Jun 18, 2021

The Vanishing of Harry Pace: Episode 2

Dreams Deferred. 

The story of the post Black Swan years. We follow Harry’s Supreme Court battle to desegregate the South Side of Chicago, and then the mysterious decision which forces him into seclusion, before his untimely death.

The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created and produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. 

This series was produced in collaboration with author Kiese Laymon, scholar Imani Perry, writer Cord Jefferson, WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, and WNYC's Jami Floyd. Based on the book Black Swan Blues: the Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black Owned Record Label by Paul Slade. Featuring interviews with Pace's descendants and over forty musicians, historians, writers, and musicologists, all of whom grapple with Pace’s enduring legacy.

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The Vanishing of Harry Pace - Episode 2

SHIMA OLIAEE: Are we recording?

JAD ABUMRAD: Ready?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah, I'm ready.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Shima Oliaee.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is the Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB. This is Episode 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: Quick recap - in the last episode, we started with a family secret...

GAIL GAGE: Oh, my God.

SUSAN PACE: Oh, my God.

ERIC PACE: Oh, my God. This is crazy.

SUSAN PACE: Can't believe this has been kept from us.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...About a guy named Harry Pace, who it turned out was not an Italian mobster, but rather...

PETER PACE: African American.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...A light-skinned Black man from Covington, Ga., who fell under the tutelage of the great W.E.B. Du Bois.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

W E B DU BOIS: So that it was a good beginning...

JAD ABUMRAD: ...And created America's first Black-owned record label...

WILLIE RUFF: So the only records using exclusively Negro voices and musicians.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Almost a hundred years ago today.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So we thought this was going to be a series just about music. But what Harry does next...

EMMETT PRICE: It's like poof.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Is on a whole 'nother level.

EMMETT PRICE: Like, that [expletive] is haunting.

IMANI PERRY: Trying to sort through what that experience is like psychologically is very hard to do.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: It's a mystery. It's a mystery.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. To pick up where we left off...

CORD JEFFERSON: "End Of Black Swan" article, a consolidation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: Screenwriter Cord Jefferson.

CORD JEFFERSON: Chicago Defender, April 19, 1924 - (reading) white combinations of white businesses are frequent. It does not often occur where there is a combination of a white and a racial business. It is of more than local interest, therefore, to note the recent consolidation of the phonograph record business of the Paramount, a white organization, and the Black Swan.

SHIMA OLIAEE: At the end of April 1924, after a very intense two-year run, Harry sells Black Swan to Paramount, a large white record company. He tries to put a good spin on it, but there's no mistake. This was definitely the end.

CORD JEFFERSON: One thing worth saying is that just this was what happened in every aspect of American life. Whenever Blacks found a way to earn money, whites would come in in some capacity and destroy that. This is not unusual.

JAD ABUMRAD: What is unusual, though, is the way Harry responds...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: ...The way he immediately changes keys. One thing we didn't tell you in Episode 1 is that while Harry was doing all the Black Swan stuff, he was also the president of an insurance company.

SHIMA OLIAEE: On the side.

PAUL SLADE: He's got this other job, this other life.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is journalist Paul Slade. He's written an entire book about Harry. He actually got us started on this whole journey.

PAUL SLADE: Black Swan's at its height, and yet he still finds the time and the energy to act as chairman of a brand-new life insurance company.

JAD ABUMRAD: And this is happening while Ethel's on tour and they're blowing up?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, my...

PAUL SLADE: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Gosh. That's insane. So when Black Swan folds - like, right in the middle of its collapse...

PAUL SLADE: Harry drove through a merger between two other insurance companies selling to Black customers. And that created a massive new firm, which more or less owned the Black market for life insurance.

IMANI PERRY: Called the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Scholar Imani Perry.

IMANI PERRY: When Lorraine Hansberry writes "A Raisin In The Sun," this is in some ways predicated on - the whole play is predicated on that company.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

JAD ABUMRAD: More on that in a second.

PAUL SLADE: Supreme Liberty Life was headquartered in Chicago, and it was enormous.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAUL SLADE: You get an idea of the size of it from the fact that he had assets of $1.4 million - and again, this is in 1929 money - and over a thousand employees.

(SOUNBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: So he just flips industries from music to insurance?

PAUL SLADE: Yeah, that's the next step. And that's when Harry moves to Chicago.

JAD ABUMRAD: Initially, this seemed a little out of the blue to us, but pretty much everyone we talked to said no, no, no. This makes total sense. Think about who this guy was.

EMMETT PRICE: Remember; Pace is a race man.

DAVID SUISMAN: Pace wanted to uplift the race.

EMMETT PRICE: He's a race man...

JAD ABUMRAD: Scholars Emmett Price, David Suisman.

EMMETT PRICE: ...The same way that Du Bois is a race man.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This was his Du Boisian programming kicking in.

EMMETT PRICE: How do I uplift while I climb?

