|Black History of St. Albans, VT Vol. 1|
Leroy Elmer Satchell
Growing up white in Central Vermont and then moving to central Connecticut in my teens was a big eye opener for me. I was suddenly surrounded by people of color who I had only known to have been marginally represented in the TV shows and movies that I watched. This was definitely not a case of "I don't see color". No, I definitely saw it… in fact it was ALL that I saw. It was so foreign to me and, at first, a little scary. Very shortly into my time in CT it became less scary for sure and my friend group became quite diverse, a circle of color and culture, and I learned a lot. What I learned the most was that we were all kids, we all wanted the same things, and our tastes for music and crass comedy knew no boundaries.
And then I moved back to Central Vermont my junior year of high school and I was struck by how homogenous everything seemed... how white-washed. During my younger years here my parents would take me out and about around the state and on the rare occasion that I would see a person of color I would assume that they must just be visiting here from New York or, equally as ignorant, I would assume that they must have been adopted into a white family much as had happened when my aunt and uncle first adopted a baby from Central America and then from New York City. Vermont was, and still is, the whitest place I've ever lived and if you've read our history books there's really no reason to believe otherwise.
According to those history books the first towns of Vermont were built on the backs of enterprising white men who organized the building of railroads, cut down trees, and carved out towns in valleys and hamlets spread throughout the Green Mountains. They ran banks and were members of their city, town, and state government and their images appear in old etchings and photos in black and white in dusty old books housed in libraries and antiquarian book stores. At historical reenactments there are folks dressed like them telling their stories and showing what life was like for these citizens of Vermont, citizens who were white.
Can you blame a kid for thinking, then, that his state was always like this? That people of color had no place, no history here? The wakeup call for me came on a Saturday in September as I strolled through an outdoor exhibit put on by the St. Albans Historical Museum. As I was checking out the new displays of old pictures outlining the history of the railroad, women's suffrage and Killkare State Park (which, oddly enough, was referred to as "Kamp Kill Kare" back in the 20s...) I took a walk past a new exhibit advertising the Sterling Weed room in the museum. I saw something which took me aback and again, upended all my pre-conceived notions.
For those who do not know the story of Sterling Weed and his Imperial Orchestra one need only do a quick Google search. This day and age, however, if you only type in Sterling Weed's name you will get many ads for dispensaries located in Sterling, Colorado. My suggestion would be to type in "Weed's Imperial Orchestra" in order to narrow down your search results to something more relevant.
Sterling Weed was a bandleader, based out of St. Albans, Vermont, and was the nation's oldest known active bandleader when he died at the age of 104 in 2005. Under his baton, Weed's Imperial Orchestra played dates from the late 1920s all the way up to the summer of 2005 and his band was legendary. Comprised of young men from Franklin County he played shows all up and down the East Coast, into New York and Canada back when it wasn't so hard to cross back and forth over the international border. And when swing music fell victim to "cowboy music", Sterling became a music educator teaching in at least five different schools in the area including both Bellows Free Academies.
Sterling started his musical life by playing piano but quickly learned the piccolo and flute as well. Playing in a local dance band he then switched to the alto saxophone, which became the instrument that he was most associated with. He is still loved and remembered by anyone with whom he had contact. His students are still in the area and abroad and those who may not currently be engaged with making music still remember their music making under his baton fondly.
Again, all this information is easily found online and yet, on that Saturday in September, I saw something that astonished me and challenged what I knew and believed. There, pinned to a display in aged sepia tone, was a photo of Weed's Imperial Orchestra from 1936 and in that sea of black suits, ancient instruments, and white faces was the face of one lone musician who was clearly of African American descent. Weed's Imperial Orchestra was an integrated band.
I'm sure I don't have to tell readers what this revelation meant to me in this day and age. As our nation struggles with its identity and tries to figure out just who we really are we find ourselves in a struggle between those who are fighting racism, those who believed with all their hearts that racism was over after the election of our first Black president, and those who are angry that a Black president was ever elected and have been taking the last 4 years to attempt to get our country back to a darker time for minorities and people of color. For me it's a time to look inward at my own preconceived notions, my own attitudes and beliefs around race, and what I thought I knew as true in my home here in northern New England.
Weeds Imperial Orchestra ca. 1936
Over the phone during a lunchtime lull in remote teaching, Eric and I both jumped on Google and read to each other what we were finding through our crackly connection. As we searched, Eric told me stories that were told to him by Sterling himself of the days when he employed a "colored fella" in the band. Sterling told Eric that Roy wasn't just any old drummer, he was an artist on the drums whose playing was distinctive and very musical. When you look at the photo of Roy in Weed's Imperial Orchestra you can see him with his dapper, pencil-thin mustache situated behind his percussion setup as it would have been in the day with a large bass drum most likely operated by a foot pedal that may have also struck a cymbal attached by a clip to the drum's rim. Atop the bass drum is a rack of temple blocks, gleaming as if brand new, which added just the sort of pizazz and punctuation that a dance band of the era needed.
