. '65 MD, MBA, is President and CEO of W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute in DC. An orthopedic surgeon for decades in Evanston, Illinois and Gary, Indiana, Morgan is President and Founder of University Park Orthopedics in Sarasota, Florida.  George Moose '66 pursued a career in diplomacy within the U.S. Department of State, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Benin and Senegal, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the European Office of the United Nations in Geneva, and Alternate Representative to the UN Security Council before being named Career Ambassador in 2002. 
Numerous other Grinnell Black alums from the period before the Rockefeller grant fashioned sterling careers, often as the first Blacks in their professions. After receipt of the Rockefeller Foundation grant, Grinnell College not only enrolled more Blacks, but also continued to graduate Blacks who crafted careers that made them "outstanding in their own groups and in the nation," just as the Rockefeller grant had hoped.

Undated Photo of Judge Henry T. Wingate '69

Sandra Bates '68, for instance, was part of the first class financed by Rockefeller Foundation money. After Grinnell she studied medicine, and became the first Black woman to practice radiology in the state of Tennessee. In that same class, Celeste Durant '68 took a journalism degree at Columbia University, and later became Director of Communications and Media Relations at Loyola University, Los Angeles. Adrienne Lemmons '68 took an MBA from Boston University and held numerous leadership positions in business before deciding to pursue a vocation in the Episcopal Church. Henry T. Wingate '69 enrolled in Yale Law School after Grinnell, then practiced law in Mississippi and in the U.S. Navy, later serving as Assistant District Attorney for the Seventh District Circuit Court of Mississippi and as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. In 1985 he was appointed to the bench of the Southern District Court of Mississippi, a position he continues to hold. Hubert Farbes '69 also enrolled at Yale Law School and embarked upon a career in environmental law. He is now a partner in the Denver firm of Garnett Powell Maximom Barlow.

Gregory M. Coggs '70 won a Watson Fellowship after Grinnell, then entered the University of Michigan School of Law, but later changed course, enrolling in Midwestern Theological Seminary. Deborah  Green '70 left Grinnell for the University of Colorado Medical School, the beginning of a long and distinguished career in medicine. Frances Gray '71 had an outstanding career as a pediatrician in Indianapolis, and also had a position on the faculty of the Indiana University School of Medicine. Beverly Oliver '71 who found Grinnell from Pennsylvania went on to become Regional Manager of the Department of Human Services' Bureau of Equal Opportunity for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Undated Photo of Congressman Alan Wheat (U.S. Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alan Wheat '72 was elected to the Missouri General Assembly in 1975 and remained there until 1982 when he was elected to the U.S. Congress from Missouri. After twelve years in the House, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, but went on to hold leadership positions in CARE and in the 1996 reelection campaign of President Clinton. In 2021 he helped found Wheat Shroyer Government Relations, a public-service oriented lobbying firm in DC. Allen Hammond '72 was the first African American tenured at New York Law School, and went on to become professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law. Yvor Stoakley '72 took his JD from Northwestern University School of Law and has long practiced law in Illinois.
Undated Photo of Dr. Irma McClaurin 

Irma McClaurin '73  took graduate degrees in anthropology, a subject she taught and in which she published; she also served as President of Shaw University and as Chief Diversity Officer for Teach for America. She later founded the Black Femininist Archive and the firm she continues to head, Irma McClaurin Solutions. Jon R. Gray '73 is a partner at Shook Hardy and Bacon in Kansas City, but previously served sixteen years as circuit judge in the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit of Missouri. G. Barry Huff '73 was president of Glory Foods, Inc. and held many other executive positions in business. Russ McGregor '73 was the first African American to head Student Government at Grinnell, after which he held senior management positions in several telecommunications firms before founding his own company in 1992.
Undated Photography of Patricia Swansey '74

Patricia Swansey '74 took a master's degree in nonprofit management from Brandeis University, later holding positions in Massachusetts state government, most recently heading the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Dennis Moss '74 became involved in local government, becoming Miami-Dade County Commissioner. Celestine Bloomfield '74, now retired, received an M.S. in library science from Case Western Reserve University, then held positions in libraries in Cleveland and Indiana, later becoming a consultant to the Indiana Department of Public Instruction and an instructor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Constance Tuck '75 earned a law degree from Cleveland State University, then held several positions with the state of Minnesota, including Chief Equity and Development officer before her 2016 retirement.  J. C. Woods '75 is an author and Episcopal priest. Careda Rolland Taylor '76, who received an MA in inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University, is director of social studies and fine arts at Niles West High School in Skokie. Richard Stokes '76 took a masters in guidance and personnel services from the University of Memphis, then held human resources positions at the University of Tennessee, the Memphis Public Library, and the city of Spring Hill, Tennessee. After a successful career as an executive for BP, Vanessa A. Harris PE '76 became Board Chairman as well as President of Strategy for Access Foundation.

Undated Photo of Vanessa A. Harris '76


It would be easy to enlarge this list, which I compiled on the basis of a very unsystematic series of Google searches. But what this random selection of alumni careers demonstrates powerfully is that the Black men and women who came to Grinnell through the doors opened and financed by the Rockefeller Foundation initiative—clearly "affirmative action" before this term entered general discourse—have made a difference in their communities and in our world. All of us—white, Black, and brown—are the beneficiaries of the talent and labor that these Black Grinnell graduates brought to the world. Of course, had there been no Rockefeller Foundation initiative, talented Black men and women would have continued to enroll and graduate from Grinnell and from the other institutions involved in the Rockefeller Foundation grant. But the intentional commitment to recruit and finance Black students in the 1960s and 1970s greatly enlarged the number of such graduates and correspondingly expanded their impact in society, benefitting us all.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Black and White: 1940s Grinnell

1940s Grinnell was about as white as it had ever been. Several African American families still had homes in town, but as children left Grinnell and older family members passed away, the population of Blacks shrank. Altogether only about a dozen African Americans resided in 1940s Grinnell whose total population the 1940 US Census put at 5219.

