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The 1944 Harvest Moon Ball

September 30, 2021

Venmo: @bobbyswungover

This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.

No footage for this year

So far, we have not seen footage of the 1944 Harvest Moon Ball. We assume there is some out there in newsreel archives, but until it becomes available, enjoy this brief essay on the year’s HMB.

Delimmas & Dancing

In 1944, an interesting study was published by the Carnegie Institute of New York. You see, seven years earlier, around the time Gladys Crowder & Eddie “Shorty” Davis were winning the 1937 Harvest Moon Ball, the institute had desired to study race in America, and felt they needed an outside opinion; so they hired Swedish sociologist Gunnar Mydral to lead the project. Mydral was aided by head researcher, and all-around incredible Black American scholar, Ralph Bunche.

At 1,500 pages, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy was a surprising best-seller and is considered a seminal work in American Civil Rights. Though one can’t boil 1,500 pages down perfectly, the overall conclusion was that White Americans and the White-powered American system oppressed Black Americans, which (unsurprisingly) resulted in the poor performance of Black Americans in that system. White America then pointed to Black America’s poor performance in that system as Black America’s own fault.

Among those who reviewed the study was the great writer and Black American Ralph Ellison. He was understandably annoyed that White America had to go to a Swedish sociologist to tell them what Black Americans had been telling them for decades, arguably centuries. He was also wary of the fact that it was a study funded by such a behemoth capitalist institute, and how that effected the study. And, indeed, he noted the study blamed some abstract “vicious circle” for the plight of Black Americans rather than all the players that had responsibility. But, Ellison felt the study was otherwise a great and important study, and he urged the Left to make use of its facts before others used them to further exploit Black America.

After all, he said, “…the war will not last forever.”

The mistreatment of Black soldiers in the first World War was one of the inspirations for the study, and the second World War against fascism currently raging at this time was holding up a mirror to American values. The country was, after all, fighting for individuality, liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity — and yet its army was segregated.

And that wasn’t the only problem, obviously. During the war so far, 16 Black citizens had been lynched in the South. And around the time of this year’s 1944 Harvest Moon Ball, workers of the Transport Union in Philadelphia went on strike, leaving the city without trollies, subways, and buses. The reason for the strike? The city was a vital part of war production, and due to orders from the war department, the city began training some of their Black American porters to become drivers and conductors. In response to this training, around 6,000 White workers called in sick, crippling the city’s production. This reminded an anonymous Daily News editorial writer that America’s problem with race was not inherently Southern:

From The Daily News, August 3, 1944.

Remember, many, if not most of the Harlem Lindy Hoppers of this time were either born in the South, or had Southern parents. When articles discuss the Great Migraters and the Harlem community, its our hero Lindy Hoppers and people like them they are referring to. And remember Harlem’s own systemic problem: Many shops and companies in Harlem were owned by Whites who would not promote Black workers higher than the lower jobs. Lindy Hop, the Savoy Ballroom, and the employment of people like Herbert Whitey and Savoy manager Charles Buchannan, were probably vital for giving purpose and hope to the young Black Harlemite Lindy Hoppers, some of whom, as the article suggests, might have otherwise looked at what America offered them and thought they had “little to lose.”

All of it should remind us that it wasn’t just Lindy Hop on stage at the Harvest Moon Ball, it was Black America. Every time we discuss something Black Americans, and especially Black New Yorkers, are facing at this time, we want our readers to realize that many, if not most, of the Harvest Moon Ball audience were aware of it. In 1935, the audience watched Leon James and Edith Mathews dance with joy and showmanship while knowing the Harlem Riot had only been a few months earlier. In 1936, they watched Harlem Lindy Hoppers suddenly break into ensemble dancing in the middle of their heat, knowing that Black athletes had just dominated the 1936 Olympic Games. And here, in 1944, because of the American Dilemma study, the plight of Black America and the systemic reasons for their plight was in the zeitgeist — and thus, was on stage with these 1944 Lindy Hoppers, like the little snippets of feet and bodies at the edges of a Harvest Moon Ball newsreel.

Both Mydral and Bunche, leaders of the An American Dilemma study, would later earn Nobel prizes for their work in their fields. In fact, Bunche was the first Black American and person of African descent to be awarded one, for his work with peace negotiations in the Middle East for the UN.

Prelims: Plenty of Bounce

Savoy prelims were held August 25. The band was not mentioned in articles. Here were the finalists:

Louise “Pal” Andrews & Johnny McAfey, Jean Morgan & Thomas King, George Greendige & Eleanor Atkinson, Julia Crauford & Claude Fleetwood, Leola Brown & Harry Duke Connor, and Mildred Crawford & John Killiebrew.

And, you saw correctly — 1930s Whitey’s Lindy Hop legend George Greenidge returned to the ball with fellow Whitey’s dancer Eleanor Watson, now sporting her married name, Atkinson.