SHIMA OLIAEE: And insurance was actually a natural next step.

DAVID SUISMAN: I mean, and a couple of things that are pertinent here - and one of them is insurance has this really important social function. Pace's work needs to be understood in that context as doing activism through business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: If you look at this time economically, the folks that had accumulated the most wealth have been able to pass it down, so they were mostly white people. Black America had largely been kept below the poverty level, and they didn't have structures to protect their money, to protect themselves. With insurance, this was stability. It was something that they could pass down. 

IMANI PERRY: So for example, Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company is important because it really is the only way to accumulate wealth upon death. This is what people have to give their families after they die.

EMMETT PRICE: And then there's also this. When we think about benefitting financially from slavery, slave owners took insurance policies out on their slaves knowing that the slaves would die and that the death of the slave would be replaced not necessarily with a body but with a bag of coins. Right? Money.

JAD ABUMRAD: So insurance wasn't just insurance.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was justice.

Jad, do we - should we get the - Pace's mission statement of Supreme Liberty Life?

JAD ABUMRAD: Totally.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I think - I just want to get your voice reading it.

IMANI PERRY: OK.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: We asked historian Imani Perry if she would read Pace's mission statement.

IMANI PERRY: OK. Pace stated that the first purpose of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company was providing low-cost homes of finest construction using all colored craftsmen.

JAD ABUMRAD: It was very much like Black Swan.

WILLIE RUFF: The only records using exclusively Negro voices and musicians.

JAD ABUMRAD: Except replace records with homes and musicians with builders.

IMANI PERRY: The second objective is for the company to make an investment of funds into the purchasers of these homes.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He also said, I actually want to give them money so they can move into those homes.

IMANI PERRY: Yeah. So the sort of historical context is that this is actually during the Great Migration.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: So the Great Migration on the most basic level...

JAD ABUMRAD: Professor Charles McKinney.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: ...Is a mass exodus of African Americans from the South.

IMANI PERRY: From the Deep South...

PAUL SLADE: To northern cities like...

IMANI PERRY: Chicago...

CHARLES MCKINNEY: Detroit, Flint, Michigan...

IMANI PERRY: New York...

CHARLES MCKINNEY: Newark, N.J.

IMANI PERRY: Washington...

CHARLES MCKINNEY: Which is going to become known as the Chocolate City. Before this moment, there's probably fewer than 10 cities that have over 5,000 Black people in them. That number is going to mushroom.

IMANI PERRY: So there's this massive movement. Right?

SHIMA OLIAEE: So in starting this company, Harry clearly saw a need.

IMANI PERRY: All these migrants are coming, and there's essentially not enough housing. They - just - there's not enough space.

JAD ABUMRAD: So Harry decides to try and solve this space problem. And what was immediately clear to him, to anyone, was that there were tons of neighborhoods with space.

IMANI PERRY: Those were the white neighborhoods. But most of Chicago is covered by what were called racially restrictive covenants, which were these sort of private land agreements in neighborhoods that people would enter to preclude African Americans from moving into them.

JAD ABUMRAD: These are contracts?

IMANI PERRY: They're contracts, yeah, with...

JAD ABUMRAD: Are they legal documents? Or are they just...

IMANI PERRY: They are legal documents. They're...

JAD ABUMRAD: These would be the, like, neighborhood association coming together to form a contract that someone would have to sign in order to move in. And it would read like this. This is literally a - one of those contracts.

IMANI PERRY: (Reading) No fence hedge or barrier more than 36 inches in height shall be placed within 30 feet of any street. No fowl or animal other than songbirds, dogs or cats as household pets. No part of the land hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by or sold, diminished, transferred, conveyed onto or in trust for leased or rented or given to Negroes or any person or persons of Negro blood or extraction or to any person of the Semitic race, blood or origin, which racial description shall be deemed to include Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians.

Basically, you can't have these kind of people in the neighborhood. And as a race man of sorts, as someone who was interested in pursuing civil rights for African Americans...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry Pace decided it's time.

IMANI PERRY: To do something.

PAUL SLADE: 1930...

SHIMA OLIAEE: He's such a fighter.

PAUL SLADE: ...He'd start studying for his law degree, doing it in his spare time. He's running this massive insurance company. He still finds time to work four nights a week to do all his law studies, and he graduates from Chicago Law School in 1933.

SHIMA OLIAEE: July 8, 1933, Chicago Defender. Surprising his friends, many of whom had no previous inkling of his study, Harry Pace, well-known insurance executive, appeared in the graduating class of the Chicago Law School.

PAUL SLADE: And just the sheer amount of energy that he had - you know, just one of his lives would have exhausted me.

JAD ABUMRAD: At this point, he's got a wife, Ethylene, a kid, Harry Jr. who's 15. He's managing a company of a thousand employees. He's gone to law school in his spare time. The next thing he does in his off hours, I guess, is he starts looking for homes that are for sale in white neighborhoods.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMANI PERRY: He eventually zeroes in on a neighborhood called Woodlawn. Like, if you go to Woodlawn now, Woodlawn is, like, 100% Black now, right?

