Richmond Story: Belle Bryan Day Nursery

All mothers work. But the title of “working mother” is now associated with contemporary history, tied to women’s employment. But mothers have always worked outside the home, especially mothers from poor households. Here in Richmond, major industries thrived on the exploitation of largely women workforces, both Black and white. Textile mills and some large operations within tobacco factories relied almost exclusively on women, who were paid very low wages to perform brutal jobs. Often, before child labor laws, children worked beside their mothers. If a child was too young to work, many factory-employed mothers left small children under poor supervision—sometimes by older children. Sometimes they had no choice but to leave their children unattended all day.

Female Tobacco Workers, Early 20th Century, Cook Collection 1138, The Valentine

A Richmond woman named Isobel “Belle” Lamont Stewart Bryan was well-aware of the struggles of working mothers. In 1887, Bryan helped to found the Richmond Woman’s Christian Association (later the YWCA), which provided women factory workers with hard-to-find safe, clean and affordable housing.  The RWCA also offered medical care, sewing classes, a library and religious instruction. As the daughter of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Belle Bryan did not have first-hand experience of economic hardship, so her concern for the plight of wage-earning women might seem surprising. She lived on a large estate on the North Side, called Brook Hill, and frequently traveled to Europe. And she undoubtedly had help raising her own six children. Perhaps her activism stemmed from what she witnessed at her father’s tobacco warehouse. Whatever the source, she quickly discerned that safe housing was not enough to help Richmond’s working women. In 1890, as chairman of the RWCA, she founded and chaired a free kindergarten and day nursery in the factory district for white children.

 

Belle Bryan Day Nursery opened at 6:30 a.m. and accepted babies as young as one month old. As the children arrived, they immediately received a bath and clean clothes. Their days included nourishing meals, nap time, play time, education and even medical exams by a nurse. For all this, mothers paid the small sum of 15 cents per week. And they could proceed to their long, exhausting workday with peace of mind, knowing that their children were safe and fed. The kindergarten was free. Of course, operating costs far exceeded 15 cents per week, per child, so Bryan became a tireless fundraiser. She received grants from City Council and larger charities, solicited churches and organized fundraisers to keep the charity afloat. Fancy dress balls at The Jefferson Hotel made charitable giving to the nursery a highly anticipated fashion event for Richmond’s elite families.

Belle Bryan Day Nursery, Circa 1919, Cook Collection 1207, The Valentine

In 1898, the nursery moved to rented quarters 201 N. 19th Street, where it remained for 45 years. By the 1950s, the nursery moved to a larger rented space downtown and charged on a sliding scale, according to need: from ten cents to two dollars a day. In 1961, the nursery erected its own building at 610 N. 9th Street to accommodate the 75 children in its care.

A rapidly changing downtown, however, began to cut the nursery off from its mission. Urban renewal throughout the 1960s had pushed many poor residents out. “Slum clearance” programs, highway construction and newly constructed superblocks of government buildings and parking lots turned a bustling city center into a white-collar business district. Factories moved to isolated suburban locations. Citing these changes, the Belle Bryan Day Nursery ceased operations in 1971. The progressive charity had been ahead of its time for 80 years and it closed just as Women’s Liberation Movement began to take off and the term “working mother” took on a whole new meaning.

Richmond Story: Smallpox Vaccine

Today, all Virginians 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID vaccine! Are you hesitant, skeptical or afraid? Maybe a little vaccine history will put your mind at ease.

The world’s first vaccine was developed to combat smallpox. Highly contagious and one of the deadliest diseases in human history, it killed three out of every ten of its victims. And it was widespread. Smallpox affected all classes—royalty, soldiers, enslaved people—but was particularly devastating to Indigenous people.  In Virginia, smallpox was introduced by Jamestown settlers, and by 1700, the disease had already killed 75% of the Indigenous population, nearly wiping out the once powerful Powhatan Nation.

Regular smallpox outbreaks swept through Richmond from the 18th to the first part of the 20th century. Before 1796, doctors used a crude precursor to inoculation, called variolation, to try to control the spread. With variolation in the United States and Europe, a scab from someone infected with smallpox would be inserted under the skin of a healthy individual. During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington made sure his soldiers were treated with variolation. The procedure, in addition to being disgusting, could backfire. Variolation could lead to a deadly case. But soldiers so feared smallpox that if no medical supervision was available, it was not unheard of to simply lance a scab from an infected comrade and self-variolate.

