A Mystery Banjo and the Racism in Our Past

Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.

To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues.  Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”

Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.

Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone);  Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.

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There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).

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After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.

Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.

As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.

If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.

Hall’s and the Collegian’s involvement in minstrelsy shows that even an item as seemingly innocuous as a musical instrument can shed light on a part of our history that we – especially those of us in positions of privilege – do not always acknowledge. Yet, minstrel shows at Virginia Tech continued well into the 1960s, and this form of racism (and others) continues in America into the present day.

After Hollins College recently addressed controversy of blackface depictions in their yearbooks, Virginia Tech released the University Statement on Offensive Photographs to address the racist imagery in our past, and the University Libraries prepared a statement for our digital yearbook repositories to affirm our commitment to the Principles of Community and providing historical documentation to researchers.

My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”

For more information about blackface and minstrelsy, please read “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture blog, A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, as well as Vox’s interview with author John Strausbaugh, “The complicated, always racist history of blackface” by Sean Illing.

(This post was edited May 22, 2019, with additional information about blackface and minstrelsy, the statements on offensive imagery in the Bugle yearbooks, and a revised title.)

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University seals and logos

The university has a lot of ways to identify itself quickly: a university shield and seal, a university logo and athletic logo, a motto (Ut Prosim, “That I May Serve”), a tagline (“Invent the Future”), and many other icons that signify who we are. But these have all changed over the years, along with the official school name and nicknames. I’d like to share with you just some of the items from the University Archives, which show the different depictions of our shield, seal, and logos.

From our founding in 1872 until March 1896, the university was called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Below are two photos of students in athletic gear with sweaters that use different versions of the VAMC initials, one with a large V and AMC surrounding it and one with a large C and VAM inside of it.

The VAMC seal below has symbols for the university, some that continue into the current Virginia Tech seal. The VAMC seal depicts a ribbon with the name; above is the “lamp of learning,” a common symbol for an institution of higher education, sitting atop two books; and below are two quill pens. Within the ribbon are several objects, including a bail of hay, a cotton plant, surveying instruments, rifle with bayonet, a book, a wheel, and a plow.

Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College seal
Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College seal

In March 1896, the university’s name changed to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, which was often shortened to Virginia Polytechnic Institute or V.P.I. (In 1944, this shortened form became the school’s official name.) At the same time, President John M. McBride and his son decided to develop a motto (Ut Prosim), a coat of arms, and a new seal, which includes the motto and coat of arms.

Since this time, the university seal has included the “lamp of learning” and a ribbon of the university’s name, both carried over from the VAMC seal, and the coat of arms, split into four quadrants. The upper left quadrant is the obverse side of the Commonwealth of Virginia seal, an Amazon woman representing the Roman virtue Virtus defeating royal tyranny, a symbolic reference to Virginia’s involvement in the American War of Independence. The upper right shows the surveyor’s instruments, another carryover from the VAMC seal, to illustrate the university’s commitment to engineering. The bottom left seal is a chemical retort and graduate, an addition from the VAMC seal because of the university’s new (as of 1896) commitment to scientific studies. Finally, the bottom right portrays a partially husked corn cob, a replacement for the cotton plant and bail of hay in the VAMC seal, to represent the school’s ongoing commitment to agricultural research.

Below are other versions of the university seal and the VPI initials from this time period, on just a few objects and art pieces we have in Special Collections. The VPI initials on several objects below are all intertwined, while an earlier photo shows students in athletic outfits with a large V with a small P inside.

Interesting to note is the different versions of the representation of Virtus in the first quadrant of the seal. Officially, the Virtus of the Virginia seal should be an Amazon woman and the victim a Roman-style emperor, but several versions of the university seal depicted Virtus as a man. In the painting below, Virtus is a knight. Unfortunately, in the early 1960s, someone drew Virtus and the defeated person as a caricature of a cowboy or early white settler defeating an American Indian, possibly because of the Draper’s Meadow massacre in Blacksburg’s early history. It was not used in many places, and it certainly wasn’t used long, as the Board of Visitors in 1963 officially adopted the university seal using the Amazon portrayal from the Virginia seal.

In 1970, the university’s name changed one final time to our current title, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, shortened often to Virginia Tech or VT. The seal has remained the same, except with the full new name surrounding the coat of arms, lamp of learning, and motto, but new logos have been developed. In 1991, the university adopted the logo of a shield with the War Memorial pylons and 1872 founding year, and in 2006, the “Invent the Future” tagline was added, which is sometimes incorporated into the school logo. An athletic logo of a V with a T inside was adopted in 1957, much like the VP on the students above, and in 1984, two art students, Lisa Eichler and Chris Craft, won a competition to create the current athletic logo with a V and T connected.

Below are the current seal and two buttons, one with the athletic logo on the left and one with the university logo on the right.

If you’re interested in learning more about university logos, seals, and other traditional university symbols, such as the HokieBird and the word Hokie, I suggest looking at some of these additional sources, as well as coming in to Special Collections, of course!