SHIMA OLIAEE: At the time, it was completely white.

JAD ABUMRAD: So Harry sets his sights on this neighborhood.

PAUL SLADE: Harry managed to find one of the white guys who had been involved in running the owner's association at Woodlawn, a guy called James Burke.

JAD ABUMRAD: James Burke was a cop.

PAUL SLADE: Now, James Burke, I believe, had actually been involved in drawing up the original restrictive covenants.

JAD ABUMRAD: That document...

IMANI PERRY: (Reading) No Negroes or any person or persons of Negro blood or extraction...

JAD ABUMRAD: He was one of the guys who wrote it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He defended it in court. He won.

JAD ABUMRAD: But the reason that Harry got in touch with him is that somewhere along the way, this man...

PAUL SLADE: He had fallen out with the other members of the property association.

JAD ABUMRAD: And he wanted to get back at them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Do you know what the falling out was?

PAUL SLADE: I don't, I'm afraid. I don't know what it was all about.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But he was an officer for that neighborhood.

PAUL SLADE: Yeah. But he had this massive falling out. And everything he does from that point onwards seems to be driven by spite.

JAD ABUMRAD: We think it was a dispute with his ex-wife who was still on the neighborhood association. We're not sure. But for whatever reason, he was so upset with them that he vowed to put a Black family on every single block in Woodlawn just to spite them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And somehow, Harry finds this guy. And, basically, he's like, you and me, we have the same goal...

CORD JEFFERSON: Integrate the neighborhood.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yes. And he unites with this racist cop.

CORD JEFFERSON: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: This is - I just have so much respect. I mean, this is - I don't know. Harry just got [expletive] done...

CORD JEFFERSON: You know...

JAD ABUMRAD: ...You know?

CORD JEFFERSON: ...A racist white cop is going to be helpful when you're trying to sort of take on the law.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Yeah. 

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

CORD JEFFERSON: He probably had to swallow his pride. I can't imagine what the conversations were like between those two people. But, you know, it was probably (laughter) amazing.

PAUL SLADE: Now, we don't quite know how they met. But we do know from Harry's testimony in court that he was working with James Burke in this.

CORD JEFFERSON: This was problem-solving at its best.

JAD ABUMRAD: Harry tells James Burke to find him a house that is for sale in that white neighborhood. James Burke does. Harry then, in a very kind of clandestine, complicated series of transactions, arranges for the house to be sold to a Black man, in direct violation of the racially restrictive covenant. And the name of that man...

IMANI PERRY: Carl Augustus Hansberry, a real estate mogul of sorts for Black Chicago.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And the father of Lorraine...

IMANI PERRY: Hansberry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...The future playwright.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNOUNCER: The first Black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for the best play of the year.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, when Emmett Price talks about the six degrees of Harry...

EMMETT PRICE: Yeah. I mean, Harry Pace touches people who don't even realize that they were touched by Harry Pace.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Well, Harry just shows up everywhere.

EMMETT PRICE: Everywhere - literally, everywhere.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is what he's talking about.

EMMETT PRICE: Everybody's connected.

JAD ABUMRAD: Now, Lorraine Hansberry was young...

IMANI PERRY: She was 8 at the time.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...When Harry sold her dad the house that they would move into. She would ultimately write a play about the whole experience called "Raisin In The Sun."

IMANI PERRY: I mean, "A Raisin In The Sun" is, in many ways, kind of the door opening.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was the Black Swan moment of the theater.

IMANI PERRY: Watershed.

RUBY DEE: It was like Lorraine was opening a new chapter in theater that included Black people.

IMANI PERRY: In the way that Black Swan Records was a watershed.

SHIMA OLIAEE: If you've seen the play, you'll recall that it's about a Black family moving into a white neighborhood - or about to move in. Right before they do...

IMANI PERRY: There is a white man who shows up...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) What can we do for you, Mr. Lindner?

JOHN FIEDLER: (As Mr. Lindner) Well, I'm from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. And...

IMANI PERRY: ...At the Younger's apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

JOHN FIEDLER: (As Mr. Lindner) We had it brought to our attention at the last meeting that you people bought a piece of residential property.

IMANI PERRY: And he tries rather delicately to explain that they do not want the Younger family to move into their neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

JOHN FIEDLER: (As Mr. Lindner) Good for the happiness of all concerned - our association is prepared to buy the house from you at a financial gain to your family.

IMANI PERRY: ...And offers them money to prevent them from moving in. And ultimately, the family...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) We have all thought...

IMANI PERRY: ...Refuses...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

SIDNEY POITIER: ...(As Walter Lee Younger) About your offer.

IMANI PERRY: ...That insult.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) And we've decided to move into our house.

IMANI PERRY: It's sort of dramatic rendering of what these restrictive covenants were actually doing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The play ends with this family about to move into a white neighborhood.

