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"Breaking Barriers: Louis Armstrong & Civil Rights" Exhibition Opens at Armstrong House Museum

Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Dir. of News Services
Queens College

Maria Matteo
News Assistant
Queens College
Opening for Black History Month:



CORONA, NY, January 30, 2007 – Louis Armstrong broke barriers as a prominent black entertainer--in film, radio, television, and as an ambassador of goodwill. Yet in the 1950s he was branded as an “Uncle Tom” who catered to white audiences and did not fight for his people. When he finally spoke out, he made headlines around the world and surprised many of his critics. In September 1957 Armstrong declared that President Eisenhower “had no guts” for allowing nine black schoolchildren to be publicly assaulted as they attempted to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and in protest cancelled his State Department tour of the Soviet Union, saying, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” Not long after, an FBI file was opened on him and his activities watched closely.

Opening February 1 to coincide with Black History Month is a new exhibit showcasing the many contributions Armstrong made to civil rights and black pride. The exhibit, Breaking Barriers: Louis Armstrong & Civil Rights, will be on view through October 8, 2007, at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens--one of New York City’s most notable historic house museums.

“This exhibit will highlight the private side of Louis Armstrong,” says Deslyn Dyer, the curator and assistant director. “Even though he was on the road 300 days a year, he kept a library of books on black achievements, followed the careers of other black pioneers and recorded significant events on his reel-to-reel tape recorder, including the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The exhibit offers an intimate look at the historic events that both pained Armstrong and brought him joy. While he was not a marcher, he definitely used music as an agent for change.”

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 into stark poverty in segregated New Orleans, but through his musical mastery, he became one of the most beloved and influential Americans of all time. Armstrong traveled widely throughout America and around the world, bringing jazz to people of all colors and backgrounds while also experiencing racism firsthand in “Jim Crow” states--performing for all-white audiences, then sleeping and eating in black-only establishments.

On exhibit are items Armstrong created while at home in Corona, such as a handmade collage of Jackie Robinson and tape boxes he lovingly decorated and dedicated to other black pioneers like Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, and Langston Hughes. Of the 650 homemade tape recordings Armstrong left behind, one is completely dedicated to the broadcast of Dr. King’s funeral. Unlike other recordings where Armstrong is chatty and interrupts, he is completely silent on this tape.

The exhibit also includes Armstrong’s FBI file; a colorful, African-style quilt depicting 20 important events in Armstrong’s life that was made by students at the nearby Louis Armstrong Elementary School; and a letter from Coretta Scott King to Lucille Armstrong following her husband’s death in 1971 (the widow received more than 20,000 letters from all over the world).

In his own way, Armstrong achieved the goals sought by other prominent civil rights leaders. His trumpet was his placard, which carried the message of peace, equality, and goodwill--not only throughout America but also around the world.

In addition to viewing the exhibit, visitors to the Louis Armstrong House Museum can take a 40-minute guided tour of the historic home. Louis and Lucille Armstrong purchased the modest home in 1943 and lived there for the rest of their lives. In 1986 the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation gave the house to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and arranged for Queens College to administer the house under a long-term license agreement. Today the Louis Armstrong House Museum is a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark visited by school groups, senior citizen centers, international tourists, professional musicians, and many others.

The Louis Armstrong House Museum and Louis Armstrong Archives on the Queens College campus are part of the Selma and Max Kupferberg Center for the Visual and Performing Arts at Queens College.


 Office Information

Deputy Director of News Services
(Position vacant)

(718) 997- 5597

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services
Queens Hall, Room 270B
(718) 997-5593

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