It sometimes takes just one person to make the rest of us look bad.
Lola Anne Cullum was the African American talent scout in Houston who discovered both Amos Milburn and Lightnin’ Hopkins and signed them to a deal with Aladdin Records in Los Angeles. Milburn was the fantastic piano player and singer who profoundly influenced Fats Domino, right to the scrunched-down singing posture. Hopkins had a piano player named Wilson “Thunder” Smith and so Cullum dubbed him “Lightnin’.” Mrs. Cullum, married to a prosperous Third Ward dentist, was a major figure in Texas music from ’46 until about ’50 when competing with Don Robey soured her on the business. She died in 1970.
This front page story of the Houston Informer black newspaper dated June 19, 1948, is just another sad example of the treatment of blacks in the south during Jim Crow segregation. Cullum was trying to call a venue owner about an upcoming booking for Milburn, who was red-hot at the time with “Chicken Shack Boogie.”
We’ll let the newspaper article, sent to me by the great Texas music researcher Andrew Brown, tell the rest of the story:
CALLS PARTY “MR.,” OPERATOR STOPS LINE
Negroes Are Not Called Mr. – Says Phone Operator
Houston – A complaint that an operator for long distance service in Houston refused to complete a call and ordered her to release the line was made to the Southwestern Bell telephone company, June 14, by Mrs. Lola Ann Cullum, prominent wife of a local doctor.
Mrs. Cullum reported that when she asked the operator to contact her party she called him “Mr.,” and the person answering at the other end informed the operator here that he would have to go next door to get her party for her.
During the pause, while the person went in search of the party Mrs. Cullum had requested, and had addressed by the title of respect, “Mr.,” the operator here asked Mrs. Cullum if the party she wanted was a colored person.
Unaware of the operator’s motive for the question, Mrs. Cullum answered yes, and said she was shocked when the operator told her:
No Negro Is “Mr.”
“Why, you don’t call no colored people Mr. over long distance telephone. No Negroes are a Mr. over the telephone,” and after an exchange of words, ordered Mrs. Cullum to release the line.
Mrs. Cullum insisted on talking to the party who answered, and the long distance operator insisted on Mrs. Cullum releasing the line, stating she could not complete the call, Mrs. Cullum said.
Mrs. Cullum is the wife of Dr. S.J. Cullum, prominent dentist in the city. She and her husband live in their residence at 3238 Alabama [in the Third Ward], and Mrs. Cullum is a booking agent and manager of the popular recording artist Amos Milburn who is currently playing Texas towns.
She is licensed under James Petrillo, national music head (i.e., president of the National Federation of Musicians), and books under Silbia (illegible) Agency out of Hollywood, Calif.
It was an engagement for Mr. Milburn, who played West Columbia (Texas) Sunday night, that Mrs. Cullum placed the long distance call to a Mr. Patterson in West Columbia, about 3:15 p.m. Monday. (sic) The engagement was to be made for Houston this week. Due to the hour or more delay after the operator refused to complete the call, Mrs. Cullum was not able to contact her party when the call was finally completed a few minutes after 4 p.m., she said. As a consequence, she had to substitute for the West Columbia engagement, she said.
Mrs. Cullum’s complaint was investigated by several supervisors at the telephone company, and each of them called her and talked to her about the incident, she said. One of the supervisors, apparently the one under whom the operator works, told Mrs. Cullum she understood after questioning the operator that Mrs. Cullum had ‘cancelled’ the call, Mrs. Cullum said.
Mrs. Cullum said she thinks that the supervisor understands, now, that because of the nature of the business with the party in West Columbia whom she tried to contact by long distance, “there simply would be no point in my canceling it.”
District Manager Scruggs, who investigated the complaint Tuesday, told an Informer reporter who contacted him by telephone that Mrs. Cullum had made the complaint that the reporter repeated to him.
Although a regrettable and unfortunate incident, Mr. Scruggs said he thinks the company, through the chief operator in that department, has assured Mrs. Cullum that the operator had certainly violated the policies of the company.
He pointed out that such incidents are widely isolated and happen hardly one time in a thousand. He regrets that the operator’s action has resulted in publicity which can probably lead to resentment.