The cover of Jet shows a seemingly happy couple. Hazel Scott, talented jazz pianist, smiles and leans into her Congressman husband, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But the headline—“The Trials of Hazel Scott and Her Adam Powell”—tells a different tale.
Civil rights, Congress, and Scott’s performances coincided in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “I’ve been brash all my life, and it’s gotten me into a lot of trouble,” Scott said. “But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.” She paired her music with a commitment to racial equality. At first, she found some congressional support for the trials she faced. However, after being falsely accused of communist leanings and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Hazel Scott’s career never recovered.
A child prodigy on the piano, Scott moved from Trinidad to New York at the age of four in 1924. Auditioning for Juilliard at eight, she stunned professors with her rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” Although she was too young to attend the college-level academy, she took private lessons at Juilliard, one of the few African-American students.
In her late teens, Scott began performing classical pieces, then started improvising, syncopating the music and incorporating jazz riffs. “Jazzing the classics” in public performances required mastery of both classical music and jazz. Scott’s unique talent, looks, and stage presence propelled her to success and enabled her to demand equal treatment as an artist.
The pianist built civil rights into her work: she refused to play for segregated audiences. Her contracts stipulated that if she arrived at a venue and found that Blacks and whites were seated in separate sections, she would leave without playing and still get paid.
Similarly, when Scott started to appear in films, she refused to take the stereotypical roles offered to African-American actresses at the time. Instead, she appeared in several films as herself, playing piano and sporting her own dresses and jewels. But the film industry banded together to silence her: after she protested the way a Hollywood studio planned to dress other Black actresses, Scott was blacklisted from films.
In the 1940s, Scott began a relationship with Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the well-known pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and also a candidate for the House seat representing Harlem. Powell was married at the time, and their liaison caused a scandal, although it did not bring down Powell’s candidacy. They married in 1945 after Powell took his seat as a Representative in the 79th Congress. According to broadcaster Murray Horowitz, they “were one of America’s leading glamor couples—and certainly the power couple among African Americans in the 1940s and Fifties.”
Scott’s performances and her desire for equal treatment came under a congressional lens as she began a tour in 1945. At Powell’s suggestion, Scott’s first scheduled venue was Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Founded by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Constitution Hall had a policy of white performers only. DAR was both tax-exempt and operated under a charter from Congress. Famously, six years earlier, DAR prevented the acclaimed singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall, and she instead performed outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial. So it came as no surprise when Constitution Hall canceled Hazel Scott’s performance, reportedly after calling to ask what race she was.
“As a member of Congress I recoiled at the idea that a Congressman’s wife, an American citizen, and a gifted artist would not be allowed to perform in a hall largely supported by tax-deductible contributions,” Powell later wrote. He urged President Harry Truman and other Members of Congress to support Scott. Fellow New York Representative Emanuel Celler agreed, “It is such obvious examples of intolerance and discrimination—as indicated by the barring of Miss Scott from Constitution Hall in the Nation’s Capital—that we must combat with all our available skills and energies.” Connecticut Representative Clare Boothe Luce, a DAR member, also spoke out against the discrimination. Several Members, affronted by the taxpayer-funded racism, introduced legislation aimed at pressuring DAR to end its white-performers-only rule.
However, outrage did not translate into meaningful action. President Truman conveyed his regret at the situation but would not interfere. The bills that Members introduced to pressure DAR didn’t get far. And, in a foreshadowing of Scott’s future dealings with Congress, Mississippi Representative John Rankin insinuated that the attacks on DAR came from communists. Scott did not perform at Constitution Hall.
A photograph from 1946 shows Scott and Powell cradling their two-week-old son around the time of their first anniversary. “Music or Politics?” the photo caption asked. For a moment, both music and politics took a break for family.
In July 1950, The Hazel Scott Show appeared on television, making Scott the first African-American host of a nationally syndicated show. But just as the program was getting off the ground, Scott learned that she had been included in the anticommunist pamphlet Red Channels, which published names of those in the TV and radio industry suspected of communist activity.
In the 1940s and ’50s, HUAC investigated allegations, like those in Red Channels, of communism and subversive activities in the United States, with a particular focus on the entertainment industry. HUAC subpoenaed Hollywood stars, musicians, and others to testify before the committee. After being accused of communist leanings, many performers ended up blacklisted and unable to find work.
Rather than let the allegations simmer, Scott itched to respond. Against her husband’s advice, she asked to testify before HUAC and refute the claims.
On September 22, 1950, Hazel Scott appeared before HUAC. Before the questioning began, Chairman John Wood of Georgia made it known that the committee was doing her a favor. “We would not like this to be considered as a precedent for any other person who has been adversely mentioned in publications throughout the country to use this committee as a means of answering such charges,” Wood said. “We are making an exception in your case in view of the fact you are the wife of one of our colleagues.”
Scott expressed her frustration at “mud slinging and unverified charges,” and responded to questions about her appearances and affiliations. But the committee members already seemed to have made their minds up about her before the hearing began. Virginia Representative Burr Harrison didn’t ask whether Scott had been the guest of honor at a 1943 dinner; he asked whether she was listed in a HUAC report as the guest of honor. If HUAC had published something, it must be true, Harrison implied. Vexed, she retorted, “If any committee, an official committee, lists me as having two heads, does that make me have two heads?” She had not even attended the dinner.
Ultimately, Scott urged HUAC to value, rather than condemn, the country’s artists and musicians during the Cold War: “The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help to serve. . . . We are one of your most effective and irreplaceable instruments in the grim struggle ahead.”
Although Scott tried to refute the allegations, the damage was done. Within weeks of her testimony, her television show was canceled. Scott was blacklisted, unwelcome to appear on television after her name surfaced in Red Channels. Some have suggested that she was singled out because of her outspokenness about equality.
Confronting diminished opportunities, suspicions that Powell was unfaithful, and a nervous breakdown, Scott moved to Paris.
Years later, her return to the states prompted the Jet magazine cover. The article inside enumerated the problems facing the couple. Even though Jet does not explicitly mention the effects of HUAC, the blacklisting took a huge toll on Scott’s career. “At times, it has been almost overwhelming, the fact that my career was stopped,” she said. Although she died in 1981 never having regained her success in the United States, Hazel Scott left a legacy in jazz and activism.
Sources: Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Testimony of Hazel Scott Powell, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (1950); Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (2 October 1945): A4129-A4130; Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (18 October 1945): 9821; Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (18 October 1945): A4430; Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (24 October 1945): 10933; Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 79th Cong., 2nd sess. (26 February 1946): A943; Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (4 February 2009): E217; New York Times, 13 January 1991; Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., rev. ed. (1971; New York: Kensington, 1994); Karen Chilton, Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008); Karen Chilton, “Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes,” Smithsonian Magazine, 15 October 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/hazel-scotts-lifetime-of-high-notes-145939027/; “Celebrating Hazel Scott with son Adam Clayton Powell III,” 7 June 2020, in The Big Broadcast, https://wamu.org/story/20/06/07/the-big-broadcast-celebrating-hazel-scott-with-son-adam-clayton-powell-iii/; “Marian Anderson: Voice of the Century,” Smithsonian: Because of Her Story, accessed 10 November 2020, https://womenshistory.si.edu/spotlight/mariananderson.Follow @USHouseHistory