News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 2, 2013

Historical Treasure: Demetrius Ewing: African-American musician, businessman

Judy Francis
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — When I needed information about the Wee Hours Serenaders, Barbara Carney, the museum’s assistant director, went to the archives and located some articles from the 1970s about one of the group’s members, Demetrius Ewing. Not only did they highlight his musical talent, but they also described his life as a successful African-American businessman.

Demetrius “Dee” Ewing was a man who tailored his dreams. Born in Tennessee in 1921, Ewing came to Terre Haute with his family in 1921. He graduated from Wiley High School and attended Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University) for one year. In an interview, he recalled that the black students were permitted to socialize in only one room, located in the basement of the administration building.

Talented on both clarinet and saxophone, Ewing and some friends formed the Wee Hours Serenaders band. His musical idol was jazz musician Duke Ellington.

During World War II, Ewing enlisted and was assigned to a medical training battalion and used his musical talents to entertain at service clubs. While in the Army, he met his future wife, Mary Cox, a nurse.

After the war, Ewing played engagements with the Royal Syncopators. With a wife and son, he needed a day job. Irwin Jacobs, owner of the National Tailor’s Shop, hired him as a salesman. The two became friends, and when Jacobs died in 1956, his heirs sold the shop to Ewing. The shop, at 17 S. Sixth St., was one of Terre Haute’s most prestigious businesses.

Becoming the first African-American in Terre Haute to own a successful business was one of many firsts for Ewing. He was the first black person admitted to the local musicians’ union and the first to join the retail clerks’ union. He was also the first African-American to own a nursing home in Terre Haute. The Ewing Nursing Home was managed by his wife.

Ewing belonged to several civic organizations, including the Young Men’s Civic Club and the Pachyderm Club. Ewing died in 1989.

He noted in an interview that he believed he had lived to see a time when he was judged by his character and not by his skin color.