Similarly, Grinnell College was almost entirely white in these years: the college did not appoint its first Black to the faculty until 1964, and when Edith Renfrow graduated in 1937, she was the lone Black in the student body. As a result, in the 1940s Black men and women were rare on the  campus where the Depression and World War II had driven student enrollment down to 321 by 1943.

Nate Towles Orchestra and Its Sleeper Bus (September 1940)

And yet into this very white small-town world came a series of Black musicians, artists, and performers. Newspapers reported that Grinnell's white audiences enthusiastically received these Black men and women, frequently demanding encores and additional contact with the visitors. Today's post examines the intersection of Black and white in 1940s Grinnell with an eye to understanding what racial difference meant to a very white community some eighty years ago.


1940s Grinnell welcomed numerous musicians and special speakers, mostly at the invitation of the college which each year arranged a concert series that included a half-dozen performers. The overwhelming majority of these visiting artists and speakers were white, just like Grinnell itself. But almost every year at least one Black artist appeared to perform either at the college's Herrick Chapel or in the auditorium of the High School downtown. 

The most frequent Black musician to visit Grinnell in these years was Nat Towles who brought his orchestra to the college where it provided the music for several college dances. 

Scarlet and Black March 4, 1939

Although born in New Orleans, Nat Towles (1905-1963) spent much of his adult life in the Midwest where, beginning in the 1930s, he headquartered his dance orchestra. From its base in Omaha, the Nat Towles fifteen-piece orchestra played at dances all over the north central states. According to the college newspaper, Grinnell students danced to the music of "Lots of Poppa" Towles at least four times between 1939 and 1949. In March 1939 the class of 1940 had Towles play for the junior prom (Scarlet and Black, 3/8/1939). Six weeks later, college women in James, Haines, and Read hosted the Black orchestra for a "southern colonial" dance in Quad dining hall (ibid., 4/22/39). Just after the war ended, the college Gadabouts hired the orchestra for its dance (ibid., 11/8/1946), and had the "all-Negro" orchestra return three years later for a dance in the women's gym (ibid., 1/21/1949). 

Undated Photo of Nat Towles
(Scarlet and Black January 21, 1949)

One might imagine that the arrival of sixteen Black musicians in 1940s Grinnell would have caused a stir, bringing into Grinnell more Blacks than resided in town at that time. But because the band played only for college events, townsfolk seem to have taken little notice. I found only one reference in the Grinnell Herald-Register to the orchestra's appearance in Grinnell, the newspaper omitting mention of the orchestra's all-Black membership (GHR 3/13/1939); subsequent visits earned no notice in the Herald-Register, since, after all, the dances were strictly college events. The college newspaper, of course, paid attention to all the band's visits, regularly pointing out the racial identity of the musicians. A brief S&B story that preceded the orchestra's 1939 visit called the group a "negro band" and a 1946 story welcomed "the all-Negro band" (Scarlet and Black 3/8/1939; ibid., 11/8/1946). 

Despite the low visibility of the band in town, townsfolk may well have learned about the visitors. For one thing, chaperones for college dances always included, along with the president and his wife, several deans and a half-dozen faculty and spouses. Indeed, for its 1949 dance the Gadabouts invited "the entire faculty," so that townsfolk who lived in homes near college faculty will have heard about the visit of the all-Black orchestra. Nevertheless, since Towles had his group travel in a specially-designed sleeper bus, the musicians did not have to seek rooms in local hotels as most other college visitors had to do. Therefore, except perhaps for having seen the unusual vehicle enter or leave town or having heard from college administrators or faculty about the orchestra, Grinnell residents had no reason to know that sixteen Blacks had been to town.
The 1947 Harlem Globetrotters

In March 1941 another group of Black men came to town. Thanks to an invitation from Grinnell's Jaycees, the Harlem Globetrotters, an all-Black basketball team, arrived to play against a group of Grinnell "All Stars." Founded in Chicago in 1926 and renamed several times afterward, the Globetrotters toured the country—and later, the world—to compete and entertain, usually playing against all-white opponents. On the first of March 1941 the five or so Black men ("colored flashes," said the Herald-Register [2/27/1941]) and their white owner/coach, Abe Saperstein, took on a group of white Grinnell basketball stars at the college gym before some 350 sports fans. The Grinnell Herald-Register told readers that the "clowning Negroes had little trouble in winning the game," their comedy routine keeping "onlookers in an uproar a good share of the time." The Globetrotters ("colored boys," said the Scarlet and Black [3/1/1941]) especially impressed the audience with their ball handling and passing when, toward the game's end, all ten Grinnell players came onto the court trying—in vain—to outplay their five Globetrotter opponents (3/3/1941).

The appearance of the Globetrotters in Grinnell seems not to have occasioned much mention. But one wonders: where did the men eat and spend the night before heading on to their next engagement? Did a Grinnell restaurant and a Grinnell hotel offer accommodations, despite the rarity of Black guests—not to mention five or six Black guests at once? On the heels of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Saperstein had purchased a used Model T into which he crammed the five men of the "travelling team" (Ben Green, Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters [NY: Amistad, 2005], 51). So long as the Globetrotters were performing in the Midwest, the Model T was sufficient, although, of course, it provided no beds. Consequently, in each town where the Globetrotters played, Saperstein had to find a place that would accept Black guests. Racial bias emerged often as the Globetrotters criss-crossed the country, but if Grinnell's hotels and restaurants resisted the Globetrotters, the newspapers said nothing about it. 


