According to one member of the working committee one of the most interesting aspects of working on Washington Park's renovation has been hearing the personal experiences and memories of the park. Drewary Brown, a long-time resident of Charlottesville shared his recollection of Washington Park with Gina Haney of the Carter G. Woodson Institute. According to Mr. Brown, Washington Park became his "hang-out" after he was discharged from the army following World War II. Jobs were difficult to find due to all the men reentering the job market. Mr. Brown remembers that, "We would go over to the park and we would play checkers. They had checker boards over there and they had this great big. . .building, painted red, looked just like a barn. We had everything there."
In addition to remembering Nan Crow, the park's director, and the swings, Mr. Brown fondly recalls when, "We used to have these big, big dances and they had a group-they called them the Sweethearts of Rhythm -- it was all girls. . . .And they had a band and I mean trumpets and saxophones, and I mean they were good looking too, about eight or nine of them and they would play and we would have a time over there." From the time of its 1940 debut at the Howard Theater in Washington DC until it was disbanded later in that decade, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm was not only a premier all-female band, but also among the first to be racially integrated.
The band was founded in 1937 at the Piney Woods Country Life School for poor and orphaned black children in Mississippi. The intent was for the group to be a profit-making enterprise to support the school. However, by 1941 the Sweethearts severed their ties with the school, moved to Virginia and recruited some seasoned professionals. One of these new members was Anna Mae Winburn. Anna Mae had been singing with and directing a professional male orchestra; however, many of the musicians were lost to the draft because of World War II. She recalls that, "When I first joined the Sweethearts I said what a bunch of cute girls, but I don't know whether or not I can get along with that many women or not."
The Sweethearts were a group of women trying to make a place in a world ruled by gender and racial prejudice. In those times, it was easier for women to play together in a racially integrated band than to perform as musicians in a band that included men. Alto saxophonist Roz Cron had a classical background and could read music. "I thought I was great," she remembers. "But when I joined this band, many of these girls had problems reading because they learned to play the hard way. . . but what they had was a relaxed way of approaching the music-their beat was different from our more uptight white rhythm."
In order to obtain this unique rhythm, many of the all white male bands of the time used black arrangers for their music, but would not include black musicians in their performances. "Being a mixed group with different nationalities (which eventually included Mexican, White and Asian women), well, we didn't have the exposure that [other groups] had," recalls Anna Mae, "We were exposed a lot to the black people."
The Sweethearts did not book many engagements in the deep South because they were an integrated group. The group had three or four white women who traveled with them. These ladies would paint their faces dark so the police wouldn't come and take them off the band stand or arrest them. Roz Cron believed that it was absolutely necessary that she pass as a black, or at least attempt to at all times. "I tried using different makeup that turned my skin orange. I never came out right," remembers Roz. "We tried tight perms. I always looked very freakish and not quite right."
During one Southern engagement somebody reported to the authorities that the Sweethearts had white people in the band. The sheriff came nosing around the band's bus. So, "We had to slip them out of the back door of the bus before the police came," recalls Anna Mae. "We put them in a black cab. The driver was so frightened he didn't even want to drive the girls." Roz Cron was one of those girls. "Nobody thought to take anything. We just ran out of the bus. The three of us had to lie on the floor of the cab and this poor little frightened cab driver raced across town and got us to the train station."
The band ran into many little incidents like this in the South, but it didn't stop them.
The Sweethearts were often labeled a novelty band (much to their dislike) because women were not expected to go into that sort of business. The ladies considered themselves equal to, if not better than most male musicians. Some well-known musicians did appreciate the Sweethearts' talent. Eddie Durham of the Count Basie band coached them, and Louis Armstrong also took a personal interest. According to Anna Mae, "They would come and stand in the wings of the Apollo Theater and listen to the band. And I could see them back there smiling when the girls would take off on their instruments." Eventually, Armstrong would even attempt to steal trumpet player Tiny Davis away from the Sweethearts by offering her about 10 times her current salary. However, Tiny did not go. Explaining in later years, she simply said, "I loved them gals too much. Them was some sweet gals -- you know."
The quality of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm's music and the pluckiness of its members make it one of the greatest all girl bands ever formed. "Black people remember the band to this day," states former band leader Anna Mae Winburn. Washington Park and Charlottesville are fortunate not only to have hosted the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, but also to have community members who personally remember this unique and talented band.
Next: A Timeline of Park History
(Sources: 1997 oral history with Drewary Brown by Gina Haney - historian; International Sweethearts of Rhythm [videorecording]: America's hottest all girl-band, Jezabel Production & Rosetta Records, New York, NY: Cinema Guild, c1986.)