This was the state of things before 1796, when an English scientist named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox seemed immune from smallpox.  From there, he developed an effective smallpox vaccine from the slightly less disgusting, much less deadly sores of infected cows.

By 1800, Henrico County granted the first license for a smallpox inoculation clinic, at the estate of John Tabb near Richmond. During the 19th century, Richmond offered free vaccinations for its citizens. Doctors would receive dried cow scabs, along with instructions on how to administer them. This 1861 instruction sheet from Virginia’s vaccine agent, Dr. A.E. Peticolas, shows that the early vaccine was not administered by needle, but by rubbing the powdered scabs into a section of skin scratched raw by the doctor. Ouch!

Despite the pain and the ick factor, the vaccine was widely administered. After years of vigorous public health campaigns, smallpox was eliminated from the U.S. in 1949. It was eradicated from the world by 1980. It is the only disease to have been completely eliminated through vaccination, though hopefully not the last.

With modern advances, it is easier than ever to distribute vaccines quickly and on a mass scale. The more people who receive the COVID vaccine, the more chance we have to one day eradicate this new disease. And in 2021, we don’t have to deal with scabs as part of the inoculation process.

A sterile needle and some mRNA doesn’t seem so daunting now, does it?

Richmond Story: Easter Styles

History is change. Traditions, values, awareness, power dynamics, fashion and social norms all change as time passes. This past year, so much history has been made and so many things have changed before our eyes.

On this Easter Sunday, however, there is one thing we can say we hope never changes. And that is the tradition of stepping up and stepping out for Easter. From the time of this city’s founding, Richmonders from varying backgrounds have donned their best on this holiday. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite historic photos of Easter styles on display in Richmond—from Lakeside to Jackson Ward to Southside to Oregon Hill to the Fan.

Easter Greetings from “Kitty”, 1892, FIC.037880, The Valentine

 

Easter at 100 W. Orange St., 1954, V.79.120.1660, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

 

Mrs. Bowis and Girls on Easter, Circa 1950, V.89.293.86, Tyree Family Collection, The Valentine

 

Easter Sunday at 1200 St. John St., Corner Coutts St., 1954, V.79.120.1005.01, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

 

Easter, 1955, Terry Hoffman, V.2017.15.14, Hoffmann Family Photograph Collection, The Valentine

 

Easter Morning at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1956, V.91.42.669, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

 

Easter Sunday at Maymont Park, April 10, 1966, Carl Lynn, V.67.32.26, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

 

The Woolard Family on Easter, 1967, V.2015.90.116, The Valentine

 

Easter on Parade, 1983, V.85.37.3036, Bob Brown, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

 

Easter on Parade, 1994, V.2007.61.1755, The Valentine

 

We hope these archival gems inspire you to shed your pandemic sweatpants, put on your best outfit and (safely) venture outside!

Richmond Story: Mary Munford

As Women’s History Month kicks off, we wanted to use this week’s Richmond Story blog to discuss Mary-Cook Branch Munford.

Munford once wrote to a friend: “Education has been my deepest interest from my girlhood, beginning with an almost passionate desire for the best in education for myself, which was denied because it was not the custom for girls in my class to receive a college education at that time. This interest has grown with my growth and strengthened with each succeeding year in my life.”

Mary-Cooke Branch at 17, 1882, V.46.03.14, The Valentine

Around the time this picture was taken of Mary-Cooke Branch in 1882, she was pleading with her mother to attend college. Though her Richmond family was prominent and wealthy enough to afford tuition, her mother refused. Her mother agreed with public opinion that the education of women was not only unnecessary, but downright scandalous. And so, Mary went to a finishing school instead—the common fate of most wealthy daughters at the time. Finishing school taught social graces and etiquette. Academic studies there largely aimed to make women interesting conversationalists for prospective husbands.

