|Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong|
ELLA FITZGERALD sang jazz in a voice so pure and perfected that it admitted no pain -- and America loved her for it. In her sound we soared over the darkest passages of our nation's history, to a place where race and class lost all dominion. -- Nina Bernstein, New York TimesGrowing up in poverty and a shattered home life, Ella survived on the streets of Harlem by hustling and engaging in petty crime. Smithsonian Curator of American Music John Hasse says they were terrible days. "It was a really tough time: segregation, the Great Depression, poverty, unemployment."
She was confined to a reformatory for more than a year after she was an orphaned teen-ager.
According to Bernstein,
The unwritten story survives in the recollections of former employees of the New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y., and in the records of a government investigation undertaken there in 1936, about two years after Miss Fitzgerald left. State investigators reported that black girls, then 88 of 460 residents, were segregated in the two most crowded and dilapidated of the reformatory's 17 "cottages," and were routinely beaten by male staff.
At a time of renewed calls for institutions to rescue children from failed families, this lost chapter in the life of an American icon illuminates the gap between a recurrent ideal and the harsh realities of the child welfare system.
Like Miss Fitzgerald, most of the 12- to 16-year-old girls sent to the reform school by the family courts were guilty of nothing more serious than truancy or running away. Like today's foster children, they were typically victims of poverty, abuse and family disruption; indeed, many had been discarded by private foster care charities upon reaching a troublesome puberty.Later, E.M O'Rourke, one of Ella's teachers remembered her as a model student.
"I can even visualize her handwriting -- she was a perfectionist," she recalled. There was a fine music program at the school, she said, and a locally celebrated institution choir.
But Ella Fitzgerald was not in the choir: it was all white.
"We didn't know what we were looking at," Mrs. O' Rourke said. "We didn't know she would be the future Ella Fitzgerald.After her talent was finally recognized, Ella was paroled to Chick Webb's band. The rest is history.
Food for thought for teachers... Her former school superintendent Thomas Tunney recounts:
If she was almost lost to us, how many like her have been? "How many Ellas are there? She turned out to be absolutely one of a kind. But all the other children were human beings, too. In that sense, they are all Ellas."How many Ella's are sitting in your classroom?