1936 Photo of Dorothy Maynor

The following year Grinnell welcomed to the concert stage Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996), contralto soloist. Born into a churchman's family in Norfolk, Virginia, Maynor gained most of her early music training in church. She later enrolled at Hampton where she majored in Home Economics but sang in the choir. Graduating in 1933, Maynor won a scholarship to Westminster Choir School where she studied conducting and received a degree in 1935. After a brief stint teaching at Hampton, Maynor moved to New York where she studied voice. After performing to much acclaim with the Boston Symphony, Maynor made her Town Hall recital debut in New York in November 1939. Reviews were very complimentary, encouraging Maynor to book concert tours here and abroad. When she first sang at Grinnell, therefore, her career and fame were still young (Patricia Turner, Dictionary of Afro-American Performers [NY: Garland Publishing, 1990], 262-63; Randye Jones, "Dorothy Maynor").

The Herald-Register made no secret of Maynor's racial identity, headlining its story "Famous Negro Contralto to Sing Here" (10/12/1942). The Grinnell newspaper's review, published two weeks later (10/26/1942), was admiring and congratulatory, indicating at one point that Maynor's voice was "able to perform miracles." There was also praise for Maynor's rendition of art songs of Schubert and Debussy, all of which greatly pleased the audience which demanded several encores (GHR 10/26/1942).

But the Grinnell reviewer, like others who heard Maynor in Boston and New York, could not resist stereotyping the soloist.

The great contribution which Miss Maynor, as a Negro singer, can give and is giving is in the interpretation of the Negro spirituals, a type of folk music native to her race...The spirituals, assembled during the days of Negro bondage, constitute a body of music of unique charm which can be sung effectively only by Negroes (GHR 10/26/1942).

Black commentators took exception to racial stereotyping like this. For example, Elmer Carter (1889-1973)writing in Opportunity, a publication of the National Urban League, joined in the praise of Miss Maynor's explosive success, likening her to the better-known Marian Anderson (1897-1993). But Carter rejected reviewers' racialization, observing that 

the art of neither Miss Anderson nor Miss Maynor is particularly Negroid. They  have proved that there are no racial limitations to musical interpretation...they have attained not only technical mastery of, but understanding and feeling for, the music of the Italian and the German, the French, the Spanish—no less than the music of their own race and country ("Dorothy Maynor," Opportunity 28, no. 2 [February 1940]:34).


Undated Photo of Anne Wiggins Brown

The entire town seems to have taken notice when Anne Wiggins Brown (1912-2009), "better known as Bess of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," visited Grinnell. Born in Baltimore to parents whose ancestry was African, Cherokee, and Scots-Irish, the future soloist attended Morgan State and Columbia University's Teachers' College, all with the aim of becoming a teacher. Brown also continued to study voice, earning certificates in 1932 and 1934 from what became the Juilliard School (Darryl Glenn Nettles, African American Concert Singers Before 1950 [Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.,]30-31). Then she met George Gershwin (1898-1937) who, after having heard her sing the spiritual, "City Called Heaven," rewrote and renamed his opera to feature Bess, the role that Brown would famously play. Porgy and Bess, which premiered in 1935, catapulted Brown to instant fame. 

Consequently, Brown's visit to Grinnell generated much excitement. The campus newspaper announced that Brown would open the 1943-44 college concert series, hard on the heels of having played herself in the new film based upon Gershwin's life, Rhapsody in Blue (S&B 10/1/1943; 10/15/1943)). The Herald-Register reported that the "sensational original star of George Gershwin's negro opera Porgy and Bess" was coming to town (GHR 10/21/1943). Post-concert reviews were even more expansive. The Herald-Register did not employ the racial stereotype with which it had described Dorothy Maynor; instead the newspaper called Brown a "lieder singer of fine attainments," possessing "a well-trained soprano voice of concert calibre." Lauding the soloist's ability to vitalize the songs she sang, the Grinnell reviewer barely mentioned "two superbly rendered spirituals," concentrating instead upon the European art songs of the program. Emphasizing the appreciation of the many soldiers in the audience, the newspaper judged that Brown had brought down the house (ibid., 10/25/1943).

Brown returned to Grinnell the following autumn, as college president Samuel Stevens told the Scarlet and Black, which described the soloist as a "negro lyric soprano" (9/29/1944). Likewise, the town's newspaper in 1944 welcomed the return of the "famous Negro soprano who scored an immediate success when she appeared in recital here last year." The Herald-Register told readers that Brown had "displayed a beautiful voice combined with a gift for dramatic interpretation which made her concert one of the most popular of the series" (11/16/1944). A few days later the Herald-Register lavished compliments upon the "talented Negro artist" who endowed songs with such drama as to draw the audience into their spirit. The large and "rapturous" audience "loved it all and was insistent with its evidences of appreciation" (ibid., 11/20/1944).

The relatively light attention paid to Brown's race, especially at her first visit in 1943, might have depended in part upon her appearance. Because of her mixed ancestry, Brown was not always identified as Black and sometimes "passed" as white. "I've lived a strange kind of life," she told Barry Singer many years later: 

half black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight. Many things that I wanted as a young person for my career were denied to me because of my color. On the other hand, many black folks have said, 'Well, she's not really black.'..Onstage, though, if they couldn't take me as I was—the hell with them" (Barry Singer, "On Hearing Her Sing, Gershwin made 'Porgy' 'Porgy and Bess," New York Times 3/29/1998). 


In between Brown's two Grinnell concerts Langston Hughes (1902-67) came to town. Of all the Black artists who appeared in 1940s Grinnell, Hughes was probably the best known. Born to well-educated parents in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes grew up mostly in the company of his mother, as his parents had separated when the future poet was just a boy. His single-parent mother, therefore, found it necessary to move often throughout the Midwest, with stops in Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas; Lincoln, Illinois; and Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from a Cleveland high school, Hughes moved to Mexico City to live briefly with his father. Soon he was back in the US to study at Columbia University, but withdrew to begin extensive travels abroad, visiting numerous ports in Africa and spending time in Paris. When the money ran out, he returned to the United States and to his mother, who by then was living in the District of Columbia. In 1925 Hughes won a poetry contest in Opportunity magazine and obtained his first book contract that resulted in The Weary Blues (1926). A second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew, appeared in 1927. Meantime, Hughes enrolled at Lincoln University from which he graduated in 1929 (Notable Black Men, ed. Jessie Carney Smith [Detroit: Gale, 1999], 580-84).

