African-American History Month – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – a dancer, an entertainer, a star, a Richmonder.  Robinson grew up in Richmond on May 25, 1879.   A fun fact that you may not know is that the name given to him was actually Luther, however Robinson bullied his younger brother, Bill, into switching names with him.

Robinson started dancing for a living at the young age of 5 in local beer gardens.  When he turned 9 he joined a touring group and later joined a vaudeville traveling company.  Robinson was very successful in nightclubs and musical comedies, however he was almost exclusively performing for African-American audiences.

Robinson took a break in his career during WWI, in which he served as a rifleman.  After the war he became very successful on Broadway.  His happy-go-lucky personality gave him the nickname, “Bojangles.”  His catchphrase, “Everything’s copacetic,” reinforced the nickname.  Eventually, his Broadway career turned into a Hollywood career in the 1930s.  Robinson starred in 14 motion pictures.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Jack Dabney, and Jesse Owens (1936)

Four of those 14 motion pictures were with Shirley Temple, whose official endorsed version doll is displayed in our new exhibit “A History of Richmond in 50 Objects”!  Her successful partnership with Bill Robinson in such films as The Little Colonel (1935) advanced both of their film careers while also breaking racial barriers – Robinson was the first African-American male to appear on film dancing with a Caucasian girl.  Although Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a very successful entertainer, he unfortunately was not able to rise above the stereotypical roles written for African-American actors in his time.

If you would like to learn more about Robinson and Shirley Temple’s work relationship, check out this blog on Huffington Post.