Love of the violin helped buoy a young black man buffeted by ill winds in the segregated South.
By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2002
As the story goes, Drew Saunders Days II was a boy in Gainesville, playing, or rather trying to play, a violin when a mailman working the route heard him and told the family he knew a white man, a professor at the University of Florida, who might be willing to teach Days how to play for real. It would have to be undercover, of course, Days being black in the segregated South. The family looked up the professor and, sure enough, he taught Days the art.
A black violinist? Rare even today, let alone in the early 1900s. But Drew Days carried his craft on to Morehouse College in Georgia, where he studied under black historian W.E.B. DuBois. He met and married Dorothea Jamerson, a student at Talladega in Alabama. They moved to Tampa, where Dorothea became a schoolteacher and Drew an executive at Central Life Insurance Co., an all-black firm. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, was the company's president.
It was a decent life. Two educated, working parents with two children, a boy and a girl. Days was well-respected in Hillsborough's black community. He worked with a football team at MacDill Air Force Base. He helped organize a boycott against a company when it refused to hire black employees. White executives would meet at Days' house on 29th Street, near Middleton High School, to negotiate.
And Days was known to play his violin -- at home to his infant son, at recitals and weddings, at black church gatherings. One of his favorite songs was Ave Maria.
Still, Days was unsettled by the hand that Jim Crow dealt. His children were bused beyond the nearby white school to all-black Dunbar Elementary. In concert halls and playhouses, Days, in his best suit, would still have to sit in the segregated balcony.
Once, Days went to see a Russian group of Don Cossacks sing (the family is uncertain whether it was in Tampa or St. Petersburg). The folks at the theater refused to sell him the same ticket handed to the white people in line. He turned and walked away. The humiliation and anger must have shown all over him; one of the singers asked what was wrong. When Days told him, the Russian took him through the stage door and let him watch the concert offstage.
Times like that, Days might have turned to his violin. The instrument, with its classical voice and air of affluence, symbolized a world that Days and other African-Americans had fought to have a part in, even if the white South battled to keep them at bay.
"It was very, very key to his life, one of the things that kept him on an even keel."
That's what his son, Drew Days III, said over the phone recently from his office at Yale Law School. The family stayed in Tampa about a dozen years, he says, until his father landed a job with an insurance company in New Rochelle, N.Y., in the early 1950s. They moved there, grateful for the coves of cultural freedom afforded black people in the North.
In the end, Days II left behind segregation's stronghold in Florida. But he produced a son who would help bring it down.
In 1969, Days III -- by then a lawyer -- represented the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in court battles to desegregate the Hillsborough and Pinellas school systems. It would be another 30 or so years before the desegregation orders were lifted.
"You can imagine what it meant to me to desegregate my old school district," he says.
If the name sounds familiar, by the way, it should. Days III was the first African-American to head the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 1977 and in 1992 became the U.S. solicitor general under former President Bill Clinton. Some have pegged the 61-year-old a potential appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. His younger sister, Jacquelyn Days Serwer, is the chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Neither plays the violin, although Days III can handle a clarinet and a classical guitar.
After all this time, Days III still has one unanswered question about his father: Who was that UF professor who taught him, a black child from Gainesville, to play the violin?
He may never know. Drew Days II died in the Washington area after a long illness in July 1979, just shy of his 66th birthday. Dorothea Days died 10 years later.
Secured in a vault at the John F. Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa are thousands of photographic negatives depicting life on Florida's west coast at the height of segregation.
They were taken by commercial photography studio founded in Tampa in 1899 by Samuel Burgert and his son Willard ("William" in some records). By 1918, the studio was firmly established with brothers Jean and Al Burgert at the helm. It operated until 1963.
The Burgerts were white and likely subscribed to the racial stereotypes that prevailed in the early 1900s, said Jack B. Moore, co-author of the 1992 book Pioneer Commercial Photography: The Burgert Brothers. Still, the photographers produced a varied record of African-American life, capturing the elite as well as everyday people on their jobs, in churches, at social gatherings and day care centers, at weddings and schools.
In an occasional series, the Times will travel with the Burgert photos from the days of Jim Crow until now, looking in on figures in black life and the imprints they made on our community today.