After both my parents passed away in the mid-1990s, I came across a strangely familiar photograph in their apartment in Greenwich Village that I remembered my uncle, Dr. Council S. Taylor, a noted anthropologist, showing me years before. There in the second row, holding the third cornet from the right, the bell facing outward, was my grandfather, Mr. Walter Knight Taylor.
The striking black-and-white photograph of a school jazz band, taken in 1900 at the Teachers’ Agricultural and Mechanical College in Normal, Ala., was given to my grandfather as a gift from his three sons and daughter (my mother) for Father’s Day in 1948.
“A pleasant Father’s Day to our wonderful Pop. The children. June 20, 1948” was inscribed on the back of the yellowing photograph.
I don’t remember my uncle mentioning that the regal bandleader standing on the left, holding his baton in his right hand and his cornet in his left, was the famous W.C. Handy himself, composer, songwriter, and teacher, also known as the Father of the Blues, having written the tune “St. Louis Blues” and numerous other well-known pieces of music.
I was intrigued by this photograph and wanted to learn more about it. As it happened, the day I discovered it at the bottom of a cardboard box along with many other family photographs, the noted jazz historian Phil Schaap, an old friend from our days at Columbia University, visited the apartment, and I eagerly showed him the picture, proudly pointing out my grandfather’s face in the second row.
“Do you know who the bandleader is?” Phil asked. “That’s W.C. Handy!” I was speechless. No one had ever told me in detail about my grandfather’s having been a musician, much less anything about his having played with W.C. Handy!
I researched W.C. Handy and learned about his major contributions to music and his worldwide influence and renown. And I wondered why no one in my family had ever told me about my grandfather’s experiences studying with Mr. Handy and performing his pieces.
My grandfather was born in 1879 in Montgomery, Ala., and attended what was then called the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (A.A.M.C.) in 1900. He also taught at the college and met his wife, Odel Grace Robinson, a student at the college, during his time there. Soon thereafter, my grandfather and his wife became part of the Great Migration north and ended up in Brooklyn, where they set down roots and raised their four children.
Though my grandfather earned advanced degrees at Pratt Institute in both engineering and architecture, racism prevented him from finding work in his chosen fields, though he did help create the blueprints for the Concord Baptist Church after its destruction by fire in 1952. I knew about his involvement with rebuilding the Concord Baptist Church and that he also owned a barber shop, worked as a postman, was head of a branch of the Urban League, and helped create a lovely community upstate for summering African-Americans.
This photograph brought to light an entirely new and fascinating aspect of my grandfather and a time in his life I knew virtually nothing about. I only wish I could learn even more about this iconic portrait, and perhaps who the other people were in the photo, and what became of them. — Alison McParlin Davis