1942 Photo of Langston Hughes (Jack Delano, 1942; Library of Congress)

Invited to Grinnell College in 1944 by the "social budget committee," Hughes brought to town a legacy of poetry, essays, plays, and autobiography. As the Scarlet and Black observed in announcing the visit, Hughes had been "largely concerned with depicting Negro life in America," and much of that work has appeared in "Negro publications" (4/21/1944). A second article that advertised his visit pointed out that the college library, to mark their guest's appearance, was featuring an exhibit of Hughes's publications, including The Ways of White Folks (1934), The Big Sea (1940), Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), Not without Laughter (1930), "Freedom's Plow" (1943), and Popo and Fifina (1932), which he had written with Arna Bontemps (1902-73) (4/28/1944). Whether the student journalist was familiar with these works may be doubted as the newspaper mangled several of the titles. All the same, it is clear that Hughes's visit was a big moment on campus.

The town's newspaper also touted the arrival of Hughes, although the text seems to have depended rather heavily upon the original announcement in the Scarlet and Black (4/24/1944). Calling Hughes a "Noted Negro poet," the Herald-Register recognized the great variety of Hughes's works, and told readers that Hughes would "give readings from his poetry Sunday evening" in Herrick Chapel. In fact, however, Hughes used the chapel platform to deliver what the Scarlet and Black called an "informal autobiographical talk" which "bore obvious traces of social propaganda." Although Hughes concluded the talk by reading several unpublished poems, his presentation seems to have emphasized the "economic suppression of his race" in the United States and elsewhere in the world (including Africa). The student journalist complained that Hughes "made no tangible suggestions for alleviating the situation," reinforcing the journalist's suspicion that he was a "propaganda poet" (5/5/1944).

Postcard that Langston Hughes Wrote in Grinnell, April 30, 1944
(Courtesy of Grinnell College Library Special Collections and Archives)

How Grinnell's townsfolk responded to Hughes is hard to gauge; the Herald-Register did not review his talk, which may tell us all we need to know on that score. But unlike the other African American visitors of the 1940s, Hughes did leave slight traces of his visit. A postcard that Hughes sent from Grinnell on the same day as his college talk survives in the college archives; alas, the poet had no comment upon the college or town. Hughes also used his Grinnell visit to send a letter to his friend and occasional collaborator, Arna Bontemps. Like the postcard, the letter is dated April 29, 1944, and begins by reporting that Hughes had found a room in a Grinnell hotel (Arnold Rampersad identifies the hotel as the Monroe [The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 vols. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986-88], 2:85) that had "refused to house Marian Anderson a year or so ago—but here it is housing me!" (Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967, ed. Charles Howard Nichols [NY: Dodd Mead, 1980], 164). So far as I could learn, however, Anderson never visited Grinnell, let alone been shut out of a room here, so Hughes must have had in mind another African American—perhaps Dorothy Maynor or Anne Wiggins Brown, although so far I have found no evidence that either was refused a room in Grinnell.
Undated Photograph of Roland Hayes

Roland Hayes (1887-1977), a well-known tenor soloist, opened the 1945-46 Grinnell concert series. Born to freed slaves in Georgia, Hayes was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee when an Oberlin Conservatory student heard him sing, and encouraged him to pursue more musical training. Intending to enroll at Oberlin, Hayes ended up at Fisk where he studied several years without taking his degree. But he continued to sing, and his career received a boost after a 1917 concert that he himself arranged at Boston's Symphony Hall. Past thirty and not yet enjoying enough attention to live off his concerts, Hayes decided in 1920 to leave America. Studying and concertizing in Europe (where he performed before King George V and Queen Mary), Hayes developed a reputation that "disillusioned the curiosity-seekers and chastened the gossip-mongers." Alain Locke, quoting a critic about a concert in Vienna, told readers of the newly-founded journal Opportunity that Hayes had become a "sensation," "not as a Negro, but as a great artist." "Indefatigable work [during his European sojourn]...has made a seasoned artist of a gifted, natural-born singer" (1[1923]:356). Success in Europe gave new impetus to Hayes's career, energizing concert tours across the United States in the 1930s and 1940s (Turner, Dictionary, 198-208; Notable Black American Men, 526-528).

The Grinnell Herald-Register welcomed the "celebrated Negro tenor," advertising a "varied program" scheduled for Herrick Chapel on October 15, 1945. As usual, the bulk of Hayes's program depended upon classical European composers—Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Saint Saens, and others. But the program ended with the emphasis upon African American music, including Hayes's own arrangements of three spirituals (GHR 10/11/1945). One week later the newspaper review observed that Hayes had sung "many perfect songs," the highlight of which the reviewer judged the unaccompanied rendition of "the familiar spiritual, 'Was [sic] you there when they crucified my Lord?'"
While he was singing it was as though the audience was holding its breath. One could have heard a pin drop and when he was through it seemed that applause might well be dispensed with. All the suppressed love and yearning and aspirating of an enslaved race had been expressed through that simple melody (ibid., 10/18/1945).
Apparently Hayes sang to a full house, as the newspaper claimed that "every seat in the chapel was taken and chairs on the platform did not accommodate the overflow." Delegates to the Congregational Christian conference helped swell attendance, but the review took pains to report that college students and townspeople alike were in attendance (ibid.).

Frequently denied stays in hotels because of his race, and beaten and jailed by whites at least once in the 1940s, Hayes nevertheless thought that post-war America had demonstrated progress in race relations. He hoped that he had helped lessen the division between peoples. "When I began my career," he wrote, "I realized that if I would speak to all men, I must learn the language and the way of thought of all men...So I learned to sing the songs of all people. The song I sing is nothing. But what I give through the song is everything" (Elizabeth Nash, Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers 1853-Present [Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007], 135). 


