Harold J. Betters of Connellsville, Pennsylvania was drafted for two years into the Army during the Korean War. As a formally trained and experienced musician he wanted to play with the 308th Army Band, but his commander wasn’t agreeable. Although military segregation had been officially over since 1948, acts of racism still permeated the armed forces. When Harold’s mother found out that he had been rejected, she marched up to Camp Edwards in Massachusetts and demanded that the general in charge change his mind. “I put my son through music college,” Harold recalls his mother’s request, “and he’s capable of playing in the band.” The Army’s response, begrudgingly, was to give Harold a musical test.
“I hate to bring up race,” he says of the way he and other African-Americans were treated, “but it bothered me. It was very hurtful.”
When Dan Cocks of the Fayette County Cultural Trust asked us to interview Harold Betters, we immediately accepted the chance to speak with the famed local jazz musician.
On November 21, 2014 we met Harold at the newly established Connellsville Canteen on West Crawford Avenue. The Canteen—part coffee shop, history museum, model train display, and performance space—is a remarkable place in Connellsville. The current building is remade after the by-gone historic WW II-era train depot that offered hospitality to service men and women travelling through Youghiogheny River Valley to and from the war.
This was our second oral history recording session at the Canteen. In December 2013 we met there in the Canteen’s Stage Door area to preserve the stories of three notable local veterans: Virginia Eberharter, Guy Tressler, and Florence Shutsy Reynolds.
We also recorded Mr. Betters in the Stage Door room, using as a backdrop an impressive wall of memorabilia dedicated to his life and jazz career. His daughter, Cheryl Betters-Kelly, sat in the wings and encouraged he father’s remembrances of his family, musical career, and military service. “Let’s start at the beginning,” we said as we started recording. “Just tell us your story in your own words.” Unsure of how to fill that tall request Mr. Betters looked at his daughter apprehensively, took a deep breath, and then took us on an amazing personal journey.
KEYWORDS: 308TH MILITARY BAND; AFRICAN AMERICAN; APOLLO THEATER ( NY); BEBOP MUSIC; BOSWELL, BOBBY; CAMP EDWARDS, MA; CHARLES, RAY; CLEVELAND, OH; CONNELLSVILLE, PA; DORSEY, TOMMY; DUGAN’S ICE CREAM; ENCORE CLUB; GREGORY, DICK; HAMPTON, SLIDE; HONEYSUCKLE ROSE; HOWARD THEATER, WASHINGTON DC; ITHACA COLLEGE; JAZZ; JERRY BETTERS QUARTET; JOHNSON, J J; KOREAN WAR; MCCOY, BOB; MERV GRIFFIN SHOW; MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW; MOLINARO BAND; MR. TROMBONE; PINK CLOUD CLUB; PINK PROM CLUB; PITT POT CLUB (PITTSBURGH); PITTSBURGH; RACIAL TENSION; SAVOY BALLROOM; SEGREGATION; SHINER, WILLARD; SILVERS, JOHN; SUBURBAN ROOM CLUB; TEAGARDEN, JACK; THE TONIGHT SHOW BAND; TROMBONE; WATROUS, BILL; WILLIS, EDGAR; WINDING, KAI