When I first asked Eric what he knew about Roy Satchell the first story that came to his mind was about a time when Sterling took his group down to play at the Hotel Vermont. According to the 1953 autobiography of Will Thomas, a Black man from Vermont, the Hotel Vermont accepted Black guests without trouble. Go back a little earlier however and Thomas writes that in the late 40's Burlington was visited by composer and singer Roland Hayes and at Hotel Vermont he was discouraged from eating in the dining room with the other guests. This was in issue that Roy was faced with as a member of the Imperial Orchestra.
The folks at the Hotel Vermont (which is now home to the Gryphon on the corner of Main Street and St. Paul St in Burlington) told Sterling that, while the band was welcomed to eat before their show, Roy would have to wait outside. According to Bushey that was just not something that Weed was going to tolerate. Weed told management that if his whole band couldn't eat together then the hotel would need to find a different band to entertain their crowd. Weed's Imperial Orchestra stuck together. I'm not sure how taken aback the management was to hear this, perhaps they weren't at all. I mean it's not like Vermont was the deep South (though the frequency of confederate flags popping up at random around the state sometimes makes you wonder who actually won the war and if some of those folks actually know where they are) but racism was and is persistent throughout every state in the nation, despite that State's history of abolition, support for the underground railroad, and geography. Well that night the folks at the Hotel Vermont must have been in strong need of a band as they relented. Roy was allowed to eat in the same room with the rest of the group.
And so I rolled up my sleeves and sat down to do some research. I slowly peeled back a layer of St. Albans history that finally started to reveal the history of Black families and the Black community in the city. A subscription to newspapers.com allowed me a look back at old St. Albans Messenger articles from the turn of the century and I decided to try to track down any information I could into Roy's life as a citizen of St. Albans, a city with plaques, buildings, and streets named after folks like the Brainerd Family, the Houghtons, the Fonda brothers, and our two former governors from the Smith family. It wasn't as difficult as I thought. If you would grant me some leeway, here's a little of what I found on Roy's family.
A 1913 sports report mentions "Roy Satchell, backstop, used the stick to unusually good advantage, securing two hits in one inning". Seeing Roy’s enthusiasm and apparent skill for the game led me to read a little into baseball in that first decade of the 20th century. What I ran into, as usual, was a number of references to "negro leagues" and segregation, not one mention of black and white boys playing baseball together. Perhaps Vermont needs a baseball historian to jump in here and check this out!
Roy had a number of jobs throughout his life in St. Albans though music appeared to be the one constant. He seemed to have a hankering for automobiles in their earliest inception as, for at least three years starting in 1912, he was a chauffeur, then in 1920 he's listed as a laborer in a "machine shop", and for a number of years (beginning in 1925) he worked for Foundry Repair Shop at 116 North Main Street. One of their advertisements stated; "Our wash stand is in charge of Roy Satchell, undoubtedly the best car washer in the city."
Of Roy's life as a chauffeur we have the following remembrance from Mrs. Millie Briggs in a 1985 St. Albans Messenger article. Judge Alfred A. Hall "owned one of the first touring cars in the state. He had a chauffeur named Roy Satchell" who was "one of the nicest men I ever knew". From the Burlington Free Press on Tuesday, October 8, 1912 an article reads:
This was not the only automotive mishap that Roy was involved with. From a September 5th, 1930 Burlington Free Press article we get a headline AND byline that doesn't even mention Roy until you delve into the article itself. It reads "Roadster Injured In Head-On Crash" then goes on to state "Charles Hoffman and St. Albans Man In Hospital As Result of Accident on Georgia Road – Grace Foote Has Legs Fractured". After the sensationalism of that title the article begins:
In 1923 Roy was elected "Junior Warden" upon the organization of a "colored lodge" of Masons that was known as "Green Mountain Lodge, No. 1. F. & A. M". This took place at Corporation Hall in Winoooski, VT. The lodge was instituted by the Grand Lodge under the jurisdiction of the state of New York. I am currently looking up more information on the history of the "colored lodge" in the state of Vermont.
And so what about Roy's musical career? The first ever mention that I found of Roy being a musician in St. Albans was in a St. Albans Messenger article dated 1911 and describes a group of musicians who are already established in town:
A more official documentation of his profession exists on his World War I draft card. On June 5th, 1917 Leroy Elmer Satchell filled out his registration card for the Selective Service just two months after the US entered into WW I and on the day that men between the ages of 21 and 31 were to sign up. Leroy does not appear in the roster of Vermonters who participated in WWI though there is nothing to indicate why and, aside from color, there appears to be nothing on his draft card that would disqualify him. He lists himself as a single, negro male of medium height and medium build with no prior military service. The one thing that may have put him at the back of the list was that he listed his occupation as "musician". Perhaps if he had written down "driver" they would have scooped him right up!
