- Historic Sites
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
We scheduled five concerts in a week in the Federation, three of them in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and published ads in the local press and put up posters announcing that Louis Armstrong was coming, that his concerts were “sponsored by the United States of America” and would be “Open-to-All.” My black friends were ecstatic and incredulous; my white friends praised our initiative but questioned whether it would be successful.
I met Armstrong and his All-Stars on their early-evening arrival at Salisbury airport. He got off the plane holding his trumpet case and I offered to carry it. “Nah, man, thanks, this horn’s my bread and butter. It never leaves me,” he said. In the terminal he was immediately recognized. People clapped and requested his autograph.
In the car I asked him how the concerts had been going in West Africa. “Man, the cats were jumpin’ everywhere,” he smiled. “They had to stop the show in Ghana for a little while because the people were rushing the bandstand and might have turned us over.” He was in high spirits, so I thought this would be a good time to introduce the subject of his concerts in this region of Africa. I told him we had pressed the local government and won approval for nonsegregated performances. Armstrong grew somber. “It’s a good thing you won or I wouldn’t be here!” The consul general’s driver chuckled.
The opening-night concert was held in Salisbury, the capital city, in an open-air soccer stadium that seated twenty-five thousand people. The standard ropes separating blacks and whites were gone; blacks were everywhere, not just at the far ends of the stadium.
For the first time ever at an event of this magnitude in Southern Rhodesia, whites and blacks were sitting side by side completely filling the stadium: white government officials and business executives, black clerks, white farmers and black laborers who had come in trucks and buses from nearby rural areas, white and black students, white and black church leaders, white parliamentarians and black policemen, white army officers and black troops—all of them cheek by jowl in the stands. When Armstrong appeared, everyone rose and cheered together.
With six words Armstrong captured the mood of a pathbreaking night: “It’s sure nice to see this .”
Waving his gleaming brass trumpet and stopping to shake outstretched hands, he came striding down the middle of the field from one end to the other, where the stage was set up, a spotlight on him for the whole hundred yards. He beamed with pleasure all the way, nodding his head at the sight around him.
It was a warm summer night with a full moon in a cloudless sky. The atmosphere was one of warmth, too, as whites and blacks smiled at each other throughout the concert.
When Armstrong belted out “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the audience knew the words and sang along with him.
“Yeah, you got it!” he shouted to the crowd. “Sing it, baby!,” gesturing in a “come here” motion.
At the end of the ninety-minute concert, the audience simply would not leave. Finally, after a series of encores, Armstrong raised his arms over his head, like someone trying to stop traffic, and asked for quiet. “I gotta tell y’all something.” He looked over the crowd, leaned closer into the microphone and spoke huskily but softly: “It’s sure nice to see this .” The audience knew what he meant and erupted in thunderous applause. With six words, Louis Armstrong had captured the mood of a historic, unprecedented night.
I watched it all with great relief. My stomach had been killing me for three weeks because I was worried, not really sure whether nonsegregated seating was going to work. More than ten thousand whites showed up, according to stadium officials.
After two filled stadium concerts in Salisbury, Armstrong gave his next performance in Bulawayo, the secondlargest city in Southern Rhodesia. He seemed to have a knack for quick, often evocative one-liners. We were walking out of a hotel one morning when three local white journalists came up to him. One of them asked a typical question put to visiting celebrities: “Well, Mr. Armstrong, how do you like Rhodesia?” Without missing a beat, Armstrong said: “Y’all sure know how to keep little black children in bare feet!”
Armstrong’s concerts sparked new impetus toward desegregation. Several months later the dismantling of segregation laws and regulations increased. One of the first barriers to fall in Southern Rhodesia was segregated seating in entertainment, including movie houses. Next came the lifting of color bars in athletic teams, sports competitions, and in spectator seating at sports events.
After Armstrong completed his tour of Africa and was back home in New York, we exchanged letters. On learning of the ground-breaking results of his visit to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, he asked me what I missed most from the United States. I answered jokingly, “A pastrami sandwich on rye from the Stage Deli in New York.” Two weeks later a big refrigerated package arrived at my office in Southern Rhodesia. It was a twenty-pound pastrami from the Stage. We enjoyed it for weeks.