Undeterred, in the 1890s, Branch founded a women’s discussion group to harness the resources, influence and energies of other Richmond socialites for the greater good. But her efforts to talk about Jackson Ward’s sewage and hookworm problem over tea did not appeal to most members. The meetings inevitably devolved into finishing school-style conversations about poetry. Clever as she was, Branch did put her “husbandry degree” to good use. By 1893, she had attracted Beverly Bland Munford, a local lawyer and state legislator with a reputation for social activism. In this marriage, Mary Cooke-Branch Munford was much more than a conversationalist. She was a co-conspirator.  The couple would combine their talents and wills to fight educational discrimination by sex, race and class in Virginia and throughout the South.

In 1901, the Munfords and four other women founded the Richmond Education Association. The group raised awareness for the need for public schools for both Black and white children. Child labor was still the norm and, at the time, the state’s public education system was so sparse and underfunded that it was inaccessible to most Virginians. Wanting to expand her activism beyond Richmond’s borders, Munford also became president of the Cooperative Education Association, which sought to expand public education in rural areas. She traveled through the South as part of an interracial coalition to lobby governments and provoke citizens to demand more for their children. She co-founded the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls and served on its board of trustees. With these efforts, Munford helped to build new rural high schools, improve teacher training and establish agricultural and industrial schools in areas that had severely lacked in formal education.

When Munford’s husband died in 1910, she shifted her tactics from stoking public support for educational progress to provoking Virginia legislators directly. She likely learned a great deal about how power works from Beverly, who had served as both a state senator and a state delegate. At this time, Virginia funded four colleges to educate men, though none for women. Any woman with academic aspirations who wanted to further her education went to one the state normal schools, to be trained as teachers. Normal schools lacked accreditation and ranked far below college standards.

No doubt Munford had her own college dreams in mind when she created the Co-ordinate College League. The sole mission of this body was to lobby the General Assembly to build a sister college for women at the University of Virginia. Shrewdly, she argued that improving women’s education would improve men’s education as well, since most teachers of boys were, in fact, women. Despite opposition from lawmakers and the school itself, she mustered significant public support and incessantly revived the issue before the General Assembly. All efforts—in 1910, 1912, 1914, 1916, and 1918—failed.  In 1916, the measure failed by only two votes. Her persistence finally paid off when the legislators caved and agreed to admit women to William and Mary in 1918. Two years later, the college appointed Munford as the first woman on their Board of Visitors. She would also serve as a trustee of the Black college, Fisk University. UVA granted her a place on their Board of Visitors in 1926, though the school would not admit women as undergraduates until 1970.

In 1920, Munford became the first woman to serve on Richmond’s School Board. Mary Munford Elementary was named after her in 1951, 13 years after her death. And though her most lasting impact remains on Virginia’s educational system, Munford’s activism was multi-faceted. From suffrage to labor to race relations, she fought for improved equality—although, notably, she never targeted segregation itself. She held office or influential appointments in several other progressive organizations throughout her life, including the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, the YWCA, the National Child Labor Committee, the National Urban League, the regional Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the Virginia Inter-Racial Committee and many others. All this, she accomplished without a formal education and with two children. But if her finishing school education has taught us one thing it is that a woman cannot be finished—if she doesn’t want to be.

Richmond Story: Lillian Payne and the Independent Order of St. Luke

“Who is so helpless as the negro woman? Who is so circumscribed and hemmed in—in the race of life, in the struggle for bread, meat, and clothing—as the negro woman?” In 1901, when Maggie Walker made this statement, Black women in Richmond had few employment opportunities outside of domestic service, factory work or agricultural labor. Walker, the daughter of a laundress, once claimed that she herself had been born with “a laundry basket on my head.” Her mother’s endless hours, and the painful scrubbing with grated skin and harsh chemicals had made a deep impression on her. And though her public education spared her from this fate, the best job society could offer an educated woman—Black or white—was that of a teacher. Walker did teach but was forced to retire when she got married.

The double bind of racism and sexism that Black women experienced compelled Walker to create new economic opportunities when she took over leadership of the Independent Order of St. Luke in 1899. At the time, it was a beneficial society for burial insurance. But under her leadership, the IOSL expanded into Black banking, Black publishing, Black retail and other ventures meant to service an underserved community. Black women were the driving force of that expansion. Some departments within the organization were advertised as being run exclusively by women. Walker, in fact, was not the only woman to succeed within St. Luke Hall. Many others —Lelia Bankett, Emeline Johnson, Ella O. Waller—many not be so well known, but were still vital to the victories of the Independent Order of St. Luke. And they proved to a sexist and racist world that successful Black women were not an anomaly, but an inevitability.