IMANI PERRY: It ends with a point of possibility. What will happen?

JAD ABUMRAD: In real life, they did move in.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry Pace sold the house to her dad, convinced him and his family to move into that white neighborhood. And when they did, it was much worse than anything she wrote about in that play.

IMANI PERRY: They move in, and they are met with mob violence.

JAD ABUMRAD: Lorraine Hansberry wrote about this in a public letter.

IMANI PERRY: (Reading) That fight required that our family occupy the disputed property in a hellishly hostile white neighborhood in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She says, they threw stones in through the windows.

IMANI PERRY: One of their missiles almost took the life of the then-8-year-old signer of this letter. (Reading) My memories of this correct way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. I also remember my desperate and courageous mother patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children.

JAD ABUMRAD: This was all a part of Harry's plan - maybe not the mob violence. But he wanted to provoke the neighborhood.

JAMI FLOYD: He knows he's going to trip a lawsuit. That's the whole point.

JAD ABUMRAD: Journalist and legal expert, Jami Floyd.

JAMI FLOYD: He wants to trip a lawsuit. It's just like the woman who started Roe vs. Wade. When you were bringing a test case, you're bringing a test case. You know what you're doing.

PAUL SLADE: So anyway...

SHIMA OLIAEE: May 1937.

PAUL SLADE: So now Harry is working with Carl Hansberry in the Hansberry family.

JAMI FLOYD: Hansberry moves in.

PAUL SLADE: And at that point, Woodlawn's white residents, the property owners’ association, they realize they've been tricked.

JAMI FLOYD: They sue...

PAUL SLADE: Arguing that this purchase violated their restrictive covenants.

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's exactly what Harry wanted. So he countersues and...

JAD ABUMRAD: They end up in court.

PAUL SLADE: First of all, it's heard by a circuit court. And then it goes to the Illinois Supreme Court. And those first two stages go against the Hansberrys.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Against Harry - they know going in...

JAMI FLOYD: That precedent is against them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Jami says just 15 years earlier...

JAMI FLOYD: The U.S. Supreme Court had found, as a constitutional matter, that restrictive covenants were constitutional, that it was OK for people - white people - to say, we don't want you in our neighborhood.

JAD ABUMRAD: On what grounds?

JAMI FLOYD: It was part of your property right.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh.

JAMI FLOYD: It was part of your property right to make a decision about who will inherit this land and under what condition.

JAD ABUMRAD: So from the plaintiff's standpoint - that's the other side - all they felt they needed to do was to prove that Harry and Carl Hansberry were conspiring to break the law. So at a certain point, the other side calls Harry himself to the stand.

JAMI FLOYD: Oh, maybe the chat would be good.

SHIMA OLIAEE: For this part, we got an assist once again from John McWhorter, who played piano for us in the last episode. He comes in here as a linguist, which is his day job. And he plays Harry.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Pace would have talked kind of like me. That's interesting. I'm not even going to do a voice. That's just me. OK. Yeah. I can do that.

JAD ABUMRAD: And, Jami, do you want to be the lawyer for the other side?

JAMI FLOYD: Yeah. Sadly, yes, I think that makes sense.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMI FLOYD: Here we go. Ready?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah.

JAMI FLOYD: (As Charles) Pardon me for asking you this question, Mr. Pace. You are a negro, are you not?

JOHN MCWHORTER: (As Harry) Well, that would be a conclusion on my part. I am commonly known as a colored person. You can form your own conclusion, please.

JAMI FLOYD: (As Charles) I mean, you admit that you are?

JOHN MCWHORTER: (As Harry) I say I am commonly known as a colored man and prefer to be known as such.

JAMI FLOYD: (As Charles) Are all the other officers of your company also colored people?

JOHN MCWHORTER: (As Harry) Yes.

JAD ABUMRAD: (As Charles) All of them?

JOHN MCWHORTER: (As Harry) Yes.

JAD ABUMRAD: All right.

SHIMA OLIAEE: John, you're a great Harry.

JAD ABUMRAD: I felt that.

SHIMA OLIAEE: You're the best Harry so far.

JOHN MCWHORTER: I am that man.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN MCWHORTER: I feel him...

JAMI FLOYD: You've auditioned well for Harry.

JOHN MCWHORTER: ...A colored man. I'm him.

JAD ABUMRAD: There are many ways to read this exchange. I mean, one could be that the lawyer, Churan, is unnerved by Harry's pale complexion. And he just wants to establish for the jury, that guy is a Black man. Don't be fooled, all-white jury, that is a Black man causing trouble.

JAMI FLOYD: Just trying to get the jury to be so angry with these Black folk for stepping out of their, you know, rightful place down at the bottom of the ladder.

JAD ABUMRAD: But then he - it's a little weird. He says, you're a negro, are you not? And then Harry replies, that would be a conclusion on my part. That phrase throws me. Like, what are you hearing there?

