The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were America's first integrated, all-female band, but for the most part, their music has been lost. In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, the Smithsonian is shedding light on the story of how they toured the country, including the segregated South, during the '40s, leading band leader Earl Hines to dub them "the first freedom riders."
The group was founded in Mississippi in 1937, according to NPR. Most of the musicians were African-American, but even though the band included Chinese, Hawaiian, and Mexican women, they were able to avoid consequences of race mixing in the South because people saw all of them as simply "nonwhite."
However, things changed when the group added two white players in 1941. Rosalind Cron, who was brought in as the new saxophonist, says the band didn't experience problems in New York or Chicago. But, she tells NPR that she came to understand the implications of playing in an integrated band when a Baltimore waitress refused to wait on her when she was with a black bandmate. Cron learned about Jim Crow laws from the road manager, who offered to let her go home, but she says, "After that Baltimore episode, I made up my mind then and there. I wasn't going to back down."
The band continued playing throughout the South until they broke up in 1949. At first the white members used makeup to darken their skin, but eventually they just tried to hide from local sheriffs. Very few of the band's recordings were preserved, but one of their performances made it to YouTube. Since we almost never see 17 female musicians performing pop music today (with the possible exception of a VH1 Divas concert), it's almost hard to believe that this video was recorded in 1943.