The Day Ella Fitzgerald visited UMES

  • Reflections on the 100th anniversary of her birth

    Tuesday, October 24, 2017
    Dr. Archie Buffkins & Ella Fitzgerald (Thomas Wiles image)

    On a glorious autumn day 43 years ago - Oct. 27, 1974 - the University of Maryland Eastern Shore paid tribute to the 20th century's “First Lady of Song” by naming its performing arts center after Ella Fitzgerald. 

    Fitzgerald spoke and performed during a 90-minute ceremony that attracted a capacity crowd to a 1,167-seat theater flanked by classrooms and rehearsal studios. 

    According to those who were there that warm Sunday afternoon, it was difficult to discern who enjoyed the moment more, the audience or the honoree. 

    “This is one of those days that will go down in history for me,” journalist Richard Culver quoted Fitzgerald as saying in a front-page article published in The Daily Times the following day. 

    A reflective Culver described himself as “a young reporter … eager to hold my own with other media there, including a seasoned veteran from the Baltimore Sun.” 

    “Reporters and photographers were angling to get the best shots and the best quotes for their stories,” he said. “Decades later what I remember was Ms. Fitzgerald as she stood to sing.  Time seemed to pause and a public ceremony transformed into an afternoon of art.” 

    The newspaper article proclaimed Fitzgerald was the first living black performer to have a building named in her honor. She became the fourth woman to be so honored on the UMES campus.*

    The $1.6 million performing arts center was already in use prior to the much-anticipated dedication that had the community abuzz. Fitzgerald, then 57, had reached iconic status as a multi-Grammy winning jazz singer mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman.

    Platform dignitaries unveil the plaque (Thomas Wiles image)

    The driving force behind Fitzgerald's triumphant visit to Princess Anne was Chancellor Archie L. Buffkins, UMES' top administrator and a champion of the performing arts whose first love was music. 

    Photos from that day show a beaming Buffkins at Fitzgerald's side. 

    “I can remember how excited Dr. Buffkins seemed to be,” said Alverne Chesterfield, a retired UMES employee and 1977 alumnus. “You could see it was a great day for him.” 

    As chairman of the UMES Senate, Chesterfield offered welcome remarks on behalf of not only students but staff and faculty. The sophomore from the Virgin Islands was at the time thought to be the youngest person to be elected to such a leadership post on an American college campus. 

    “That whole year was something special for me,” he said. “I never thought … I would have that experience and get the opportunity to meet Ella Fitzgerald - let along speak at her dedication.” 

    Seated on stage between Chesterfield and Fitzgerald was Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. Other speakers were student government president Alvin Mance, Blanche F. Purnell of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Dr. R. Lee Hornbake of the University of Maryland, Dr. B. Herbert Brown, a University of Maryland regent, and Omega Jones Frazier of UMES' alumni association. 

    Frazier drew inspiration from band director Duke Ellington's oft-quoted compliment about Fitzgerald when she, too, allowed that the honoree's “talent is beyond category.” 

    Fitzgerald was last to step to the microphone for what the program billed as “Words and Music.” 

    Accompanied by the local Earl Brown Quartet, she delivered on the latter with “One Note Samba” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” joyfully riffing her signature improvisational skills that delighted the gathering and triggered an outburst of applause. 

    “After that day,” Culver said, “I found myself time traveling whenever I heard her voice on the radio or a recording. I was back at the center bearing her name listening to transcendent singing.  Sometimes I would try to analyze how she could make such an impact.  Analysis always failed.” 

    Directing her words to young people in the audience, Fitzgerald said “if it's in you, it'll happen,” according to The Times article. “It doesn't matter where you were born.” 

    After the dedication plaque was unveiled at the conclusion of the program, she was on her way to Virginia's Tidewater area, where she was born (100 years ago) in 1917, to perform with the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra. 


    * - Bird Hall (Portia Bird, shared with her husband, Benjamin) and the Lida L. Brown health center are the other campus buildings named for women. A wood-frame dormitory for women named for Eliza F. Smith stood on the historic Academic Oval from 1893 to 1959.