Camilla Williams (1919-2012) reached Grinnell in late November 1947. Born in Virginia in 1919, Williams, like some other Black musicians of that era, received her earliest musical training in church. She took a degree in music education from Virginia State College in 1941, after which she taught for a time in a hometown elementary school. Soon she was living in Philadelphia where she studied languages at the University of Pennsylvania and voice with Marian Szekeley-Freschi. Her big break came with winning the Marian Anderson Award in 1943 and again in 1944. After having impressed Geraldine Farrar, the well-known opera soprano, at a 1945 concert, Williams earned an audition with the New York City Opera with whom she soon signed a contract (the first steady contract of a Black woman with a major opera company) and with whom she debuted as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly in 1946. There followed a series of very successful concert and opera appearances (Turner, Dictionary of Afro-American Performers, 391-92; Southern, Biographical Dictionary, 403; Notable Black American Women, 2:712-13). Newsweek (5/27/1946) featured a story about her operatic debut, and the National Urban League put her photo (as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly) on the cover of its winter 1947 issue. Consequently, when Williams appeared in Grinnell in 1947, although still only 27 years old, she was wildly popular, having been named the "First Lady of American Opera" by the Newspaper Guild (Notable Black American Women, 2:713). 

1960s Publicity Photo of Camilla Williams
(Elizabeth Nash, "A Day with Camilla Williams," The Opera Quarterly 18, no. 2 [spring 2002]:227)

The college newspaper welcomed "the talented young negress" to Grinnell, advising readers of the various achievements in Williams's then still-young career (Scarlet and Black 11/7/1947). Much the same prose appeared in an article published on the eve of her November 21st concert, but the newspaper added the complete program, which noted that Williams began the last section by singing "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess as well as three spirituals. The student review was brief and focused upon the "lovely pianissimo on high tones" and the "color and brilliance of her voice," but did point out that Williams, responding to the crowd's applause, sang several encores (ibid., 12/5/1947).

The Herald-Register acknowledged the fame surrounding the visitor, calling her a "high ranking Negro soprano." Judging her program "exacting," the reviewer praised her "ample vocal equipment [that] qualified [her] to sing everything from grand opera to Negro spirituals." Saying little about the spirituals included in the last part of the concert, the newspaper praised her rendition of songs of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms as well as several opera arias (11/24/1947).

Other than the polite—sometimes even boisterous—applause with which Grinnell audiences favored the performers, what, one wonders, did white Grinnell make of its Black visitors? For instance, when college students danced to the music of "Lots of Poppa" Towles and his orchestra, did they wonder why no Black men or women were dancing with them and the only Black people in the room were in the band? And when Grinnellians gathered to listen to Anne Wiggins Brown or Roland Hayes sing, did they wonder at the rarity of Blacks in the audience...or in their town? Did they think that the amazing Globetrotters were exceptions to a presumed inferiority of Blacks? We have scant evidence with which to answer questions like these. 

Certainly 1940s America remained acutely aware of race. Not only did Jim Crow thrive in the South, but occasionally episodes of racial hatred blazed brightly in the news. Take, for example, the May 1943 story out of Selfridge Army Air Base near Mount Clemens, Michigan where the base commander, Col. William T. Colman, used his .45 pistol to shoot Pvt. William R. McRae, a Black man who was behind the wheel of Colman's vehicle. It turns out that Colman had issued a standing order "never to be sent a Negro chauffeur," so the furious commander fired two shots into the belly of McRae. The segregated U.S. Army also was responsible for the 1943 "race riot" at Shenango Depot in Western Pennsylvania, the consequences of which minimized the shots directed at Black U.S. soldiers.
Scarlet and Black 12/13/1939

Some Grinnell college students—like Virginia Foote '45—were aware of horrors like this, and attempted to rouse students to protest ("Letter to the editor" in S&B 10/22/1943). But the campus itself was hardly overflowing with racial tolerance. The college's 1939 Honor G club initiation, for instance, had as its theme "negro 'jimdandies' and 'mammies,'" and obliged initiates to "act the part of man and wife, appearing in public with blackened faces and carrying laundry or buckets of water" (Scarlet and Black 11/25/1939). A 1945 survey by students in a race relations class found that of some one hundred Grinnell women who were asked if they had race prejudice, seventy denied it. Yet almost a quarter of those inventoried were unwilling to have Blacks admitted to the college and half did not want to have "Negro blood plasma" administered to them. Many respondents admitted that they did not even want to sit next to a Black in class (ibid., 5/4/1945). 

And yet during these same years the campus gave evidence of changing attitudes to race. The college's post-war seminar that began in 1942 examined race prejudice, and in February 1943 announced its support for admitting Blacks to the college:
One way to combat the rising tide of race prejudice is through active association. One contribution which we could make, one gesture of amity, and one expression of good will is to get two or three negro students for this college (Scarlet and Black 2/26/1943).
This rather modest recommendation seems to have gained force over time. A 1945 editorial in the campus newspaper acknowledged that "Admittance of colored persons [to Grinnell] would automatically mean the withdrawal of a number of white students." In other words, the editorial acknowledged that racism flourished on campus, even if it was not universal. However, the newspaper argued that justice demanded that the college admit Blacks. 
Can we keep our tongues in our cheeks as we bewail the conditions that Negroes in America endure?And if we decide that segregation is the best policy, that we can learn all we need to know about the Negro in a semester course in race relations, that we are incapable of seeing a man's worth regardless of his color, then let's quit all this hypocritical bellowing by students and administration about the Grinnell spirit of democracy and equality (ibid., 12/14/1945).
The number of Black students on campus rose slightly over the next several years, and the exchange program with Hampton brought a small number of additional Black students to Grinnell so long as the program survived. Even with these changes, however, 1950s Grinnell College, like the town which was its home, remained a bastion of whiteness.

