At one time music was a common element of the curriculum of American schools. Music education was more than just learning an appreciation of the musical arts, but was also considered a pathway to a career in a rewarding trade. Since operating a musical instrument requires as much training as running a machine lathe, it is not unusual to find a photograph like this one of the Technical High School Orchestra of Springfield, Massachusetts.
What is unusual is to find three young women of color seated in this orchestra of 22 young men and women. Most photographs from before 1910 show boys and girls in separate musical ensembles. This began to change in the 1920s when more school groups had a mixture of sexes, but sadly that was not the case with race, as segregation was the norm for almost all schools in the United States until the late 1960s. These three African-American violinists from Massachusetts give us a very rare example of school integration that contradicts our perception of the long era of separate but equal.
|Springfield Technical High School Orchestra 1916|
This picture comes from the Springfield Tech 1916 yearbook The Oriole, which I found on the web, and it shows a smaller school orchestra of 10 boys seated on the same steps. The two older men are the faculty supervisors: John F. Ahearn and Clifton O. Page. The man on the left was faculty advisor for other school groups in the yearbook where he is identified as Mr. Page, so the man on the right, who is the same man standing at the center back row in the first photo must be John F. Ahearn. I think he is wearing the same double breasted suit too.
|Springfield Technical High School Orchestra 1930|
By 1930 the yearbook changed its name to the more formidable Tech Tigers and the Tech Orchestra of 30 musicians has posed once again on the school steps. Mr. Ahearn is listed as the faulty director but he is not in this photo. But the bass drum is, showing a little wear on the drum head.
Though there are no African-Americans in the orchestra now, the school was not segregated and there were a few black teenagers in photos of other school activities. Since the first photograph is surely after 1916 but before 1930, I would place it around 1918-28 and based on the clothing fashions, probably closer to 1916 than 1930.
|Springfield Technical High School Band 1930|
In 1930 the Springfield Tech High also had a band and according to the description they are wearing their new uniforms. Note the cymbals and snare drum that hide the word orchestra on that same bass drum. This looks like a band that played mostly in the stands for athletic games, as with only 15 musicians they would not make much of a parade unit.
|Springfield Technical High School 1905|
This architectural drawing of the Springfield Technical High School is from a book published in 1905 - Springfield present and prospective: the city of homes, by Eugene Clarence Gardner. The school was developed from new ideas in the 1880s of giving working-class children training in manual skills and trades. In the 1890s Springfield decided to expand this into an education in various industrial arts and sciences. In 1905 the construction of the Technical High School was almost finished and the new facilities were designed for about 900 students. There was a forge and foundry, a large woodworking shop, and top floor classrooms for physics and chemistry labs.
|Springfield Technical High School Entrance 1930|
The school purposefully included educational programs for girls as they anticipated a need for better vocational training for young women. In 1905, several years before women's suffrage, this seems especially progressive. A good description of the history of the Springfield Technical High School can be found at the website Exploring Western Massachusetts which provided these next contemporary photos of the school.
|Springfield Technical High School 2010|
The Technical High School closed in 1986 and until recently was fenced and shuttered. In 2011 demolition began for the construction of a new city data center on the same site.
|Springfield Technical High School 2010|
Only a few years after these young musicians posed for their photo with Mr. Ahearn, the golden era of theater orchestras accompanying silent movies would end. Then radio broadcasts and phonograph records would diminish the need for live musicians even more. And in the real world of show business, few women, white or black, would ever find musical work playing next to men for another 60 years.
I don't know if they saved the ornate stone entrance where so many students had posed for their class pictures. But at least one photo of this doorway preserves a moment when music kept a small light burning for equality.
UPDATE: The Elliot St. facade of the Technical High School has been preserved and incorporated into the new construction. Unfortunately Google Streetview cameras have not driven past the school since 2007.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's all technical talk this weekend.