There are, according to the academic Emmett Price, “six degrees of Harry Pace”. He is referring to the man born in 1884 who founded America’s first black-owned major record label; desegregated part of Chicago; mentored the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines and spearheaded the career of blues singer Ethel Waters. Pace is a figure who is seemingly everywhere at once, yet his name has been suspiciously absent from the history books.
“This story encapsulates how progress comes about in America – and it is never in a straight line,” says Jad Abumrad. “It is often a cycle – one that contains hope and despair, smashed together.”
Best known for their work on Radiolab and its hit spin-off, Dolly Parton’s America, Abumrad and his co-producer Shima Oliaee are speaking from New York about their latest podcast, The Vanishing of Harry Pace. The five-part series examines the life and legacy of its titular character – the founder of Black Swan records, who had a hand in coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll”. Pace was also a civil rights lawyer, a collaborator of WEB Du Bois, and, you might think, a pioneering black American erased from history because of his race.
But that isn’t how this story goes; this was “an American riddle, wrapped in a family secret”. Pace wasn’t a forgotten trailblazer, but a man who decided to spend the final years of his life passing as white for fear of persecution.
The first two episodes recount Pace’s life, from his years at Atlanta University to founding Black Swan then retraining as a lawyer. The third examines the impact his passing has had on his children and grandchildren, while later episodes trace the musical legacy of Black Swan. Throughout, Abumrad and Oliaee are an easygoing presence, gasping as each revelation is uncovered, while more than 40 expert voices – from writer Margo Jefferson to musician Terrance McKnight – bolster their research with reflections on the story’s racial and cultural significance in the US.
This series follows Dolly Parton’s America, which chronicled the country singer’s impact on American life, and Pace’s story chimes strangely with Parton’s. “They are both figures who blurred the boundaries that we see in culture – those distinctions that say a certain type of music is for a certain type of person,” Abumrad says. “Harry encapsulated an in-between space of being black and yet ultimately passing for white, of being a ‘race man’ then seemingly turning his back on his achievements in a way that has affected his descendants today.”