A more credible reason for his lack of service may have been his date of birth. As of 1917 Leroy was of the ripe old age of 29. Not having heard of Black troops in WWI, only the Civil War and of course the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII, I thought perhaps the US didn't allow African American men into service. Again, white washed history. The reality is that when war was first announced in April of 1917, 20,000 Black men enlisted in the military eager to show their patriotism and hoping this act would help them be recognized as full United States citizens. Sadly, that wasn't exactly the case. When the selective service act was enacted in May of 1917 another 700,000 or more Black men registered for military service yet none were allowed in the Marines and given only the lowest jobs in the Navy. So how fitting that just recently it was announced that the USS Doris Miller will be the first aircraft carrier named after a Black sailor who won the Navy Cross for heroism shown during a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor?
From a 1988 article on Sterling Weed's Orchestra in the New York Times, Sterling recounted the beginnings of the band. He talked about how his drummer, Leroy Satchell, was injured in an automobile accident and asked a student, Robert Williams, to fill in for him. Mr. Williams was also a young Black man and he subsequently joined the band and began a friendship with Sterling Weed. It turns out that the 1930 car accident that Roy was involved in earlier had left him unable to perform for some time with Weed's Imperial Orchestra and so Roy recommended the young Robert Williams, with whose family Roy had previously been a boarder. I have to imagine that in the time Roy was renting a room from Robert's parents, Roy most likely had an influence on the young Black man and perhaps taught Robert to play the drums as skillfully and artfully as he did. After that the men appeared to share the position of drummer for Weed's Imperial Orchestra trading off when convenient. A 1934 photo of Weed's band taken in City Hall shows Robert Williams behind the drums.
So here is what is amazing, here is why this all hit me like a ton of bricks, and why this is quite an item of note for our little city. In November of 1935 Benny Goodman was invited to Chicago to play the Congress Hotel. While there he and Gene Krupa sat in with Fletcher Henderson's band. These concerts are widely thought to be the FIRST example of an integrated band playing for a paying audience in the United States. 1935? The first? In 1930 Roy already had to find a replacement for himself and he was most likely playing with the Weed brothers in the previous decade in different configurations. Not to mention Roy's involvement with other musical groups going back to the late teens and into the 20s. It seems St. Albans was flying well under the radar.
And why is that? Well, in all my reading through census records, newspaper articles and advertisements I just get the impression that folks in St. Albans around the turn of the century just didn't seem to pay it much mind. Roy was just another citizen of St. Albans, born and bred. He was a hard worker and an excellent musician and, aside from government documents, there was really no need to mention the color of his skin. Imagine that? I believe that is why, when you type "Sterling Weed's Imperial Orchestra" into your search bar there is no mention of the fact that this was one of the earliest integrated bands in America.
On August 7, 1937, Roy was married to Juanita Adelaide Brace at the ripe old age of 49. She was 27 at the time. His marriage certificate lists his full time occupation as "Musician". They briefly lived in Burlington until moving back to St. Albans where they lived at 45 Center St, an address that confused Google Maps so much that it stuck the pointer in the middle of Federal Street. My guess is the house no longer exists.
Leroy Satchell died in St. Albans on July 9th, 1962. I have been unable to find a burial site for him but I hope to find his final resting spot in the near future. I will travel to Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington as his family seems to have a section there that has only recently been photographed. There is still so much I don't know about Leroy and yet in searching for tracings of him I've learned quite a bit about some of the unseen history of Vermont. I'm not sure when his tenure with Sterling Weed ended, I do know that Robert Williams continued to play with Sterling and other groups for many, many years. I don't know Roy's stories from traveling on the road with a group of white musicians in a still segregated America. I don't know what his daily life was like as a citizen of St. Albans or what things were like when he walked through the door to his home at the end of the day. But I imagine that, whatever his experiences were, he certainly made the most of his time here and left a mark on this community through his music. And though I had nothing to do with it I feel a little bit of pride knowing that our little northern city had such a role to play in this history, written or not. My hope for the future is that these histories become less difficult to trace and a more common topic of conversation for historians, lovers of history and citizens of this great country.
More histories will follow. During the course of learning about Roy Satchell I also learned quite a bit about Robert Williams and I became increasingly interested in the tragically short life of Arthur "Babe" Brace, a St. Albans' boxing hero who, much like his brother Walter, died of tuberculosis at a young age. I will post those as well in Volumes 2 and 3 as time permits.
Researched and edited by Aron Garceau ©2021