JOHN MCWHORTER: That's an indication of what he was going to do later. He's letting on that there's a part of him that thinks, why do I have to accept that particular balkanized category?

JAMI FLOYD: I wondered if he was sort of ahead of his time a little bit. Obviously, there's legal strategy happening also because he had to be prepared to testify, right? But could he also have been saying, listen; this race thing is crazy.

JOHN MCWHORTER: That is what he meant. Yeah. He was slipping that in. I think Pace thought maybe it's time for us to start letting this go. Isn't that - 2 1/2 generations past slavery, isn't that natural, to start thinking, maybe it's time to start letting this go given that we're all different colors and I like Mozart just as much as they do? What is this white, colored, negro thing? I can see him thinking that.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Getting back to the case...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Harry and his team lose twice in the lower courts. They appealed twice and eventually, in 1937...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COURT OFFICER: The honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...We arrive at the Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARCHIVAL: Oyez. Oyez.

JAMI FLOYD: You know, of course they'd love the courts to say, well, it's just unconstitutional. You can't segregate this neighborhood. That's just against - that's against our principles in America. But, you know, the year is 19 - I don't know 38. I mean, come on, the military is not even integrated. The military, the first major institution in our country, is years away from integration. This is what they're up against.

JAD ABUMRAD: So Jami says Harry and his team deploy kind of an ingenious strategy.

JAMI FLOYD: Strategically, they decide, let's just look at the paperwork; let's look at the paperwork.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Like, OK, let's look at these contracts on their terms, on the terms that the neighborhood association set out. According to their rules - these are the rules the association made for themselves.

JAMI FLOYD: They needed to have 95% of the people who live there signing the thing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Otherwise, the contracts weren't valid.

JAMI FLOYD: They needed to have close to 100% of the landowners to sign it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But then Harry and his team go out. And they check every single lease in the neighborhood. And what they discover is that the neighborhood association...

JAMI FLOYD: They had only gotten 54% of the people in the neighborhood to support the restrictive covenant. Without the remaining 46% or so, the thing wasn't a good document.

JAD ABUMRAD: So it was like a technicality?

JAMI FLOYD: Right. Right. But when you bring a test case in the courts, the first thing you want to do is what? Win.

JAD ABUMRAD: And that's what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMANI PERRY: And the house can be occupied by African Americans. And the neighborhood where it is is then opened up for Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNOUNCER: The decision opened 500 new properties to Black residents.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry basically transformed Chicago's South Side in an instant.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: I mean, this dude's - good God. Why don't we have, like, three movies about this dude, right?

SHIMA OLIAEE: I know.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: I mean, you know, hello, Ava DuVernay, right? I mean, you know, record owner, lawyer - good God, I mean, this dude is like - he's like the vocational MacGyver, right? He's all over the place.

JAD ABUMRAD: And then things get really confusing. Like, if you ask yourself, as we have a million times in this project - why don't we know about Harry? - there are a lot of reasons for that - you know, not a ton of documentation. We don't have his voice. It was a long time ago. And then there is the tricky business of what was happening in his life at the time he was testifying.

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's after the break.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with...

SHIMA OLIAEE: I'm Shima Oliaee.

JAD ABUMRAD: There you are.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. So one of the tricky things about Harry is boiling down his life to just one story. Like, there seem to be so many stories happening all at once. For example, if we were to split-screen the story we just told you, on one screen, you would have a great Supreme Court victory about a race man who desegregates a huge chunk of Chicago - on the other side, very different.

PAUL SLADE: So certainly, some...

SHIMA OLIAEE: According to Paul Slade, if you look at the census records for him and his family...

PAUL SLADE: In 1930...

SHIMA OLIAEE: This was before the case.

PAUL SLADE: ...He entered the whole family as being Negro. NEG was the notation on the form. And in 1940...

SHIMA OLIAEE: The year of the Supreme Court decision.

PAUL SLADE: ...He entered them all as being W for white.

JAD ABUMRAD: Huh.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But at what - OK - so...

PAUL SLADE: So at some point between 1930 and 1940, something changed. We don't know...

JAD ABUMRAD: Was that...

PAUL SLADE: ...Exactly what.

JAD ABUMRAD: We looked at the census records. And Paul's right. Between the time Harry testified in Hansberry v. Lee and the time the outcome was announced, he reclassified himself and his family from Black to white. And apparently even before Carl Hansberry had moved his family into that Woodlawn white neighborhood, Harry had already snuck his family in.

PAUL SLADE: So it's complicated.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Just your professional opinion - do you think he moved into that neighborhood to test the bounds of covenants to set up Hansberry v. Lee?

PAUL SLADE: My instinct is that it was probably a dry run. I think he would - he was probably already thinking - it was a rehearsal, I think, for Hansberry v. Lee. And he wanted to see if this idea would work. That's my feeling.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So 1937, this case starts, right?

IMANI PERRY: Mmm hmm.

