The death of jazz singer Dimetra Shivers last week at the age of 95 was the last note of a great Madison figure.
Honored as the very first "Jazz Personality Of The Year" by the Isthmus Jazz Festival in 1988, Shivers was a storied big band singer and the matriarch of one of the best known African-American families in Madison.
As a 1984 interview with Isthmus columnist George Vukelich demonstrated, the struggle for racial equality was at the heart of Dimetra Shivers' life.
In appreciation of that remarkable life, we republish her reflections as captured by Vukelich.
Listening In: March 9, 1984
'We Were Called "Darkies"'
By George Vukelich
Dimetra Shivers was born in Brownsville, Tenn., on Feb. 6, 1912, one of seven children. Her father was a barber, her mother a milliner who sold homemade hats out of the house. After living in Kewaunee, Ill., which was Ku Klux Klan territory, the family moved in 1931 to Madison, which also turned out to be Klan territory.
Her husband, Stan, now retired from the UW photo lab, vividly remembers seeing a Klan parade "with hoods and all" -- around the Capitol Square in 1925. Three of Shivers' grandparents had been slaves, and living with her maternal grandparents influenced her profoundly. Now a grandmother herself, Dimetra Shivers is still considered by many Madisonians to be the best blues singer to come out of this area.
"My first day of school, I got into a big fight because the kids called me 'nigger.' My dad took me aside and told me, 'You can't lick the whole school. You can't lick the whole world, but I'll tell you this -- no one likes to be called a son of a bitch. So, you be prepared to run, but when they call you 'nigger,' you call them 'son of a bitch' and then run.' And that's what I did.
"This stuff still happens. Stan and I went down to a jazz festival in Decatur this January -- a three-day festival -- and we were sitting at a table with five white people. We got talking about the Presidential election and Jesse Jackson. One white man said they should put all the blacks on ships and send them back to Africa.
"He was from some little town near Gary, Ind., and he said, "We don't let them in town. They can't even stop for a pack of cigarettes.'
"That reminded me that, when we lived in Illinois, my father told us -- this was in the late 1920s -- that if we ever got a flat tire in Cicero, 'Don't ask for help and don't get out of the car. Just drive home on the flat tire.'
"This color business is the worst thing in the world. I was raised up to believe that if you were good you went to heaven, and if you were bad you went to hell. I think hell is right here on earth.
"We were called 'darkies,' 'niggers,' 'monkeys,' and all the people who called us those things went to church. They were Christian. I said, 'To hell with it.' My mother gave us Bibles, but I wouldn't read it, I just couldn't believe. Although I did sing in the First Baptist Church for 15 years.
"I always loved to sing and I always loved Bessie Smith. My mother didn't want me to go anywhere near nightclubs and places like that. So we formed 'The Taliaferro Trio,' my sister Mercedes, my brother Odell and me. We sand stuff like 'My Wild Irish Rose' and 'Old Bill Logan's goat was feelin' fine/Ate three red sheets from off the line...'
"You know, Odell was in a barbershop quartet here, and so was Miles McMillin. Their group couldn't get a national charter because of the black membership clause, so Odell gracefully withdrew from the group. Miles McMillin resigned right then and there and really blasted the whole barbershop organization for permitting that. He led the battle.
"I really started singing around town at the old 770 Club in the Memorial Union. It was sort of a nightclub-variety club on campus. The Daily Cardinal reviewed my first show and called it 'a bit of perfect swinging by a dusky lady -- such personality, rhythm and song are a rare combination. Did "Blue Prelude" ever go over when she sang it!'
"As a matter of fact, last November Stan and I went down to a jazz festival in Chicago -- Wild Bill Davison was there -- and we met a man named A. Robert Vaughn, who is writing a book about little-known people in jazz.
"We got to talking about his book, and he said that the first black person to sign with a white band, as far as he knew, was Billie Holiday singing with Artie Shaw in 1937. "I told him I sang with a white band at the University of Wisconsin in December of 1933. He said, 'I want to interview you.
"I sang at the UW prom in 1934 with the Charlie Agnew band out of Chicago. At the military ball that April, the bandleader refused to play for me because I was 'a nigger.' That was Clyde McCoy.
"My mother always said we were 'black' people -- 'don't write down Negro on the paper' -- so I wrote down 'black,' and some black kids beat me up because I used 'black.' I think this was first or second grade. They took offense at the word. They wanted to be called 'Negro.' Since then, I've never stopped using the world 'colored.'
"That's what I am and that's what the NAACP is -- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I even prefer the spelling c-o-l-o-u-r-e-d. That's what NAACP used originally, but they changed it. I like the word.
'Actually, when I had to tell what race I was all through school -- and I was always the only nonwhite kid all through high school -- I always wrote down my race as 'red, white and black.' The 'red' came from the Cherokee. That was my mixture.
"One day I came home from school all bloody, all beaten up -- I had thrown some punches, too -- and as my mother was washing me, I said 'I hate all white people!' My mother said, 'you don't hate all white people.' I said I did. She said, 'Do you hate Grandpa Dave?' I said, 'Oh, no.' I didn't hate Grandpa Dave. And my mother said, 'Well, Grandpa Dave is white.'
'Grandpa Dave was David Crockett Taliaferro. His mother was a mixed-blood, and his father was her white owner. 'That's a lot of stuff to go through when you're a little kid, and I've been going through it now for 72 years, and my grandchildren are still going through it.
"I really don't think it's ever going to stop."
Friends and admirers of Dimetra Shivers will have the opportunity to honor her. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Oct. 6 at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive.