Saluting Black History Month Black Vaudeville in America


By Ron Eldridge

Minstrels and Vaudeville was America’s early form of variety entertainment from the 1840s to the 1930s. First, let’s separate the difference between Minstrels and Vaudeville. 

Minstrels: Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in make-up or blackface for the purpose of play in the role of black people.

Vaudeville: had its origins in minstrel shows, concert-saloons, and beer gardens. Both terms referred to a program constructed from separate acts of several different types. Due to the racial and segregated
climate of America, not all was equal in the entertainment arena.

Thus the Black Vaudeville years were the early 1880s until the early 1930s. These acts were unique on the vaudeville scene because the performers brought in different experiences that the white performers could not convey. Although African-American performers were mistreated, African-Americans had to institute their own network of entertainment employment.

The Freeman was the first illustrated African-American newspaper. Subsidized by the Republican Party for some of its existence, the Freeman was a major part for the Black Vaudevillians and others to get gigs and keep up with one another.

Here are some notable firsts for African-Americans who helped shape the Black Vaudeville Landscape:

  • George W. Johnson: First African-American to record on wax cylinder (1890).
  • The Unique Quartette: The first African-American quartet to record commercially (1890).
  • The Standard: Was most noted for their portrayal of the South before the War. In the days of slavery, they recorded on wax cylinder (1891).
  • Bet Williams & George Walker: First African-American Vaudeville super stars – recording, comedians, song writers, actors – who performed in both black and white venues.
  • Cousins and DeMoss: Black Vaudevillians recorded with no name on the label, no catalog listing, or advertising (1890).
  • Thomas Craig: Billed as the “colored basso” recording artist (1898).
  • The Dinwiddie Quartet: An early African quartet formed to raise funds for Dinwiddie Normal & Industrial School and who performed in Vaudeville.
  • Carroll Clark: One of the most prolific African-American recording artist between 1908 to 1924. At least 40 sides on five major labels, performing plantation and dialect songs of the Old South.
  • Charlie Case: Passed as white during his Vaudevillian days. Noted as one of the highest paid acts single acts in Vaudeville.
  • Jack Johnson (boxing champion): Performed songs and acted on the Vaudeville stage to tell of his athletic conquest.
  • James Reese Europe: His 369th U.S. Infantry Hell Cats performed on the circuit.
  • Wilbur Sweatman: Known for playing three clarinets at one time. Performed on both stages.

The adversities that the Black Vaudevillians faced were trying and challenging. The antebellum, recon-
struction, the black code and the Jim Crow era all suppressed the African-American progress in America, especially among musicians and artists. These and other entertainers who endured should be commended for their courage and focus to be the first and best of who they were. I tip my hat to them all!

Ron Big “E” Eldridge is a Winston-Salem resident and aspiring freelance writer who frequently pens a Music Corner column about the local jazz and music scene.


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