Seattle, Washington, 1944
(Photo Courtesy of the Al Smith Sr. Collection
Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington)
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was an interracial all-female jazz band active for 12 years from 1937 to 1949. The band originated in the Piney Woods Country Life School established in 1909 to train black children in central Mississippi. The original members of the Sweethearts were all students of the school during the 1930s. The band members included African American and mixed-race young women. In 1943 two white women joined the ensemble making it an interracial band in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era of U.S. history. Their challenge of racial custom and law was compounded by the fact that the mixed-race member of the band was light enough to “pass” for white.
Their status as an interracial band violated both law and custom in Mississippi and across the South. As a result of their violating the usually strictly enforced color line, the members of the band faced constant harassment from law enforcement agencies throughout the region. In addition the band faced scrutiny from both African Americans and whites. White segregationists were disturbed by the group’s challenge to the social and cultural norms that required the races remain separate. African Americans feared retribution from white political and economic elites if they were identified as supporting the band. In order to navigate this racial divide the band added “international” to its name. Labeling themselves as international provided the group a social space that allowed the band to rest somewhat outside the Southern racial structure.
Despite their challenges to racial segregation, the group for a time developed a loyal following among many high school and college age African Americans. As graduates of the Piney Woods School the band members embodied the ideals of social uplift through education, a concept that appealed to growing numbers of black Southern youth. Ironically the International Sweethearts gained a strong following precisely because racial segregation created a series of small, racially segregated clubs and theaters across the South that provided numerous opportunities to perform. This black theater and club network, known as the Chitlin’ Circuit, provided steady jobs and income for the Sweethearts. The Sweethearts also gained a larger and for the first time international audience because they spent time entertaining African American troops stationed in Europe for the USO.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm’s fame decreased in the late 1940s as musical tastes in the African American community changed. Rhythm and Blues increasingly replaced jazz as the major popular music among the young people who had previously been the Sweetheart’s audience. The group had a brief resurgence in popularity during the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Even in the 1970s they remained one of a handful of racially integrated all-female bands. As such they became popular with a new generation of black and white women who saw them as symbols of success in an era of blatant racism and sexism.