A Public Hearing for Charity Bailey

It was Monday, April 23, 1928. The Providence Public School Committee was holding its regular meeting at Central Fire Station on the eastern edge of Burnside Park. The room was packed. Charity Bailey (1904-1978), an accomplished pianist and recent graduate of Rhode Island College of Education, was there to give a public statement against Superintendent Isaac Winslow, who, according to multiple accounts, told Bailey that he would not appoint a Black teacher to work in the school system.

Bailey, at 23 years old, had already shown herself as a gifted musician and educator. In the years leading up to the hearing, she performed with her sister Amy at the Pond Street Church and delivered a memorable performance of the spiritual “Wish I Could Die in Egypt Land” for National Music Week at Brown University’s Sayles Hall. A writer for the Providence Journal captured the scene: “Both in the rendition of the weird, dirgelike piano accompaniment and in her singing of the haunting, plaintive melody, Miss Bailey approached an artistic triumph. Prolonged applause compelled her to give an encore number, the only one of the evening.” At the same time, Bailey applied for teaching jobs. Despite strong letters of recommendation from her professors, supervisors told her that there were no vacancies. And so, Bailey advertised as a governess. 

A year later Bailey was fed up. She and a member of the school committee met with Winslow, who explained that Bailey had fulfilled all of the requirements but was “not in a group of candidates eligible to become teachers.” Bailey and her mother then contacted attorney Joseph G. LeCount, legal counsel and cofounder of the Providence Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the oldest NAACP branches in the country. 

On April 23rd, a crowd of teachers, students, and community members filled the school committee’s meeting room in the fire station to capacity. LeCount set-up an improvised witness stand. He questioned Bailey first, then Winslow. The following day the Providence Journal printed a partial account of Winslow’s testimony. A few blocks over at the Evening Tribune, the paper’s news editor, John Carter Minkins, an African American, published a big story with extensive testimony from Bailey and Winslow, as well as reactions from the crowd. “I think it’s a lot of bunk,” said one committee member after listening to Winslow defend himself. 

Later, local activists leveraged Bailey’s case to mobilize Black voters toward the Democratic Party. They ousted at least one member of the school committee who had backed Winslow and elected Democrats into high offices in exchange for support on civil rights.  Like so many promising educators at that time, Bailey left the oppressive culture of Providence for New York City, where she worked for the Federal Works Progress Administration, studied piano at Juilliard, and taught music at The Little Red School House. 

Between 1954 and 1956, Bailey hosted the television show, Sing a Song, a pioneering, interacial children’s program. She recorded albums and published a bestselling book, Playtime with Music, in which she shared her progressive philosophies. Bailey challenged the traditional teachings of music appreciation. As she argued in Playtime, musical rhythm and word pattern should be felt and enjoyed by children without preliminary instruction because, “Children, like all of us, do best and learn most from that which they love to do.”

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