SHIMA OLIAEE: 1930, Harry's family is listed in the census as Negro.

IMANI PERRY: Right.

SHIMA OLIAEE: 1940, as this case is being concluded, Harry, and his family, is now listed as white. What is your take on that?

IMANI PERRY: Well, honestly, this - it's not all that uncommon that that would happen. And it can be for a couple of different reasons. Census takers list whatever they want. So they look at people and are making decisions about their race without asking them at times.

JAMI FLOYD: We have to remember, we didn't start filling out our own census forms until 1960. It's a modern phenomenon. Harry Pace never got to choose for himself. And think about it. If the enumerator - that's what they used to call the census takers - if they walked into a segregated white neighborhood and they see a person standing on the lawn watering his lawn, they're just going to make the assumption, that person is white.

JAD ABUMRAD: So maybe that's what happened. Maybe he was there watering his lawn - Harry Jr. playing with a ball little Josephine tagging along; Ethylene, his wife. And maybe the enumerator saw all this, just assumed, well, everybody else in this neighborhood is white by law. So these people must be white.

JAMI FLOYD: So we don't know what happened, Jad. We don't know what transpired. Did the enumerator simply make that assumption and mark down W, or was there a conversation about race in which Harry Pace misrepresented? We just don't know.

JAD ABUMRAD: Whatever the case, if it were a W, maybe that suited him to be classified that way since his goal was, at some point, to out himself and bring a case. I mean, it's even possible that James Burke, that racist cop, only worked with Harry in the beginning because he thought he was white.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah. James didn't understand who he was talking to.

JAD ABUMRAD: I don't know, seemed plausible.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INTERVIEWER: And Mr. Pace - would you consider him to be your mentor?

JOHN JOHNSON: He definitely was my mentor. He would have to go to the bank, and he would let me ride with him. And when I got driver's license, I would drive him.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We found a video interview done with a guy named John Johnson, who was the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. In the interview, he tells the story of meeting Harry Pace on June 4, 1937. This would've been right in the middle of the Hansberry v. Lee case. He'd just graduated high school, and he'd been selected to go to some kind of event honoring Black high school graduates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN JOHNSON: We were all - went to some place where there each - selected one person from each school to be honored. And Mr. Pace was the main speaker.

JAD ABUMRAD: He gave a talk called The Negro's Contribution to American Life. And he talked about how Black history has not been recognized, how we fixate too much only on white men and what they've accomplished. And to quote...

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is actually Harry's grandson Peter reading from the speech.

PETER PACE: (Reading) There were Negroes who came to America with Columbus, who crossed the country and saw the placid Pacific with Balboa, who went in the wilds of Mexico and Central America with Cortez, who searched for the fountain of youth with Ponce de Leon.

SHIMA OLIAEE: All of these people, he argued, they need to be seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN JOHNSON: And so after it was over, having practiced public speaking and not being shy anymore, I went up and said how - what a great speech he had made and how inspired we were by the speech. And he said, well, you had a great high school record. What are you going to do? I said, well, I'd like to go to college. I have a small scholarship, but I just cannot see my mother scrubbing floors and washing dishes in order for me to go to college. He said, have you ever thought about going to college part time and working part time? I said, I've thought about it, but I don't have a job. He says, well, maybe we can find you one. Come to see me on the first workday of September, and I'll find some kind of job for you. And he really didn't have a job for me. But he had a desk outside his office, and he sat me at the desk. And so I would run errands and do whatever he wanted me to do. And he would talk to me about business and about his life, and I never knew that Blacks could do what they were doing.

JAD ABUMRAD: At this point, the interviewer for this oral history - it was done for the Visionary Project - jumps in with a question about Harry's complexion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INTERVIEWER: Mr. Pace was very fair-skinned, too, wasn't he?

JOHN JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact...

INTERVIEWER: I've seen pictures of him.

JOHN JOHNSON: He was very fair-skinned, but he identified completely with Blacks until he had a daughter and a son...

SHIMA OLIAEE: This would be Harry Jr. and Josephine, now teenagers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN JOHNSON: ...Who went to the University of Wisconsin. And they fell in love with white boys and girls. And they wanted to get married. And the time came for them to meet the parents. So naturally, they didn't want to meet a Black person. So when Christmas came and it was time for the parents to meet him, he didn't take any Black newspapers or magazines home with him, which was a godsend for me because he gave me the job of reading Black newspapers and giving him a digest of what was happening in the Black community each week. I did that so he could talk intelligently to the people who were coming in and out of his office. That's how I got the idea for Negro Digest. So he...

JAD ABUMRAD: Basically, he says Harry was temporarily pretending to be white for his kids. All the while, John Johnson would secretly smuggle in these Black publications, which he says was what led him to start Ebony and Jet, making him one of the 400 richest men in America. Actually, he was the first Black man to make that list.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN JOHNSON: So he was more than a mentor. So...

