This being Black History Month, I wanted to do another column or two about the subject, so I began thinking about all the black musicians that got their start at Terrell School learning to play various instruments. Then I began thinking about one in particular that has a connection with a very good friend of mine in Austin.

This being Black History Month, I wanted to do another column or two about the subject, so I began thinking about all the black musicians that got their start at Terrell School learning to play various instruments. Then I began thinking about one in particular that has a connection with a very good friend of mine in Austin.


Angela Smith wrote a book a couple of years ago, "Women Drummers, a History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country," and one of the women drummers that she spotlighted was none other than Helen Cole from Denison. I had the pleasure of recommending Helen to Angela when she was doing research for her book. They talked several times and Angela found Helen as interesting as I do.


Angela is presently serving as president of Texas Press Women and we have worked together for a number of years within the organization, National Federation of Press Women, state conferences and one national conference in San Antonio.


This was Angela’s second book, the first being on the history of the steel drums that she plays in gigs often in Austin where she and her husband, Charles, now live.


I met Helen after she had retired and moved back to Denison to care for her mother after a lengthy career traveling around the world playing her drums.


Helen had played French horn in high school but switched to drums "on a dare," Angela wrote in her book. When Helen was president of her senior class at Terrell, she came up with the idea of putting together a jazz band. She had a pianist, bass player and trumpet player, but needed a drummer.


When a classmate that she had asked to play the drums, refused, she told him, "All you have to do is get behind the drums," even though she had not played drums before. He told her that she should play then, so she ended up being the drummer in the school band. And then she went on to Prairie View College after graduating, where she was drummer with the Prairie View Co-Eds. Three others, Clora Bryant, Elizabeth Thomas and Margaret Bradshaw, all from Denison, had already been recruited for the Co-Eds. She said the band was the only way she had of trying to put herself through school.


Helen found that she really enjoyed being a drummer and she was off and running on a career that had her playing with the likes of the Duke Ellington orchestra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Tiny David’s Hell Divers. She even made an appearance at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City.


As they toured around the country, one gig was at a base here the Co-Eds played for black soldiers. The men were sitting up in trees and when the girl began playing, the guys turned loose and fell out of the trees yelling "That’s what I’m fighting for!"


She told the author that only once did she experience racial prejudice even though it was a problem with some of the other band members. That one time was when they were playing at a black club across the street from a white club somewhere she couldn’t remember. The owner of the white club would go over to hear the group and always invited them to come to his club.


One day a white guy with money came to their club and invited the band over to the white club for drinks. They accepted, but when they finished, the bartender took every glass and broke it in front of them. Suddenly everyone in the club began breaking glasses. Helen got up and said, "I’m leaving, you don’t have to break any more glasses for me." The bartender later apologized for the incident.


It was in 1976 that Helen returned to Denison. She enrolled in business school and earned her certificate, then got a job at Denison Memorial Hospital (now Texoma Medical Center) as switchboard operator. Soon after, she was able to complete her last year of college and earn her business degree in accounting. She then accepted a position as an accountant with Citizens National Bank (now Chase Bank), where she retired in 1986.


At age 86, when she was interviewed for the book she said she had "bad legs" that wouldn’t allow her to play drums anymore. However she kept up with the latest music and often downloaded tunes from the Internet.


Helen received both state and national recognition for her pioneering efforts in the music and performing arts industry during a time when blacks were often looked upon as uneducated second class citizens. In 2002, the Texas House of Representatives presented her with one of the state’s highest honors, the Dream Maker Award.


Not long after in 2007, she was recognized for her civilian efforts during World War II both in the U.S. and Europe when she was awarded the U.S. Army’s Commanders Award during a concert by the Jazz Ambassadors, the Army’s field band, at Eisenhower Auditorium in Denison. This award along with the Terrell High Alumni Foundation’s "Living Legend Award" also honored this talented drummer. She was due to receive the Black History Legend Award during the Black History family and friends day to be held at Bethel Community Baptist Church in 2014, but she passed away just prior to the event and it was given posthumously.


Helen died on Feb. 13, 2014, in Denison. She was an African-American woman who displayed courage by playing drums with a big band when diversity was not the popular thing to do. She was a pioneer who paved the way for female musicians today.


She would have been proud of being included in Angela’s book spotlighting female drummers for the world to read about her experiences. The book has received numerous awards and was published by Bowman and Littlefield. It is available on Amazon.


Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at donnahunt554@gmail.com.