Graduation Music, Part 4 (Graduation Day)

In the Standifer interview, Dawson said that during the four years he was attending the Horner Institute he “didn’t tell one person in Kansas City” that he was attending the school.

Like Roy Wilkins, Dawson lived at the YMCA. It would seem probable that this is how they met and started their friendship, which lasted for the rest of their lives.

Dawson’s intent in going to the Horner Institute was to learn the ins and outs of how to compose. He indicates that during the four years he was attending the school he didn’t realize that he was actually earning academic credit for his efforts. It was not until the end of his fourth year that he learned that, not only was he a student, he was also going to graduate.

On June 12, the morning of the graduation, the Kansas City Times had an article on page two that told of a dinner the night before at the Mission Hills Club to honor the 1925 graduating class. Charles Horner announced the plans for a new building for the campus, which would include a recital hall. Besides Horner, three faculty members spoke, one of whom was Regina Hall.

Dawson appears not to have been invited.

His name was listed in another newspaper that day, though, as being one of the graduates.

Dawson identifies the newspaper as the Kansas City Star, but I think that he may have misremembered that detail some six decades later when he did the interview. I have checked the Star and other newspapers for the days leading up to June 12, when the graduation took place, and I think he was probably remembering the page one article that appeared in the Kansas City Call edition for that date. It announces that he would be graduating later that day. (It appeared right next to an article that told of the death and funeral in Tuskegee of the widow of Booker T. Washington.) Supporting the idea that Dawson conflated the Call and the Star is the fact that he says the next week Wilkins wrote an article about the graduation for the Star. Wilkins did write such an article that appeared in the Call.

Though there is some difference in detail, both Dawson and Wilkins relate going to the graduation that evening at the Athenaeum Auditorium. Wilkins wrote that he and some friends arrived, and “a young white woman acting as usher met us at the door. She forced a stiff smile. ‘We have a lovely little balcony for you,’ she said.”

Dawson’s name was listed in the program as being one of the graduates, but those in charge told him he was not allowed to sit on the stage with the white students, but they would see that he got his diploma “the next day.” Wilkins reports that, with a grimace, Dawson said to him, “This is Missouri.”

The surprises were not over. The two friends and their companions almost left the Athenaeum right then, but decided not to when they looked at the program.

At one point in the proceedings, a violinist and cellist from the Kansas City Orchestra and a pianist from the Institute played a piece that Wilkins referred to as “A Romance,” but other accounts say it was titled “Trio in A.” The program listed Dawson as the composer.

As the music started, Dawson sat silently, listening with his entire attention focused on all the details of what he was hearing. When the piece was completed, Wilkins remembers, the audience broke into applause that swelled, diminished, and rose all over again. The program identified the composer, and the ovation clearly called for a bow, but Dawson had to sit silently in that balcony looking down at the rest of his class—a great sea of white faces. He said nothing.

Henry Allen, the former governor of Kansas gave the commencement address, and then Charles Horner came forward to hand out the diplomas.

Cartoon of Charles Horner in the Star.

In 1925 the diplomas, at least for the commencement of the Horner Institute for Fine Arts, were not handed out the way diplomas are handed out today. Horner didn’t hand the diplomas directly to the graduates. Instead, he would call out the degree and the name of the graduate, and then he handed each diploma to one of two young white girls, who would then take it to its intended recipient.

Apparently the people in charge of bringing the diplomas to the commencement had not received the memo concerning the special arrangements for one of the diplomas, because at one point Horner called out, “Bachelor of Music—William L. Dawson.” Whether what he had just done registered with Horner we don’t know, but he handed the rolled up diploma, secured with a white ribbon, to one of the girls, who searched with her eyes for one of the seated graduates who might be indicating that he was the one to receive the diploma. Wilkins tells us that there “were some hurried whispers. Hands reached out, the little girl was tugged back, and the diploma with the white ribbon was laid to one side.

Sometime during all this, Sir Carl Busch received an honorary Doctor of Music degree.

