A. C. Bilbrew

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A. C. Bilbrew
A. C. Bilbrew from a 1933 newspaper.
A. C. Bilbrew from a 1933 newspaper.
A. C. Harris

(1891-03-12)March 12, 1891
DiedJune 4, 1972(1972-06-04) (aged 81)
Other namesMadame Bilbrew, A. C. Harris Bilbrew, Aycee Bilbrew, Alice Caldonia Harris
Occupationradio host, composer, choir director
Known for"The Bronze Hour" radio program (1940s)
Spouse(s)Ralph Bilbrew
RelativesKitty White (daughter)

A. C. Harris Bilbrew (March 12, 1891 – June 4, 1972) was an American poet, musician, composer, playwright, clubwoman, and radio personality known as Madame A. C. Bilbrew, based in South Los Angeles. In 1923, she became the first black soloist to sing on a Los Angeles radio program. She also hosted the city's first African-American radio music program, The Gold Hour, in the early 1940s. The A. C. Bilbrew branch of the LA County Library in Willowbrook was named in her honor.

Early life[edit]

A. C. Harris was from Tyler, Texas,[1] the daughter of Rev. H. S. Harris.[2][3][4] Her initials were her given name; she was named for two nuns whom her mother had liked.[5] She attended Texas College in Tyler,[6][7] and studied music at the University of Southern California.[8]


Bilbrew was active in many ways with performing arts in the African-American community of South Los Angeles.[9] She played church organ,[10] produced pageants and plays, gave dramatic readings,[11] accompanied a jubilee quartet,[12][13] and directed choirs. In 1923 she became the first black soloist to sing on a Los Angeles radio program.[5] In the 1930s she performed "pianologues" and led a musical sextet.[14]

She was the host of the city's first African-American radio music program, The Gold Hour, broadcast on KGFJ from 1940–1942,[5] and was also the announcer on The Bronze Hour, which she produced with Gilbert W. Lindsay.[15][16] Her on-air guests included California governor Culbert Olson in 1942.[17] She also performed on a tour of the eastern United States in the 1940s.[18] She was a popular speaker in church and women's groups into the late 1960s,[19] and was known as "Madame Bilbrew" in the community.[20][21]

Poet and songwriter[edit]

Bilbrew wrote poems and songs, including the wartime poem "The Black Boys in Khaki" (1919),[22] and songs "Black Boys of Uncle Sam" (1918),[23] and "Let's Go, Americans" (1942).[24] She wrote "This is Freedom Day", an anthem for National Freedom Day.[25] In 1955, her choral composition, "The Death of Emmett Till", was performed by Scatman Crothers and the Ramparts and released as a single, with a percentage of the royalties benefiting the NAACP.[26][27] "I feel strongly that this American folk song will live on and serve a purpose," Bilgrew commented at the time.[28] One of her last songs was a peace anthem, "Let's Lay the Weapons Down and Join Hands" (1969).[29]


Bilbrew was also involved in several films. She was the musical arranger and director for the choir that appeared as cotton pickers singing spirituals in the Stepin Fetchit film Hearts in Dixie (1929), considered one of the first talking pictures with an all-black cast.[30][2][31] She appeared as "Tante Caleen" in the film The Foxes of Harrow in 1947.[32][33]


Bilbrew campaigned for Kenneth Hahn for Los Angeles County supervisor in 1952. In 1958, she was named director of a new Republican campaign office opened in South Los Angeles.[34] She was later described by Hahn as the "first Negro woman to sing on radio in Los Angeles, pioneering the opportunity for young people to get into music, stage, radio and television."[35] In 1960, she attended the International Women's Day Jubilee in Copenhagen, part of the 22-member delegation from the United States.[36][37] By 1962, she was on the advisory board of the Independent Voters League of California.[38] In 1963, she founded the Opportunity Workshop, a community arts, education, and empowerment program in south Los Angeles.[6]

Personal life and legacy[edit]

A. C. Harris married Ralph Bilbrew, a fellow performer.[12] They had three daughters: Roberta, Kitty Jean, and Maudie Jeannette; all three daughters had musical careers.[7][2] Kitty Bilbrew was later known as jazz singer Kitty White (1923-2009). A. C. Bilbrew died in 1972, aged 84 years.

