Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee had podcast buzzing last year with their acclaimed series Dolly Parton’s America. The hosts are sticking with music as they return with a new series for WNYC Studios. In a timely story of race and cultural appropriation, Abumrad and Oliaee will tell the story of Harry Pace, the founder of Black Swan Records, who despite having founded the first Black-owned record label is not widely known.
The series – which has been titled The Vanishing of Harry Pace – tells the story of the man who long before Motown founded Black Swan Records during the Harlem Renaissance. Pace, a protégé of W.E.B. DuBois, launched the career of artists such as Ethel Waters, partnered with W.C. Handy on a magazine, and was the first person to record “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” But one day Pace suddenly disappeared without a trace.
Pace, who was light-skinned, after decades of work devoted to Black empowerment and advancement, started passing for white. The podcast reveals how his wife and children, fearing scandal, secreted away his contributions to Black history, hiding him from view of even his own family.
“This is a story about how categories ultimately fail us,” said Abumrad. “Harry is such a complicated guy. He slips between binaries and doesn’t fit the neat boxes we check on the census. At a time when so many of us are questioning identities and rethinking the history that got us here, this story is both an important piece of history and a very contemporary story.”
WNYC Studios says the podcast was inspired by a book authored by Paul Slade about Pace’s life. The podcast is presented in collaboration with Joe Richman and Nellie Giles at Radio Diaries. The Vanishing of Harry Pace was crafted by a team of editorial advisors including writer Cord Jefferson, WNYC’s Senior Editor for the Race & Justice Unit Jami Floyd, WQXR air personality Terrance McKnight, author Kiese Laymon, and Princeton University African American Studies Professor Imani perry. The series also features interviews with over 40 interviews with family members, musicians, historians, writers and musicologists.
“It’s heartbreaking that the life of this maverick who collaborated with other civil rights pioneers to fight for Black self-determination and economic liberation on so many fronts has been lost for generations,” said Oliaee. “His story raises just as many questions as it delivers answers, about the toll of the fight, the personal stakes and sacrifices, and the cost of being deprived of one’s family and collective history. Harry Pace belongs in every account of American music and civil rights history.”
The podcast is presented in collaboration with Joe Richman and Nellie Giles at Radio Diaries. The Vanishing of Harry Pace will debut June 17 in the Radiolab feed with two episodes.