Some Thoughts on Charles Asbury’s Race and the Question of Passing

Archeophone’s 4  Banjo Songs, 1891-1897 by African American recording pioneer, Charles A. Asbury, is nominated for Best Album Notes, written by myself (Richard Martin) and Ted Olson. We’re very appreciative for this recognition, but there is a misapprehension floating around out Asbury’s background that needs addressing.

Some reviewers have summed up the notes by saying that there is uncertainty about Asbury’s race, and that I take the position he was black. Let me be perfectly clear: there is no uncertainty. Asbury was a light-skinned African American of Spanish origin. From the records we have found, he lived his entire life as a black man, in the company of other 19th-century blacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he ever tried to pass for white.

Charles A. Asbury (left) and Korla Pandit (right)

Left, Charles A. Asbury (Debbie Trice); right, Korla Pandit (Painted Wolf,

That doesn’t mean that he was not mistaken for white. Time and time again, whites who were in positions of writing history declared Asbury white. The Boston Post reporter who covered the all-black performance of H.M.S. Pinafore in 1879 noted that Asbury was the only white member of the cast. (Really?) In record catalogs, the New Jersey Phonograph Company (and its successor, the U.S. Phonograph Company) iterated quite strongly that Asbury was a colored minstrel, but that doesn’t mean that the coroner who signed the death certificate was aware of this. So he put down “white” as the decedent’s race.

Skeptics will say, Ah, but didn’t Asbury’s parents come from Spain? If they were black, why would they settle in Florida before the Civil War? Answer: we know nothing yet of the parents. We don’t even know for sure that they did “immigrate” to the U.S. or how—only that Adam (he was originally called by his middle name) was purportedly born in Florida. So, if the parents did come over from Spain, why do we naturally assume they travelled first class on a pre-war luxury cruise ship headed for the promised land? Perhaps they and/or their son came unwillingly?

What we do know is that Asbury was a patient in 1867 at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Augusta, Georgia—that was an institution for the benefit of blacks only (primarily ex-slaves)—and that the orphan was raised by a mulatto Baptist preacher and his wife. To doubters I say, I am prepared to be shown how a white boy gets adopted by a black man in Reconstruction-era Georgia.

Let’s contrast Asbury’s case with another more recent one. Meagan and I happened to catch the PBS special on Korla Pandit the other day. This was produced by John Turner and Eric Christensen, based in large part on the reporting of music critic R.J. Smith, who discovered that the 1940s-50s television star Pandit was not all he seemed. The mysterious organ-playing Indian from New Delhi, as Pandit claimed to be, was really a black jazz pianist from Columbia, Missouri who spent his entire life pretty successfully passing as oriental. He made inroads in television—and California society—unthinkable for an African American in that era.

The filmmakers and Smith have said that they would like to see Pandit (né John Roland Redd) receive his due credit: “We wanted to give Korla his props as the first African-American to have a television program,” Turner said. [1] But how is this possible? Can a man receive credit for advancing his race when he spent his entire life rejecting it? As Dr. Harry Edwards put it in the documentary, Korla’s television program had sponsors, Lassie had sponsors, but Nat “King” Cole’s show could never find a sponsor.

On the other hand, Asbury has been denied his proper place because for 120 years white people have looked at his picture and thought he wasn’t dark enough, even though Asbury never tried to pass for white. Asbury should have been celebrated as a seminal recording pioneer in our Grammy-winning Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, but we were unaware of him at that time (2005). This banjo-playing marvel was as big a star in the infancy of the recording business as George W. Johnson, the former slave whose “Laughing Song” and “Whistling Coon” were heard on phonographs all over the country. Asbury’s records were heard on those same phonographs. He blazed a trail for African Americans and should be recognized as such.



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