Zelia Page Breaux—Builder of People and State
In John Perry’s 1993 Oklahoman newspaper article “Deep Second Still Lives In Dreams,” Oklahoma City native and civil rights icon Jimmy Stewart recounted his childhood involvement in a major public event that demonstrated Zelia Page Breaux’s (1880-1956) influence on not just the African-American community, but all of OKC:
“Stewart sits up a little in his seat now as he thinks back to the first Douglass (High School) students invited to march in the annual downtown Boys Day parade. Blacks had been banned from the parade before 1924. When the school superintendent decided to let Douglass students march, Breaux drilled her band, and the male teachers—some of them with (military backgrounds)—took the rest of the boys out on the football field every day and taught them to march with precision and decorum.
The parade began at Main and Broadway and traveled west, and Douglass was left to the end.
‘Ralph [Ellison] was in the front, in the band. I wasn't in the band, but I was marching with them,’ Stewart tells me. ‘And when we hit Main and Broadway, it was a show. People just looked out the windows, “Look at there at the Douglass High School,” and the band was in step and the boys were marching like the military, whereas the Central High School boys were going along waving at people and just talking. It was a jolly thing to them, but our boys didn't say a word. They marched just like soldiers.’ I ask Stewart how he felt marching in the parade.
Proud, proud,’ he answered.”
Could the walls and streets, the sidewalks and pathways of old Deep Second and its environs speak, what tales would they tell of Zelia Page Breaux and her influence on the lives of generations of African-Americans great and small, remembered and forgotten? Perhaps no one in Oklahoma history has more greatly epitomized and embodied the role of pioneer than Zelia Breaux.
She came to Oklahoma Territory in 1898, nearly a decade before statehood, when the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in the all-black Logan County town of Langston named her father Inman Page, a trailblazing scholar in his own right, its first president. The elder Page and another man were the first two African-American graduates of Ivy League Brown University. Zelia helped him build what became Langston University. She taught piano and instrumental music at the school, formed both a choral society and an orchestra, and drilled her students in playing Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt.
She married Armogen Breaux in 1905 as Langston grew under her father’s dynamic leadership from forty to over six hundred students and from four to thirty-five faculty. She also excelled as an entrepreneur. With her partner, a Mr. Whitlow, she built and operated the famed Aldridge Theater (pictured right) on Northeast 2nd Street, the original “Deep Deuce.” She utilized the Aldridge as a stage on which to nurture the musical talents of generations of young African-Americans, as well as a top-flight movie theatre for Oklahoma’s black community.
After vicious political infighting drove Page from the Langston presidency, the Colored Schools of Oklahoma City hired him as Superintendent in 1916. Two years later, his daughter Zelda accepted the position of Supervisor of Music for the district. Here her greatest work probably took place. For three decades, she unlocked the key to the talents of OKC’s African-American youth. Her alumni included guitar great Charlie Christian, blues singer Jimmy Rushing, and National Book Award winner—and music critic—Ralph Ellison.
According to Deep Deuce chronicler Anita G. Arnold, Breaux “crafted a master plan featuring a music teacher in every classroom of the elementary schools and carefully chosen curriculum designed to impact over time. It became one of the best programs in the state. Douglass High School, under her direction, became one of the best high school bands in the Southwest.” Breaux took that band on the road, including to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair—where it performed for a national radio broadcast—and the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration in Dallas.
Most of Breaux’s students could sing songs in parts and read major scales in most keys as fifth graders, said Arnold. Ellison remembers instruction in harmony from ninth through twelfth grade, a music appreciation program, a concert band, an orchestra, and several vocal organizations. And Zelia Breaux cared enough for her young charges to confront their sloth and indolence. “If you didn’t know the (classical) composer, she’d flunk you,” one recalls. Others remember her as “a difficult taskmaster,” and that “To be in her presence, you had to know Mozart, Beethoven, and others.”
Breaux earned a master’s degree in music from the prestigious Northwestern University near Chicago in 1939. Her life, lived amidst Jim Crow, segregation, and economic oppression, shines through the years as an exemplar of the good that can be done for others, even within painful and sometimes cruel constraints. She took the corpus of the musical arts passed along from the pinnacle of European creative genius, mastered it, and bequeathed it to thousands of African-American youngsters. With her guidance, they flavored it with their own inherited and natural gifting into something new and possessed of its own unique greatness.
The enormous audience for Zelia Page Breaux’s funeral included Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who wrote of her in his autobiography. “There were a lot of things to discourage one back then," Stewart said before his own death. "But there were also reasons to try to do things and we had blacks who wanted to do things. Mrs. Breaux was an inspiration to all of our young people to want to do something. "
1) Zelia Page Breaux, courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society
2) Aldridge Theater in "Deep Deuce," courtesy Mary Ann Moore and Oklahoma Historical Society
3) Douglass High School, OKC (1930s-1950s)