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First integrated, female big band highlighted at Smithsonian

By Sally Holland, CNN
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All-girl band broke racial boundaries
  • International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured in the U.S. and Europe in the Big Band Era
  • Saxophonist Rosalind Cron was the only white girl in the band
  • In the South, Jim Crow laws kept Cron from sharing facilities with her bandmates
  • Band recruited other races to help with "international" part of their image

Washington (CNN) -- When Rosalind Cron left home in the 1940s to join a teenage girl jazz band called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she had no idea what it would be like, as a white girl, traveling with the predominantly black band.

At the time, Cron said she thought "Jim Crow" was a man they were supposed to meet in the South. "I didn't realize it was a law, and a very strict law -- laws, plural," she said.

State and local ordinances that mandated separate public facilities for blacks and whites made it illegal for Cron to share facilities with her band members.

Cron felt the discrimination because she lived on their tour bus with the other girls, hiding her race. For three years, she said, they were like her sisters.

She spent several hours in jail in El Paso, Texas, in 1944 when authorities didn't believe the story she had made up that her father was white and her mother was black.

"They went though my wallet and there was a picture of my mother and dad right in front of the house," she said. She was sprung a few hours later when the band's manager brought two black girls to the jail who claimed to be Cron's cousins.

By that time, according to Cron, the authorities that were holding her were glad to get rid of her.

"They just told us never to return. And as far as I know, we didn't," she said.

The risks were worth it to play her saxophone with what became known as the nation's first integrated, female jazz band.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were founded at Piney Woods School in Mississippi in 1937, in part as a way for the students to help pay for their education.

They recruited members of different races to help with the "international" part of their image.

Willie Mae Wong had a Chinese father, a mixed-race mother, and no visible musical skills when she was recruited to the group as a 15-year-old. She was out on the street playing stickball when they picked her up.

"The director of the music was named White," Wong said. "They called me 'White's Rabbit' because he had to spend more time with me to teach me the beat."

The name "Rabbit" has stuck to this day.

In 1941, the group separated from the school and went professional. They traveled on a bus to gigs across the United States, including venues like the Apollo Theater in New York and the Howard Theater in Washington.

During World War II, the Sweethearts traveled to France and Germany as part of a USO tour in 1945.

Pictures and mementos from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm are on display at the Smithsonian's American History museum for their 10th annual Jazz Appreciation Month celebration in April.

Six members of the band were in Washington this week to reminisce.

"It was a privilege to come from Mississippi and go and see the other parts of the world," said Helen Jones, who played the trombone from the band's founding until it disbanded.

"All I ever wanted to do was play a trumpet," Sadye Pankey told a group gathered at the museum. And as for music education today, she feels bad for today's students.

"Some of our schools in our country now have abolished the music, and it's not fair," she said.

Cron told the group that if music is your passion, you need to stick with it.

"Don't let anyone come between you and your horns, or music," she added.

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