Those who have read our 1936 essay will know the disappointing outcome of this — in an interview ILHC published last year, Eleanor mentioned that Whitey demanded any prize money the winners would receive. Eleanor refused. But their refusal cost them — in the finals, the veteran couple was replaced with Helen Johnson & John “Smitty” Smith. Apparently it wasn’t worth fighting over, possibly due to Whitey’s power and intimidation. Thankfully, we at least get this fantastic picture of George and Ella from the prelims:

Though you might not recognize the names, you will definitely see Thomas (“King”) King and John “Smitty” Smith play an important role in the next two decades of Lindy Hop. Not only will they be a presence in future Harvest Moon Balls, they will also dance in the Spirit Moves films.

Finals

Here, in it’s 10th year, the Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden was still selling out. For decades it was a favorite yearly event for many New Yorkers, a group of people who historically don’t mind standing in a line for, well, anything. Here’s the line to purchase this year’s Harvest Moon Ball tickets:

Finals were held September 6. None other than the legendary Cab Calloway provided the swing music.

Finalists listings from the 1944 Program. Once again, they use the graphic of Mildred Pollard & Al Minns taken from one of their winning 1938 pictures.

Winners

The fact that the Jitterbug Jive division was the highlight of the show was so obvious that the paper had no problem claiming it as fact. We argue that, based on their domination of the placements, there’s the implication that the Harlem Lindy Hoppers specifically were the highlight of the show.

After losing to White downtown dancers the previous year, Harlem had indeed “come back with a vengeance.” Winners for the Jitterbug Jive: In 1st, late 1930s Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Louise “Pal” Andrews & John McAfey; 2nd, Julia Crawford & Claude Fleetwood and 3rd, Helen Johnson & John Smith. In the article above, notice Pal’s answer to the question about whether she and Johnny were sweethearts — “I couldn’t dance with my sweetheart.” Is she simply stating a personal opinion, or making a snide remark about Whitey’s general “no relationships with your partner” rule?

We introduced this year’s champion, Louise “Pal” Andrews in our 1940 essay, but here’s a little more info, thanks to Robert Crease and the Frankie Manning Foundation. Pal got her nickname from her godfather, who always called her his pal. Born in 1924, she had grown up in Jersey doing running and track, but when the family moved to New York, she took up dancing, and would even stage shows on the roof of their tenement. She and her friends would go see Apollo reviews and practice the steps they saw at a little Harlem juke joint aimed at teenagers called Dorkins’. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers knew the place and often showed up to Dorkins’ scouting new talent. They picked up one of Pal’s good friends, Mickey (who could be Hellzapoppin’s Mickey Jones), and soon they picked up Pal, too. Whitey’s dancer Johnny Smalls (in 1937’s HMB) coached her in all the steps so that she’d get more gigs, and beginning with a stint at the notorious World’s Fair Savoy pavilion, Pal Andrews was an official Whitey’s Lindy Hopper. And one of the youngest ones, too.

“It was a special group of people, like joining a fraternity. No drinking, no reefer, and whatever you learned there you had to keep to yourself and not show outsiders, or their would be trouble.” Six years later, at the age of 20, she had won the coveted Harvest Moon Ball Jitterbug championship.

Notice Pal & Johnny are listed as being from Syracuse, not Harlem. That’s because when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the US realized the states were vulnerable to attack, and they felt the East Coast particularly needed some beefing up. So they built a base at Syracuse, the upstate New York city tucked against Lake Ontario. Herbert Whitey, the shrewd business man that he was, realized that the Black soldiers at the base would appreciate a slick night spot geared to them. So, with the Savoy’s blessing, he packed up and moved there and opened “the Savoy” nightclub. Over the next decade, he would bring Lindy Hoppers up there to train and help run the business. Pal, it seems, was there from near the beginning to the end, when Whitey would pass away suddenly in 1950. Though she never said so, it has been suspected by many that she and Whitey were romantically involved. Regardless, she was one of the few beside him when he died.

The serviceman’s Jive winners. Below, a regular at the Ball, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performs.

Aftermath

Remember Pal’s comment about “I couldn’t dance with my sweetheart.” Even though this picture is clearly staged, it does seem intimate. Perhaps Pal’s comment came with a wink.
One of the neat things about this picture of the winners of the 1944 Harvest Moon Ball is that it appears Ed Sullivan has just been chatting with Jitterbug Jive winner John McAfey, and both men are smiling.
3-dollar-donate-1

Sources & Thanks

  • Full disclosure, we have not read the 1,500 page study The American Delimma, but small sections of it, and otherwise have taken our information from multiple sources of reviews.
  • Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1944 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
  • Thanks so much to Robert CreaseCynthia Millman, and The Frankie Manning Foundation for republishing the fantastic Robert Crease bios which are a great wealth to these articles specifically and the history of the dance in particular that have helped shape these essays.
  • Whenever we refer to either “Norma’s Book” or “Frankie’s Book,” we are speaking of their memoirs: Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen, and Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman.
  • All spelling and grammar problems are mine alone; one man army!

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