Strayhorn and Community Tolerance

By Joy Presler, Human Relations Commission


National Public Radio featured an interview with the producer of a documentary on the life of Billy Strayhorn, whose name graces a historical plaque near Weaver Street Market in Hillsborough.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten (August 14, 1958)

Strayhorn was born gravely ill near there, and was not expected to live very long. The fourth of nine children, he survived and went on to write some of Duke Ellington’s most memorable pieces of music — most notably “Take the A Train,” which is named on the plaque. What is not said about him is that he was an openly gay black man living during a time in the 1940s and 1950s when homophobia was rampant. He lived in Ellington’s limelight, more or less unrecognized, and happily so. His musical genius was undeniable, but the fear of violence due to his being gay basically kept him in hiding. Anyone who hears this memorable song will say, “Oh, I love that song!” and probably not realize that Ellington is not the composer. That honor belongs to the incomparable Strayhorn.

The acceptance of heterogeneity or default sexuality probably meant that Strayhorn had to hide his homosexuality for self-protection and privacy. He knew his opportunities would be limited, which would have also increased the probability of his works not being celebrated as they are today. He worked nearly 29 years in a very competitive and racist industry without a contract. His commitment to the Ellington Orchestra was demonstrated in his classical and long-form style of collaboration, which elevated the band to the top of the jazz world.

Let us not grow complacent in how tolerant Orange County appears to be as we advocate for anti-discriminatory policies and practices. The HRC celebrates the amazing accomplishments of Pauli Murray each year, noting that she was an openly gay, black woman who broke countless barriers. We have LGBTQ support groups in schools and in our community. We support Gay Pride parades in the Triangle and beyond. In fact, it surprises me that we do not already have a local parade, as Carrboro has an openly gay mayor (and Chapel Hill previously did) and our town’s governmental leaders publicly support diversity.

HRC Members: Samantha Beecham, Matt Case (Vice Chair), Frances Castillo, Ana Garcia-Turnet, Stephanie Harrell, Allison Mahaley, Jamie Paulen, Nora Spencer, James Spivey, Deborah Stroman (Chair), Marc Xavier

I moved to this area to be tolerated in spite of all of my quirks! Raised in the Charlotte area, I was ridiculed as a child for my low socio-economic status. I eventually left my childhood town and found myself in the big city of Washington, DC. I missed North Carolina but chose to avoid the small-town mentality that still existed, so I made my way to Chapel Hill. I had heard about “The Hill,” and how you could “be yourself” without intimidation or threat because it had a large highly-educated population. I have generally found that to be so, and I live happily and confidently being myself. We do not need to be quiet and learn to accept rudeness or verbal assaults. Honesty is good but with it should come the responsibility to be kind. We can respect the values and being of others without rudely inserting yourself in someone else’s business. It’s easy if you intentionally focus on seeing things from the perspective of others as it will widen your horizons.

Let’s embrace ourselves first and allow everyone to embrace themselves equally. We know what is socially acceptable. Violence, disdain and harm are not. Be open to diversity. Life is more interesting that way. I try to make sure that all who find their way to Orange County can do the same; my service on the Human Relations Commission has been fulfilling. And yet, with the rise of mean-spirited verbal and physical attacks in our country, I realize that there is so much more work to be done. I am hopeful that more residents will “come out of the closet” and act to keep our community special.


Human Relations Commission logoThis monthly column is a co-operative effort between 97.9 The Hill/ and the Orange County Human Relations Commission to recognize and address issues in Orange County and promote the equal treatment of all individuals. The OC HRC works for preservation of justice and dignity, prevention of public and domestic strife and protection of residents’ lawful interests so that everyone can reach their full productive and creative capacities.

Note: Each HRC perspective is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position or values of the entire Human Relations Commission.