SHIMA OLIAEE: At this point, the interview goes in other directions. But Johnson continues the story in his autobiography. David Suisman told us that after Harry decided to move his family into that neighborhood...

DAVID SUISMAN: At that point, Johnson recounts there's this threat by his employees at Supreme Liberty Life who realize that he's passing because, otherwise, he wouldn't be able to live in this white neighborhood. And they threatened to basically out him.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Apparently, some of the younger employees had found out that he was potentially passing, and they were horrified. He was the president of the largest Black-owned insurance company in America after all. So they threatened to march into his neighborhood and picket his house.

DAVID SUISMAN: And Johnson writes, from that day until his death a year later, he was a changed man...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGOLETTO - CARO NOME")

ANTOINETTE GARNES: (Singing in Italian).

DAVID SUISMAN: ...More cautious, more withdrawn, more secretive.

JAD ABUMRAD: From that day forward, apparently, he just faded away from the Black limelight and decided to become white once and for all.

DAVID SUISMAN: I think that decision, which he couldn't have made lightly, must have been scary for him.

KIESE LAYMON: I just didn't know that Harry - honestly, like, I did not know that there were Black-race people...

JAD ABUMRAD: Writer Kiese Laymon.

KIESE LAYMON: ...Who passed as white. And I did not know the damage that it could cause. I just didn't know. And then you're shown the consequences of, like, this neon catastrophe of race in this country. And you're just like, oh, [expletive]. Like, of course that could happen. But I never ever imagined it. 

SHIMA OLIAEE: Everyone we talked to had a different take about this moment in Harry's life. Historian Elliott Hurwitt.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: I mean, the thing is, the way in which he retreats into his house and leaves Black life and hides is, really, very unfortunate.

SHIMA OLIAEE: To Elliott, it's just a betrayal of everything that Harry stood for.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: It's almost a Halloween story, you know? It's - maybe it's the time of year. But I see him as kind of an unquiet spirit, you know, who can never rest...

JAD ABUMRAD: A ghost.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: ...Wandering the Earth.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: You know, this is - when we talk about stuff like this in my class...

KIESE LAYMON: Historian Charles McKinney.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: ...And, you know - and then, you know, I'm pushing back on my students. They're like, oh, you know, this is a betrayal. This is a betrayal. And I ask them - I'm like, OK, so basically, after 60 years of battle...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: ...Right? - you know, how many more years did he owe you - right? - to engage in this battle, right? How many more years did he owe?

IMANI PERRY: Yeah. I do think that some of these figures - and I think Harry Pace is one of them - sometimes, in our judgment of them as historic figures, we're - we forget the risk and the cost.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Historian Imani Perry.

EVE DUNBAR: And I just keep thinking about the threat of that picket...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Professor Eve Dunbar.

EVE DUNBAR: ...For his family and what that might mean in the neighborhood that he lives in. Like, what would they do if they found out that a Black person was among them? They would make his life hell. But what would that hell look like? Would they try to burn his house down? What - you know, what would white people do if they found out a Black family was living next door?

JAD ABUMRAD: Here's what we know - or think we know - just a couple months after the threat of that picket, Harry is shoveling snow outside his home. And he falls over, has a stroke, is bedridden for six months, and then he dies.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Let's do this.

JAD ABUMRAD: Let's do it.

A day later, his body ends up in the Bronx.

All right, so this must be it, right?

Seventy-eight years later, so do we.

SUSAN OLSEN: Hi.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We met up with the archivist of Woodlawn Cemetery, Susan Olsen.

SUSAN OLSEN: OK. So...

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, you've got - OK. Cool.

When we told her we were interested in Harry Pace, she was like, oh, W. C. Handy's collaborator, that guy?

SUSAN OLSEN: I worked for the Memphis Pink Palace museum, and my first job was dusting W. C. Handy's trumpet.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God.

SUSAN OLSEN: But then, when you guys call - I never really bothered with Pace.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She walked into a side room, and a minute or two later, she came back with a stack of paper.

JAD ABUMRAD: What do you have there in your hand?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

SUSAN OLSEN: These are the internment orders.

SHIMA OLIAEE: What does internment mean?

SUSAN OLSEN: Burial.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK.

JAD ABUMRAD: Was it...

SUSAN OLSEN: We use fancy words to think that it softens the blow.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

SUSAN OLSEN: No. You've got a dead relative. You're digging a hole. But we call it internment.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

SUSAN OLSEN: OK. So what we know is that with Harry Pace, we know that Ethylene is the owner of the lot. Is it Ethylene?

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's his wife.

SUSAN OLSEN: Ethylene Pace - that C. S. Hall (ph) is the funeral director, that the hearse is scheduled to arrive at 12 o'clock. What's the deed number? Is it three, two - can you see it? You're talking to two old people. What's the deed number?

SHIMA OLIAEE: It's 32826.

SUSAN OLSEN: That's such a high number. I'm sure it was brought at...

