Today in History

Today in History: September 2

Porgy and Bess

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high

"Summertime," Porgy and Bess

Porgy & Bess score
Porgy and Bess
George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Dorothy Heyward.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

On September 2, 1935, George Gershwin signed his name to the completed orchestral score of the opera, Porgy and Bess. The composer called the 700-page score his masterpiece and never ceased to marvel that he had created it. Many critics consider Porgy and Bess to be the first and finest American opera.

Leontyne Price
Portrait of Leontyne Price, as Bess in Porgy & Bess,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
May 19, 1953.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

In February 1934, George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward began their collaboration on a libretto, songs, and music for DuBose Heyward's novel, Porgy, about the African-American Gullah culture of South Carolina. During the summer of 1934, George Gershwin spent several weeks on Folly Island off the coast of Charleston, where the Heywards owned a beach cottage. There, they observed customs of the local people and listened to their music. Gershwin joined in their "shouting" which involved rhythms created by hands and feet as accompaniment to the spirituals.

John W. Bubbles
Portrait of John W. Bubbles as  Sporting Life in Porgy & Bess,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
December 27, 1935.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

The play opened in Boston on September 30 and premiered in New York on October 10, 1935. The cast included the Juilliard-trained singers Anne Brown as Bess and Ruby Elzy as Serena; Todd Duncan, a Howard University music professor as Porgy; and vaudevillian John W. Bubbles as Sportin' Life. The songs that they sang, including "Summertime," "I've Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’," "Bess, You is My Woman Now," and "It Ain't Necessarily So," have entered the American folk and popular repertoire, but are musically subtle and difficult to render—containing jazz, blues, and folk elements. George Gershwin wrote of his composition, "I think the music is so marvelous, I don't believe I wrote it." Most reviewers welcomed the opera. One notable exception was composer Virgil Thomson who had collaborated with Gertrude Stein on Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera with an all-black cast. Thomson called Porgy and Bess "crooked folklore and half-way opera." In spite of these sour notes, the opera played to appreciative audiences in Boston and New York.

Actors Protest Segregation

During its Washington, D.C., run, Todd Duncan led the cast in a strike to protest the National Theatre's segregation policy. The actors held out against offers by the theater to permit African Americans to attend a "blacks only" performance.

As spokesman for the cast, Duncan stated that he would never play in a theater that barred him from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of his race. Theater management gave in to this demand and for the first time an integrated audience attended the National Theatre.

The play folded after its Washington, D.C., run; West Coast engagements proved a financial disaster. For many years, the opera received more attention and acclaim in Europe and the Soviet Union than in the United States. Gershwin's complete score was not heard on an American stage again until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera (external link) mounted a critically acclaimed production. In 1985, fifty years after its Broadway premier, the "folk opera" was performed by New York's Metropolitan Opera Company.

The Rock Springs Massacre

Chinese Camp in the Mines
Chinese Camp in the Mines,
J. D. Borthwick.
California as I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900

On September 2, 1885, a mob of white coal miners attacked their Chinese co-workers (both groups were employed by the Union Pacific Coal Company) in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, over a dispute on who had the right to work in a particularly lucrative area of the mine. The violence occurred after Chinese workers refused to participate in a strike for higher wages planned by the American miners. Twenty-eight Chinese were killed and fifteen were wounded; seventy-nine homes were set ablaze. The bodies of many of the dead and wounded were thrown into the flames. Several hundred Chinese workers were chased out of town and fled to the surrounding hills. Property damage was estimated at $150,000.

A week later, federal troops escorted Chinese laborers back to the mines. After restoring order, the troops remained at Rock Springs until 1898. Although the federal government had refused responsibility for actions in a territory, President Grover Cleveland requested that Congress indemnify the Chinese for their loss of property and Congress complied.

Chinese American Child
Chinese American child in embroidered jacket,
William Henry Jackson, photographer,
circa 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

In the mid-1800s, large numbers of Chinese came to the U.S. to build the transcontinental railroad and to work in the gold fields. With completion of the railroad, the ebb of gold prospecting, and widespread economic depression, jobs became scarce and Chinese immigrants faced increasing exclusion, racism, and violence. These factors contributed to the events at Rocks Springs.

The Rock Springs Massacre was followed by a similar situation in early November in Tacoma, Washington, where Chinese immigrants were ordered to leave the city. Several hundred Chinese immigrants left before the eviction deadline but another 200 were marched out of the city by force. Two Chinese settlements were burned down.

American Memory collections provide a look into immigrant life in the United States.