PS. My thanks to Harley McIlrath who, some time ago alerted me to the visit of Langston Hughes and his comment about Marian Anderson. His heads-up got me thinking about Blacks who visited Grinnell and the reception they received. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The First Black Appointed to the Grinnell College Faculty

Despite the abolitionist background of Grinnell, until the late twentieth century Grinnell College graduated few Black men and women and had no Blacks on its faculty. Even when the college arranged to exchange students with Black colleges, as it did with Hampton Institute in the 1940s and with LeMoyne College in the 1960s, the Grinnell campus remained very white. The apparent contradiction between the abolitionist history and contemporary reality led Cynthia Armbrust '49, who took part in the Hampton Exchange, to observe in the campus newspaper in 1949 that Grinnell has "no Negroes on our faculty and very few in our student body. This indicates that the administration, alumni, and student body have a race attitude that is not satisfactory" (S&B 2/11/1949).

Grinnell was not alone in this respect. As the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education pointed out in 2004, many of the nation's most highly-respected liberal arts colleges were slow to admit Black students and even slower to appoint Blacks to their faculties. Grinnell did have an early Black graduate—Hannibal Kershaw who graduated in 1879—but the college does not appear in the list of first Blacks appointed to the faculty because, like Bowdoin, Claremont McKenna, Macalester, and Middlebury, "archivists...could not determine the identity of those college's first black faculty member" ("The First Black Faculty Members at the Highest-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges," 45[October 2004]:108).

Undated Photograph of Denis de Coteau

Today's post supplies the Grinnell data to this survey. College records report that Denis de Coteau (1929-1999) was appointed to the Grinnell College faculty in 1964, making him the very first Black to teach at Grinnell. For his first three years at Grinnell, de Coteau was the only Black on the faculty, pioneering racial integration on the faculty and joining a small group of Black students. As a result, in addition to his work with music and musicians, de Coteau (and his family) also had to deal with racial bias. Happily, de Coteau's encounter with race in mid-America did not keep him from making the music he loved, and over the course of his Grinnell stay he established an enviable reputation that helped propel him to outstanding achievement. 


Norbert de Coteau (1899- ) and Deanis Gittens (1901-1988) were both born in Grenada in the British West Indies, but migrated to the United States separately in 1923. The two met and joined their lives in late 1928, marrying in New York City. The following June they welcomed twin boys—Norbert, Jr. (1929-2005) and Denis—to their family; their sister Shirley (1931- ) arrived two years later. According to the 1930 US Census, Norbert, Sr. at the time had a humble occupation, working as a laborer in a dress-making factory; Deanis, who had listed her occupation as seamstress, remained at home with the children. In 1930 Mr. and Mrs. de Coteau were living on one floor of a three-story home at 367 Putnam Avenue in Brooklyn, a mixed but predominantly Black neighborhood. Ten years later, as the children grew and made their way through school, the family was renting in the 2300 block of Brooklyn's Pitkin Avenue, a primarily white, working-class neighborhood. Norbert, Sr. told census-takers in 1940 that he was a "musician" who earned a living as a "tutor." 

The fact that their father was a musician had an early and decisive influence on the twins, both of whom began playing the piano at age three, taking lessons at the Portnoy Music School in downtown Brooklyn. Denis told interviewers many years later that he had tired of his twin brother's greater success at piano, and therefore had taken up the viola when he was six. According to a 1978 article, Denis played his viola at grade school commencement from PS 154, and later attended Junior High School 64. Both brothers then attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, continuing their musical education (Eliot Cohen, "Ballet brings San Francisco music man back to Brooklyn," The Brooklyn Paper 10/78). According to Denis's recollections, when the boys were still young, their father often took them to concerts "at the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Hall, and the NBC Studio 8H, where Toscanini used to conduct" (Anne Lundy, "Conversations with Three Symphonic Conductors," The Black Perspective in Music 16, no. 2[Autumn 1988]:213-14). One of these concerts featured Dean Dixon (1915-76) conducting the New York Philharmonic. Seeing a Black man with the conductor's baton "...just overwhelmed me," Denis later recalled. "At that point I decided [that] that's what I wanted to do..." (ibid., 214).

As the careers of numerous Black musicians confirm, gaining the conductor's rostrum in America is not easy for a Black, and Denis de Coteau's route to the baton was no easier than others'. After completing public school in New York, de Coteau did his undergraduate study at New York University, taking his B.S. in 1954 (interrupted by two years of military service) and an M.A. in 1957. That year he took his first college post at Morgan State College (now University). Later he taught at high schools in Florida, New York, and California, and embarked on study for his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree at Stanford University (S&B 9/18/64).

1964 Photo of Denis de Coteau directing Grinnell College Orchestra Rehearsal
(Scarlet & Black 10/9/64)

Denis de Coteau accepted appointment to Grinnell's faculty in June 1964; directing the college orchestra was his primary duty (S&B 6/5/64). From the start de Coteau's enthusiasm and musical knowledge attracted musicians to the orchestra, which had nearly gone defunct prior to his arrival. In de Coteau's first year more than half the 58 players were freshmen, but gradually the ensemble attracted more musicians so that by the time he resigned in 1968 the college orchestra had 100 members. His first orchestra performance (November 1964) had Beethoven's "Egmont" overture at its center, and included Schubert's Symphony No. 3 in D Major and Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Opus 3, No. 11 (S&B 11/25/64). The following spring de Coteau programmed an all-Mozart concert, featuring the Requiem Mass in D Minor with four professional soloists (S&B 4/30/65). That fall the orchestra, now expanded to 71 musicians, performed Mozart's "Magic Flute" overture; Haydn's Concerto in D Op. 101 (with guest cellist, Donald McCall); Handel's A-minor Concerto grosso, Op. 6/4; and more modern works by Peter Sacco (1928-2000) and Paul Creston (1906-1985) (Des Moines Register 11/7/65).

