In 2011, Ella Jenkins and U.S. Representative John Lewis shared a stage to accept the Living Legends for Service to Humanity Award. The two are seen laughing, perhaps sharing a memory from a history that most never knew intertwined. To many, Ella Jenkins is solely the First Lady of Children’s Music—the figure who, on Barney, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, introduced them to the music and culture of other youth across the globe. However, unbeknownst to most, her career has always been tethered to the fight for equality for all Americans.
In 1924, Ella Jenkins was born into a time of vast racial disparity: the latter half of the Jim Crow era. Raised in segregated Chicago, her passion for tackling injustice began at a young age and prior to her launching a music career that would develop in parallel with the civil rights movement. In her late teens, she joined an interracial high school organization called the Funference, and as a young woman she joined the Congress of Racial Equality.
Founded in Chicago in 1942, C.O.R.E. was a nationwide organization crucial to the invention and implementation of protest tactics used throughout the civil rights movement, including freedom rides, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and freedom songs. The students who conceived of and developed this interracial organization worked to create systemic change through non-violent means, a strategy which Jenkins would employ throughout her career.
As a young member of C.O.R.E., Jenkins quickly found a space in which to pair her passion for fighting against inequality with her love for music. Jenkins recalls learning freedom songs in C.O.R.E meetings, but one meeting in particular inspired her. After hearing words from several Freedom Riders—including John Lewis—Jenkins grew more determined. She continued to participate in marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations but took things a step further.
She used her position as a touring musician to challenge inequality across America, identifying and challenging segregation in restaurants and hotels across the country. Her experience of segregation is best exemplified in a story she has widely shared. At the time, she was performing in The School Assembly Service, a series of school concerts and music demonstrations she performed throughout the Midwest and South.
“I phoned the principal at two o’clock in the morning,” she recounted for The HistoryMakers. “I said, ‘Sir, I am sorry to bother you, but we are supposed to be at your school in about a few hours, and we can’t find a place to stay. At this motel, she said she doesn’t accept [Negroes].’ He said, ‘Let me talk to her.’ ... Next thing, we had rooms. I finally had to say to the people who were hiring me, because it was a year’s work, ‘Unless you can tell me where we can stay along the way, I will have to discontinue this contract.”
These brazen acts, in addition to what her longtime manager Bernadelle Richter calls Jenkins’s “never being afraid to express herself musically,” were her tools to fight discrimination. Looking back, many may not realize the seriousness of her actions. In the early 1960s, she was an African American woman traveling the United States by car during the time of Jim Crow and Sundown towns. With each car ride, she had to be mindful of where she stopped, if she could stop, where to use the restroom, dine, or sleep.
On tour, Jenkins flourished in spaces others might find contentious. In many communities and schools, she was possibly the only African American these children, and perhaps even adults, had seen or engaged with who was not in the role of servitude. Children asked questions about her race, appearance, background, and experiences. In a unique space she created through music, she was able to introduce children to the concepts of equality, unity, and acceptance.
And, perhaps most importantly, she was able to infiltrate primarily segregated schools and communities across America, forcing an alternative view of Blackness among populations who had limited and constrained views of African Americans. With each performance, she intentionally incorporated music from different cultures, including spirituals and freedom songs. Each song and its message of inclusion and diversity was intended to alter the heart and psyche of the next generation.
By the end of 1960, Jenkins had already recorded three albums for Folkways Records, each a multicultural listening experience. The first, from 1957, explored call-and-response singing. The second, Adventures in Rhythm, included chants from West and North Africa, as well as a chant invented by those considered on the lowest rung of society: prisoners on the chain gang. Her 1960 album African American Folk Rhythms included a song first sung by Black Civil War soldiers as they marched, “No More Auction Block.”
In 1985, Jenkins appeared in a children’s TV special about Dr. Marin Luther King hosted by LeVar Burton, called Free at Last. Surrounded by a group of young kids, she sang “You Better Leave Segregation Alone.” She told them, “I didn’t actually march with Dr. King, but I did sing some freedom songs at a rally where he spoke. I met some Freedom Riders, and they taught me a song.” In teaching this song and in learning other freedom songs like those she sang on A Long Time to Freedom (1970), she introduced the topics of segregation and racism to children across the world.
You better leave segregation alone
Because they love segregation like a hound dog love a bone
In an interview, Jenkins laughed and grinned when recounting the early C.O.R.E meeting with John Lewis. After singing the song, she pointed out the imagery of the lyrics: “Just imagine a dog with a tight grip on this bone.” Segregation maintains old hierarchies and evil ways of doing and benefits the privileged through cheap labor. This dependence on segregation makes it nearly impossible to pry it from the jaws of some people.
With a career spanning seven decades and reaching children in all fifty states and countries around the world, Jenkins has experienced a lot of firsts. Jenkins, a confident Black woman who was inspired by artist-activist Mariam Makeba to wear her hair natural and to drape herself in African and Indigenous patterns and prints, fearlessly traversed contentious spaces in order to create a space where kids could ask questions, learn, and challenge their previously taught views on race.
When asked how she dealt with tense moments, Richter, who has traveled alongside her since 1961, shared that Jenkins would always “win people over. . . and listen to people,” and any tensions would dissipate.
Jenkins broke new ground for African American musicians throughout her career. In January 1958, she was a host of her own segment “This Is Rhythm” on the Chicago-based children’s show The Totem Club, making her one of the first African American TV hosts. In 1964, she performed at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Illinois Rally for Civil Rights at Soldier Field. In 1999, she received the ASCAP Foundation Life in Music Award, and in 2004 she was awarded the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2017, at age ninety-three, she was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow.
Through her songs and engaging style, Jenkins has transformed the minds of nearly three generations of youth across America. Likewise, her albums have offered educators across the world means to further engage students on matters of race, equality, and justice. At the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference, countless educators regularly stood in line to meet her. In an interview, one educator shared that they “have listened to Ella’s music forever and ever,” while another said that her work was a “saving grace.”
Jenkins, now ninety-six, steadfastly pursued the hearts and minds of youth throughout America to plant a seed of tolerance, understanding, and inclusion in places where African Americans were normally unwelcome or not permitted. Her songs and performances continue to influence young people across the world.
Ty-Juana Taylor is a curriculum developer at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. She earned her doctorate in ethnomusicology from UCLA and specializes in African and African American music and culture.
Thanks to Ella Jenkins, Bernadelle Richter, Tim Ferrin, and Gayle Wald for their participation in this article.