Remembering the ‘Ungovernable’ Ella Fitzgerald’s Time in a Youth Prison

By Jamilah King Nov 12, 2014

Long before she earned a reputation as a legendary jazz singer, 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald was called "ungovernable" and unwilling to "obey the just and lawful commands of her mother" by Westchester County judge George W. Smyth. She was sent to the Hudson Reform, the only state juvenile institution that accepted both black and white children. 

Russ Immarigeon at Prison Public Memory dug up Fitzgerald’s history with the juvenile justice system to show that it’s long preyed on black and brown children. Today, there are more than 66,000 American youth who are confined in juvenile detention facilities, according to Nell Bernstein, author of "Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison." The majority of those kids are, like Fitzgerald, sentenced to serve time for non-violence offenses; only one of every four confined youths was locked up based on a Violent Crime Index offense.

Fitzgerald suffered plenty of abuse at the hands of the state before making it big in Harlem. From Immarigeon:

Her biographers appear to agree on this: A fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald returned, in a disheveled and homeless state, to New York City in late 1933 or early 1934. Shortly thereafter, she tried to display her dancing talents at the Apollo on 125th Street before taking its famous stage to sing. Soon, she started singing regularly with drummer Tiny Bradshaw’s band at the less-well-known Harlem Opera House. And, at the age of seventeen, within a year of leaving Hudson, Fitzgerald was singing and recording with the swinging Chick Webb and his Orchestra, where she quickly took her first steps toward being America’s "First Lady of Jazz." 

After her death in 1996, cultural critic Margo Jefferson rembered her life this way:

 "That voice never did give us intimations of the stepfather who abused her when her mother was dead; of the aunt who rescued her, then had no time or money to care for her; of Ella herself as a teenage truant who did time in a New York State reformatory for girls, where discipline was instilled though beatings and solitary confinement. When she ran away, she went from wayward girl to urchin, shuffling alone through the streets of Harlem, singing and dancing for small change, sleeping wherever she could find a night’s bed and board."

Read more at Prison Public Memory.