In April 1966 the college officially inaugurated Glenn Leggett (1918-2003) as President, and de Coteau helped celebrate the occasion with an orchestral program that featured Hungarian pianist Istvan Nadas (?-2000) in Beethoven's Concerto No. 3, Op. 37. In addition, de Coteau directed the orchestra in Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8 and the Symphony in E flat of Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-87), a violist like de Coteau (Des Moines Register 4/10/66). Autumn 1966 de Coteau directed a 20-member string ensemble in Handel's Concerto Grosso in G Major, Opus 3, No. 3 (S&B 10/21/66). Later that autumn he directed the full orchestra in three works: Carl Maria von Weber's "Der Freischutz"; Mozart's Concerto in A Major, k. 622; and Beethoven's Symphony in C Major, Opus 21 (S&B 11/25/66). 

One of the highlights of de Coteau's time at Grinnell was the performance of Verdi's Requiem, featuring three soloists from the Metropolitan Opera and a fourth from the New York City Opera. Performed on two successive nights by the 100-person orchestra and 125-voice Grinnell Choral society, the concert drew attention well beyond Grinnell's boundaries (Cedar Rapids Gazette 10/22/67; Des Moines Register 10/22/67), a clear compliment to the musicianship that the director brought to the college orchestra. 

Deborah Feir '68
(1968 Cyclone, p. 50)

The repertoire that de Coteau programmed over these few years speaks powerfully to his success both as a teacher and as a conductor. As several college alumni told me, de Coteau related well to orchestra members who, in turn, responded well to his baton. Deborah Feir '68, for example, remembers his sense of humor which came with a demand for the best from everyone: "we wanted to exceed his expectations because we loved him and couldn't bear the thought of disappointing him" (personal email 4/30/23). Apparently the maestro held similar regard for his musicians, remembering them long after their Grinnell collaboration. Kathy Schaff Broadwell '70, who had been concertmaster of the college orchestra under de Coteau, tells of a time in the 1980s when she attended an orchestral concert in New York which de Coteau directed. Afterwards, she visited backstage; as she walked  into the  room, de Coteau immediately recognized her: "well if it isn't my first concertmaster!" he said (personal email 4/29/23).

Betsy Power '69
(1969 Cyclone, p. 94)

Less happy was the burden that local racism brought to his time in Grinnell. Married and a father (Michele, his oldest was born in November 1965, and Nadine, their second child, was born in October 1967), de Coteau had to negotiate the boundaries of race not only in a very white college but also in a town in which race relations remained contentious. Betsy Power Moore '69 remembers encountering de Coteau at a Twin Cities performance by the San Francisco Ballet years after he left Grinnell. During intermission she visited her college orchestra director who remembered her, and also remembered how difficult life in Grinnell had been for him and his family because they had felt so isolated (personal email 4/30/23). 

All across America the 1960s saw conflict between white and Black Americans, a struggle that grew more heated as the decade wore on. Grinnell College made some attempts to address the issue on campus, for instance initiating a student exchange with LeMoyne College of Memphis in 1964. The plan intended to increase Black enrollment at Grinnell, and two grants from the Rockefeller Foundation helped significantly add to the Black proportion of the student body (Cedar Rapids Gazette 10/8/67). If in 1949 there were only two or three Black students on campus, the Scarlet and Black reported in 1968 that there were "approximately 56 Negro students on campus" (2/2/68). The appointment of de Coteau to the faculty signaled the beginning of integration of the college's teaching staff. 

Scarlet and Black 2/2/68

Elsewhere in America, racial conflict was accelerating and Grinnell College was not immune to these winds. Things came to a head in February 1968 when the S&B interviewed Black students and faculty about their experiences in town. Those interviewed reported numerous instances of verbal abuse as well as cases of physical threat and assault. A campus poster alleged that "There have been many instances of derogatory name-calling ('Nigger,' 'Jigaboo,' etc.) from high school kids..." (S&B 2/2/68). Howard Ward '69 told the S&B that "Whenever you're downtown you get sneered at, "mostly from high school students" (ibid.). Zelte Crawford, at the time a Black resident advisor on campus, told the college newspaper that "he did not know of a single Negro student here who has not been subjected to some harassment" (ibid.).
Grinnell Herald-Register 11/15/65

Although the newspaper claimed that "other Negro members of the faculty have also reported being threatened," Denis de Coteau was the only Black faculty member identified in the story by name. "Professor Denis de Coteau," the Scarlet and Black said, "while with his two-year-old daughter, has on several occasions been challenged to fight by a town resident...[Moreover,] de Coteau has been nearly run down by townspeople in cars" (2/2/1968). De Coteau himself recalled for the newspaper a conversation he had had with the owner of McNally's who had imagined that Grinnell had no problems of racial antagonism. De Coteau undertook to straighten him out: "I told him an hour and a half of incidents that I had heard about, and by the time I was done he was nearly crying" (ibid.).
2013 Photo of 1312 Main (right side), de Coteau Home 1964-68

Black students took their complaints to the City Council, one person telling councilmen that, "Unless something is done now by the City Council and the Police Department, things are going to get a lot worse around here and somebody is going to get hurt" (S&B 2/10/68). More than 25 Black students attended, and several offered testimony about their encounters with townsfolk. Lucy Pollard '70, for example, "told of being propositioned [by whites she did not know] while [she was] walking downtown" and Greg Coggs '70 told council members that he had been called the n-word by a three-year-old girl. Grady Murdock '70 said that a white townsman had threatened him with a baseball bat. Others reported similar encounters with Grinnell racism.

Clarence "Bill" Peters, Crinnell Chief of Police 1964-83
(Johnson's 1972 Grinnell City Directory, p. 12)

City officials responded with sympathy and incredulity. Police Chief Bill Peters (1921-1996) "admitted that he 'didn't believe it was as bad as it was,'" and Mayor Floyd Beaver (1920-90) claimed that this "is the first time in the 115-year history of the city of Grinnell that anything of this nature has arisen." Professor Alan Jones (1927-2007), who at the time was also a member of the City Council, noted that, because the college now had many more Black students than ever, "until now the people of Grinnell have been sheltered from the problems of Negro students" (S&B 2/10/68).