JAD ABUMRAD: The story that we quickly assembled is that Harry dies on July 19, 1943. The next day, Ethylene is on a plane from Chicago to New York with the body.

SUSAN OLSEN: She comes to New York. She buys the space. And she buries him the next day.

JAD ABUMRAD: But it sounds like...

SUSAN OLSEN: I don't even know if he had a New York City funeral.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Seems like there was no funeral, no ceremony, nobody present except for her.

It's almost better on foot. I love it.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK.

We visited Harry's grave...

SHIMA OLIAEE: I have my very excellent prescription sunglasses on.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...With Jami Floyd on the hundredth anniversary of him starting Black Swan Records.

This is Arbutus. Here we are.

And predictably...

SUSAN OLSEN: So this is Arbutus to our right. So it's just going to be one piece of grass. So...

SUSAN OLSEN: Don't you think this is Arbutus?

JAD ABUMRAD: This - we're going...

SHIMA OLIAEE There should be a Gertrude Ederly (ph) and McGlynn (ph) memorial will make it clear.

JAD ABUMRAD: We couldn't find him.

Come on, Harry. I know you're here. Where are you, Harry?

It took us an hour. Come on, Harry. Harry Pace.

(LAUGHTER)

JAD ABUMRAD: Jeez Louise, Harry. You're hard to find.

SHIMA OLIAEE: God, it really is the vanishing of Harry Pace now.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God.

JAMI FLOYD: Surprisingly hard to find.

JAD ABUMRAD: It just looks like every single grave site.

JAMI FLOYD: It's so modest, which is - if you want anonymity, I guess that's a good thing, right? But there...

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

It's a simple gravestone, about waist-high, three rows back from one of the roads in a far corner of the cemetery. Nothing really special about it - nothing on the grave that would let you know he did anything with his life. Just says P-A-C-E in art deco font.

JAMI FLOYD: And it's nicely understated.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SHIMA OLIAEE: We knocked on his door.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SHIMA OLIAEE: We almost wanted to be like, Harry, give us a sign. Tell us where the journals are buried, or give us some insight.

JAMI FLOYD: This section that we're in, this was a white section?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Mixed, right?

It - was your spirit broken? Did you feel betrayed? Like, what happened with your family? Like, did you give up?

JAMI FLOYD: Here - why isn't he up there? What's he even doing here?

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, I know.

And there's just no information to answer these questions.

JAMI FLOYD: You know, after such a full life, the end seems so abrupt and so - I don't know. Well, we all end up dead in the ground alone. Ultimately, we're all alone. We're all alone.

JAD ABUMRAD: I guess we should just wish him happy 100th.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Happy 100th anniversary, Harry.

JAD ABUMRAD: After Harry Pace died, his wife Ethylene and his kids, Harry Jr. and Josephine, who were teenagers at that point, they seemed to have made a pact...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...To completely bury his story - his story of activism, the story of Black Swan. They just tried to erase it.

JAD ABUMRAD: The only way we can really explain that is that they must have been really scared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: There certainly would have been backlash from white people after Hansberry v. Lee. There was the threat of that picket. They must have felt pressure from all sides and just wanted to make his story disappear for their own safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: I don't know. Maybe that's too generous an interpretation. What we know is that his wife and kids packed up and then sold a lot of his things and then proceeded to never talk about his past - not to family, not to friends, no one.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Actually, it was beyond that. They lied to their children about it.

PETER PACE: Somehow the notion was presented that Pace was an Anglicization of Pa-che (ph)...

ERIC PACE: Pa-che, Pa-che

PETER PACE: ...An Italian name.

ERIC PACE: Cool.

SUSAN PACE: You know, we grew up thinking maybe we're Italian.

JAD ABUMRAD: In just one generation, the entire family was cut off from the real story. They lived with zero idea that they could be anything other than white. But like all lies or half-truths, there's leakage. Eventually, the truth does leak out a little bit.

PETER PACE: Way back in the days when I was starting to play music, I was practicing in my little house. For some reason, I looked down at my skin. And it was like a - whoosh (ph) - kind of thing. All of a sudden, I'm looking at it, and I'm thinking I was looking at a Black person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: In the next episode, the ghost of Harry revisits the modern-day Paces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: That's next week on the Vanishing of Harry Pace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created by Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee and is presented as a collaboration between Awesome Audio, RADIOLAB and Radio Diaries. The series is based on the book "Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise And Brutal Fall Of America's First Black-Owned Record Label" by Paul Slade, who helped us out a ton with research as well.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Our editorial advisers are Kiese Laymon, Imani Perry, Cord Jefferson and Terrance McKnight. Jami Floyd is our consulting producer. Our fact checker is Natalie Meade. Series artwork was created by Katia Herrera. And special thanks to Nellie Gilles, Ben Shapiro, Deborah George and Joe Richman.

JAD ABUMRAD: Episode 3 arrives in just a few days. OK.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Thank you for listening.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

 

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