The A. C. Bilbrew branch of the LA County Library, in Willowbrook, was named for the radio personality in 1974, and designed by black architect Vincent J. Proby.[21] This branch houses the African American Resource Center.[39]


  1. ^ "Hollywood Artist, On U. S. Tour, Visits Tyler" The Chicago Defender (December 26, 1942): 2. via ProQuest
  2. ^ a b c Bessie M. Gant, "Bess Dedicates Column to 'Sweetheart of L. A.'" Pittsburgh Courier (November 21, 1942): 11. via Newspapers.com
  3. ^ Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (University of California Press 2006): 72-73. ISBN 9780520249905
  4. ^ "Prominent Churchwoman, Mrs. Clara Simpson, Dies" California Eagle (March 14, 1957): 7. via Internet Archiveopen access
  5. ^ a b c Wanda Coleman, Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors (David R. Godine Publisher 1996): 169.
  6. ^ a b "Workshop Founder to Speak" Independent Star-News (October 26, 1968): 5. via Newspapers.com
  7. ^ a b "West Coast to Get Mammoth Stage Production in Fall" Chicago Defender (November 20, 1948): 17. via ProQuest
  8. ^ Circular of Information (University of Southern California 1922): 275.
  9. ^ "Dixie Singers Will Perform at Park Bowl" San Bernardino County Sun (July 28, 1941): 3. via Newspapers.com
  10. ^ Catherine Parsons Smith, Making Music in Los Angeles: Transforming the Popular (University of California Press 2007): 174. ISBN 9780520933835
  11. ^ "L. A. Banker Talks to Advertising Men" Los Angeles Herald (October 3, 1916): 2. via California Digital Newspaper Collectionopen access
  12. ^ a b Mark Sebastian Jordan, "Follow-up: From the Maplehurst murder to Hollywood" Knox Pages (December 22, 2018).
  13. ^ "Club Women Hold Dinner Program Featuring South" Covina Argus (March 1, 1935): 6. via Newspapers.com
  14. ^ "First Negro Concert Set for Tuesday" San Bernardino County Sun (November 6, 1933): 3. via Newspapers.com
  15. ^ City of Los Angeles Planning Commission, Draft 52nd Place Tifal Brothers Tract HPOZ Preservation Plan (September 11, 2014).
  16. ^ "Negro Woman's Program" Broadcasting (October 24, 1949): 57.
  17. ^ "Olson Attacks Prejudice" California Eagle (August 20, 1942): 1. via Internet Archiveopen access
  18. ^ "Mme. Bilbrew Back on Coast" Pittsburgh Courier (August 10, 1946): 8. via Newspapers.com
  19. ^ "Women's Day to be Held at Calvary C. M. E." Independent Star-News (May 27, 1967): 4. via Newspapers.comopen access
  20. ^ Willie Middlebrook, "Madame Bilbrew" (1974), Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
  21. ^ a b Vincent Proby, "Untitled" (1974), Public Art Archive.
  22. ^ Delilah Leontium Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California (Times Mirror 1919): 307.
  23. ^ Catalog of Copyright Entries. Part 1. [B] Group 2. Pamphlets, Etc. New Series (1918): 1322.
  24. ^ Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical compositions, Part 3 (1942): 21202.
  25. ^ William H. Wiggins Jr., O Freedom!: Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations (University of Tennessee Press 1990): 89. ISBN 9780870496653
  26. ^ The Ramparts, "The Death of Emmett Till" (Dootone Records 1955).
  27. ^ Brian Berger, "Scatman Crothers" HiLoBrow (May 23, 2012).
  28. ^ "Ballad of Emmett Till Released by Record Firm" The Carolina Times (December 31, 1955): 1. via North Carolina Newspapers.
  29. ^ Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third series (January-June 1969): 360.
  30. ^ Mel Watkins, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry (Knopf Doubleday 2006): 72-73. ISBN 9781400096763
  31. ^ "Shooting Begun on 'Hearts in Dixie'". California Eagle. November 30, 1928. p. 8.
  32. ^ A. C. Bilbrew Filmography, BFI.
  33. ^ Alan Gevinson, Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 (University of California Press 1997): 355. ISBN 9780520209640
  34. ^ "New GOP Campaign Office Opened Here" Los Angeles Times (May 2, 1958): 25. via Newspapers.com
  35. ^ Photograph of A.C. Bilbrew and Kenneth Hahn (1973), County of Los Angeles Public Library History collection, via Calisphere.
  36. ^ "Sidetracked" Pittsburgh Courier (June 11, 1960): 8. via Newspapers.com
  37. ^ "She Blames Nikita Khrushchev: Woman's Talk Stymied By Failure of Summit" New Pittsburgh Courier (June 1, 1960): 8. via ProQuest
  38. ^ Independent Voters League of California, Inc., letterhead of letter dated December 7, 1962; Nixon Library.
  39. ^ "A. C. Bilbrew Library". Los Angeles County Library. Retrieved February 17, 2019.