Dr. Floyd Beaver, Grinnell Mayor 1964-84
(Johnson's 1972 Grinnell City Directory, p. 3)

And then Martin Luther King was murdered. In a textbook case of bad timing and poor decision-making, when King fell dead college president Glenn Leggett was meeting with officials of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest at a former plantation converted into a resort in Pascagoula, Mississippi. According to the S&B, Leggett's visit "provoked...furious controversy on campus." When Leggett returned to Grinnell a smirking editorial welcomed "Colonel Leggett back from the Plantation." De Coteau and visiting Baptist Chaplain at Harvard, Ed Wright, met with Leggett, telling him that "they didn't think his trip to Pascagoula 'was a very good idea at all.'" Citing student concerns, de Coteau said that "it's one thing...for him to vacation on the Gulf Coast. But it is quite another for him—as the official representative of the College—to attend a meeting all the way down in a state noted for what Mississippi is noted for" (4/12/68). Observing that "Mississippi is still part of the U.S.," Leggett could not undo the trip to a state made infamous by the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers.

Another tripwire went off when campus Blacks organized a rally, collecting money to be sent to the striking garbage workers whose cause had brought King to Memphis. Those attending the rally contributed $200, but Grinnell churches proved unresponsive to students' request to allow "a team of one black girl and one white girl" to attend Sunday services to collect money for the memorial. According to organizers, eight of the twelve Grinnell churches contacted "... gave a flat 'NO' and hung up the phone." Three churches combined to contribute $50 and a Gilman church donated another $40. Although various individuals and groups in town added money to the fund, the churches' refusal added to the sense of separation between white Grinnell and campus Blacks (S&B 4/12/68).

Having already resigned his Grinnell post for an appointment at the College of San Mateo, De Coteau had only two months to remain in Grinnell, and the situation remained tense. He might have chosen to concentrate upon packing and his future. Instead, he tried to help. He and Professor of History, Raymond Betts (1925-2007), separately proposed a new program in African and Afro-American Studies (S. Eugene Thompson, "Black Programs at Grinnell," Grinnell Magazine 2, no. 1[Sep-Oct1969]:5). With the sanction of the college's Executive Council, a committee of faculty, students and administrators planned a program for 1968-69 that would include on-campus performances by the Malian Dancers and the Cecil Taylor Quintet, films on the Harlem ghetto and racism in South Africa, and other special events (ibid.). Later this proposal developed an accompanying curriculum and faculty appointments in history and English.

But for Denis de Coteau, the difficult days of being Black in an overwhelmingly white Midwestern world were over. The family moved to South San Francisco where de Coteau's musical career blossomed. After San Mateo, he accepted appointment to California State University at Hayward (now East Bay) where he directed the orchestra. By 1970 he was directing the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, developing a core of outstanding musicians, many of whom followed him to the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra where de Coteau was named Assistant Conductor in 1968; six years later he was made Conductor and Music Director, a position he held until 1998, when he was named Music Director Emeritus. He gained a similar title at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music after having served on the faculty there for years.

Along the way, de Coteau accumulated numerous honors for his conducting, including the Pierre Monteux Conducting Prize in 1969, the year after he left Grinnell. In 1976 he won the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) award for adventurous programming and in 1992 won the Prix de Martell award. Between 1977 and 1983 he held the post of Music Director of the Flagstaff Festival of the Arts and throughout his career he guest conducted orchestras all over the world, including the BBC Scottish Symphony, the Tokyo City Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony. As these accomplishments indicate, Denis de Coteau achieved great success as a musician.

For a Black man, that success was especially difficult to reach. As his brief Grinnell sojourn suggests, Denis de Coteau proved adept in navigating a world of racial antagonism. In 1978 he told an interviewer that as a youth in Brooklyn he had "learned to live with all kinds of people. There was a marvelous mix of people in East New York—Italians, West Indians, Germans, Jews. Everyone was an immigrant" (Cohen, "Ballet brings San Francisco music man"). His years in Grinnell certainly challenged his experience with other people, but he did not let that experience defeat him. "For me," de Coteau continued, "the only way to deal with discrimination has been to be excellent. I have to be better than anyone else musically to have my job and I have to continue to work hard to be better to keep the job" (ibid.). Although we might regret the truth of that statement, little in de Coteau's years in Grinnell contravenes the thought. 
Robin Weiner photo for San Francisco Chronicle

Illness sabotaged all this excellence. Diagnosed in 1995 with a benign brain tumor that obstructed vision in one eye and soon thereafter afflicted with cancer in his liver, colon, and right leg, Denis de Coteau kept wielding the baton, seasoning rehearsals of the ballet orchestra with humor, just as he had done with the Grinnell College orchestra thirty years earlier (Laura Evenson, "Knowing the Score: Ballet Orchestra Conductor Denis de Coteau's sense of humor helps him face down racism, cancer," San Francisco Chronicle 5/12/98). But the battle with cancer was not winnable. In 1998 he retired, no longer able to provide the energy that conducting required and in July 1999 he passed away. He was buried in Colma, California, a continent away from his New York birthplace. Tributes poured in and admiring obituaries remembered de Coteau, in whose name the San Francisco Conservatory and San Francisco Ballet established a fellowship "to advance opportunities for Black musicians." 

Grinnell was an early and relatively brief stop on this Black man's life of achievement. But Denis de Coteau, pioneering a Black presence on the Grinnell College faculty in an era shot through with racial hatred, helped brighten the path for Blacks who followed him onto the college campus. More than that, de Coteau taught all those around him about that beauty that inhabits persons just as it inhabits music.

I was the beneficiary of comment from numerous college alums who played in the orchestra or had other contact with the events considered here. Special thanks to Merryll Penson '70 who solicited memories from a network of alumni of that era. Since I myself never met de Coteau, I learned an immense amount from those who studied under him and knew him.