Racial Discrimination Day: How Turkish Embassy’s ‘Jazz Diplomacy’ helped battle racism in US?

by Anadolu Agency


A Turkish ambassador and his two sons paved the way for racial integration in the US several decades before the Black rights movement began.

March 21 is annually observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which originates in Sharpeville, South Africa, where in 1960 police opened fire at a peaceful demonstration, killing 69 people.

Several years later, the UN General Assembly proclaimed March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to honor the lives of those who died fighting for equal human rights for all in South Africa during apartheid, an institutionally racist system built upon racial discrimination.

The legal framework of the apartheid in South Africa was repealed by votes in 1991 but racism remains a global problem that millions of people face throughout the world every day.

However, the story of a Turkish ambassador and his two sons offers a beacon of hope as it shows the world that there is still a way out even during the darkest times.

Munir Ertegun, Türkiye’s second ambassador to the US who served between 1934-1944, and his two sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi, challenged racism in the US by inviting African-American jazz performers to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. during the 1930s and 1940s.

At a time when racism was at its peak in the US and segregation was in full flow as Black Americans were not allowed to sit next to whites in various places, the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. broke down prejudices and opened its doors to these musicians despite warnings from some US politicians.

Among the many jazz musicians who were attending the concerts at the Turkish embassy were the most famous performers at the time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, and Lester Young.

According to Maurice Jackson, associate professor of History and African-American Studies at Georgetown University, the Turkish embassy’s jazz concerts during the 30s and 40s were significant in the anti-racism fight in the US.

“The important thing is that what it did was to show people the possibilities, and after people saw that they would never go back,” Jackson told Anadolu when asked about how significant Ertegun brother’s jazz concerts were in terms of battling racism in the US.

“A couple of years after this concert, there was a protest at the US State Department,” he recalled, explaining that Black officers were not allowed to eat in the cafeteria at the State Department at the time.

Jackson said those were times when African-American opera singer Marian Anderson was not allowed to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939 because of her race.

Against the backdrop of such racial tensions, the Ertegun family organized jazz concerts and jam sessions at the Turkish ambassador’s residence at the Everett House in Washington DC, in a neighborhood that is home to many embassies and diplomatic buildings.

Noting other demonstrations against segregation of Black Americans at restaurants and public places, Jackson said: “The musicians set an example of what the possibilities were.”

When a US Senator complained to Ambassador Ertegun for allowing Black Americans to enter the embassy from the front door at that time, he responded by saying: “We take our guests in from the front door, whoever they are.”


Jazz concerts at Turkish embassy create ‘new venue’

The Ertegun brothers went further by organizing the city’s first integrated concert in 1942 at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street.

“Two Muslim men bring Black music to a Jewish own institution. I don’t even know that happens today. So you see the progress,” Jackson said.

Those jazz concerts also created a “new venue” for Black people to record, Jackson said, adding that Ertegun Brothers ended up launching Atlantic Records in 1947, playing a role in the nurturing of the careers of many artists and bands, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.

When asked about the role of those concerts in the African-American history, he answered: “Jazz in itself. Music in itself is not going to make the change.”

“It has to have a big sweep. And this helped create that big sweep”, he said.

“So when people saw this and so these Blacks going in there and people started thinking, well, perhaps we can do this,” he added.

“So it shows you can do a lot around the question of diplomacy. And this fell in the realm of jazz diplomacy,” Jackson said. ​​​​​​​

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