The ceremony ended with everyone singing “America.” For Roy Wilkins, at least, the “singing of the people around me turned to a terrible jumble, and the words of ‘America’ died on my lips.”

The next day William L. Dawson went to the Horner Institute and received the first diploma the school had ever presented to a black student.

A week after the commencement an article appeared on the front page of the Call, almost certainly written by Wilkins, which briefly tells about the graduation and the slights that Dawson faced. It said that upon receiving his diploma he left that evening for Tuskegee, and planned on going to graduate school in the east.

In Roy Wilkins’ autobiography, Standing Fast, published in 1982, the year after his death, it is clear that he remained angry at Charles Horner for the rest of his life over the way William Dawson was treated.

This is completely understandable, especially now, 87 years later, when society’s perceptions on race have gone through a substantial change. But—

Well, my training is in theatre—actor, playwright, and director—and when I get a script, I try to take the given circumstances of a scene, and look at what different ways of playing the scene can be justified by the facts that we know. That William Dawson was treated badly seems the most straight forward interpretation.

But there were three major moments in Dawson’s and Horner’s relationship that cause me to take a moment for thought.

First, and most basic, Dawson was allowed to study at the Horner Institute. In 1925, segregation was the rule in Kansas City. The Institute was a private school. The expectation was that black students and white students would be kept separate. (On the same day that the announcement about Dawson’s graduation was printed on the front page of the Call, Roy Wilkins had a column on page six that took to task the African American community in Kansas City for not standing up and demanding better facilities for the black students.) Horner didn’t have to let Dawson come to the Institute. But he did. Not only that, Dawson received four years of one on one instruction from a top grade faculty.

Second, Dawson graduated. From what he said in the Standifer interview, he didn’t know this was going to happen until the day it did happen. Both he and the school kept the fact that he was being educated at the Institute a secret until the day the commencement took place. His name appeared in the program, and a diploma appeared onstage.

And the commencement featured one of Dawson’s compositions. With his name attached as the composer.

This is the third point to consider. The first African American to attend the Horner Institute, an extraordinarily gifted young man whose attendance is kept secret the entire time of his study, is chosen for the honor of having one of his compositions selected for performance at the graduation.

This is no small thing.

I cannot see any of these three things taking place without Horner’s approval. He actually announces Dawson’s name and degree, even though he knows that Dawson is not sitting with the rest of the class of 1925.

If Charles Horner were trying to embarrass and insult William Dawson (as Roy Wilkins seemed to think) … why would he have done so many things to call attention to Dawson’s accomplishment?

William Dawson taught one more year at Lincoln High, and then headed to Chicago, perhaps with a recommendation from Regina Hall, to work on his master’s degree at the Conservatory there. He became a world-renowned composer and conductor, and more than once came back to Kansas City to conduct his own works.

Roy Wilkins continued at the Call for the better part of a decade, challenging both white Kansas City and black Kansas City with his columns and editorials, eventually becoming the managing editor, before he left to work at the NAACP as a writer for The Crisis under W.E.B. Du Bois, eventually succeeding Du Bois as editor. In 1955 Wilkins was named Executive Secretary (changed to Executive Director in 1964). He served in that position until 1977. He occasionally returned to Kansas City. In 1955 he came back to speak at the funeral of Chester Arthur Franklin, the founder of the Call.

In 1926 the Horner Institute merged with the Kansas City Conservatory to bring financial stability to the latter, and Charles Horner was named as president. This merger, through various name changes, eventually became the Music Conservatory at UMKC.

In 1927 he founded Horner Junior College, which, as it was put in his funeral announcement, “became the nucleus of the University of Kansas City in 1932.”

In 1933, Horner left Kansas City, accepting President Roosevelt’s request that he take an important position in the National Recovery Administration.

One evening in 1925, three men were in one large room at the same time.

What happened that night, I’m sure, fell short of what any of them probably wanted.

But it was a start.

William Dawson directs the Alexandria High School Choir in the spiritual "Ain't A That Good News" (1965)

About the Author

John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.


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