In the first years of the 20th century, despite the humiliating constraints of social segregation, thousands of African Americans made a living in show business. In Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Manhattan’s Harlem, there were top-tier vaudeville houses that headlined Black acts for Black audiences, and the Theaters Owners Booking Association signed up Black acts for almost 100 smaller venues around the country that catered to Black audiences. There were night spots like the Cotton Club in Harlem that for White audiences mounted lavish all-Black musical revues and Harlem theaters for full-scale Black musicals.
But the pinnacle was Broadway. As early as 1900, there were all-Black musicals there, but the concept really took off after the Eubie Blake–Nobel Sissle musical Shuffle Along opened in 1921 and ran an astonishing 504 performances. Producers sensed that the high stepping and raucous humor associated with Black performers were a money maker, and over the next decade 22 more all-Black shows opened on Broadway. These shows slotted the Black performers into stereotypical roles of shuffling gait and slurred speech, but they also opened the door for dozens of performers to have lifelong careers that eventually allowed them more dignity.
The money woes of the Great Depression of the 1930s made it tough to find backers for any Broadway shows, and the Shuffle Along type minstrelsy all-Black show virtually disappeared. But by then, two important corners had been turned: top-billed performers such as Paul Robson and Ethel Waters had moved out of the racial show business ghetto to earn star billing in otherwise White shows, and the classic American operas Porgy and Bess and Four Saints in Three Acts had opened on Broadway, giving African Americans roles as complex three-dimensional human beings.
This story appeared in the 2023 Autumn issue of American History magazine.
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