Office of the Independent Order of St. Luke, Circa 1900, V.88.20.31, Independent Order of St. Luke Collection, The Valentine

One of the many women instrumental to the IOSL’s success was Lillian Payne, a lifelong Richmonder. A former teacher like Walker, she came into the organization’s employ in 1900. Over a career there that lasted more than 50 years, Payne served in many roles, including financial secretary, home office manager, managing editor of the St. Luke Herald and director of the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank. At the bank, she led the Finance Committee, which underwrote thousands of mortgages for Black Richmonders.  With a creative side as well, she also wrote and directed many of the IOSL’s public pageants. 

Payne’s work on the weekly St. Luke Herald, however, would be her most powerful contribution to the IOSL. The Herald was written, edited and printed at IOSL headquarters. As a clerk in the St. Luke’s Printing Department, Payne corrected the first proof of the first edition in March of 1902. Initially, the purpose of the paper was to communicate and coordinate IOSL matters across an expanding number of councils across the nation. But in 1902, the same year the paper launched, Virginia lawmakers rewrote the state constitution, disenfranchising Black voters. The Herald responded with its first editorial, which laid out the new publication’s mission: to fight. The staff vowed to fight Jim Crow, voter suppression, educational suppression and all forms of racial injustice. Within five years, Payne rose from first clerk to managing editor.

As they spread awareness of racial injustice and coordinated economic boycotts, Payne and the St. Luke Herald’s staff also amplified the IOSL message of economic uplift, advertising benefits and opportunities within the organization. With Payne as manager, the next decade brought in thousands of new subscribers. By 1929, the IOSL had 100,000 members in 24 states and the Herald became Richmond’s leading Black newspaper, with 30% of Black Richmond families subscribing.

Lillian Payne Retires (Payne in center), Scott Henderson, Circa 1955, V.88.20.81, Independent Order of St. Luke Collection, The Valentine

As a newspaper editor and bank director, Payne had attained power, influence and success rarely available to even white women at the time. Her rise was made possible by the visionary, feminist employment structure of the IOSL, which sought to untie the double bind of sexism and racism. But the most impressive feat of the organization may not be its wildly successful women leaders like Walker and Payne. Perhaps even more revolutionary, though much more subtle, was the chance the IOSL gave to a larger number of ordinary Black women, who did not have the educational opportunities that they had had. By the early 20th century, educational opportunities for Black Richmonders had dwindled since the Freedmen’s era of the 1870s. Despite this, the IOSL made it possible for Black women who wanted to live ordinary lives to earn a good living in respectful and respectable jobs. In the 1920s, you could walk into the St. Luke Hall on a weekday and see more than 50 Black women working away: clerks, assistants, stenographers, field employees, recruiters, community organizers, accountants, underwriters and cashiers. From there, a substantial Black middle class began to rise in Richmond.

Richmond Story: First African Baptist Church

In the antebellum era, the Baptist church was popular in southern African American communities in part because it conferred more rights to Black members than other denominations. Often, Baptist churches offered free and enslaved Blacks full membership, and sometimes even administrative roles. This may be difficult to imagine now, but many Baptists churches at that time were not only integrated, but claimed many more Black members than white. In Richmond, this was indeed the case. By 1840, 400 white Baptists worshipped regularly with 2,000 Black Baptists. Membership, however, did not mean equality.  Black congregants could not hold leadership roles and were consigned to segregated seating. This double imbalance—with greater numbers and lesser rights—emboldened Richmond’s Black community to finally demand a church of their own—an unprecedented undertaking that would lead to more unprecedented demands for autonomy, justice, self-governance, freedom and, eventually, the full rights of citizenship.

But in 1840, when Black members of First Baptist Church asked their white deacons for permission to form their own congregation, the simple idea of Black assembly seemed far off.  Nine years before, in 1831, Nat Turner’s rebellion had made white Virginians terrified of Blacks convening at all.  And since Turner had been a preacher, the act of unsupervised Black worship had been deemed even more of a threat. For this, the General Assembly had specifically banned independent Black worship and Black preachers, a law enforced with whipping. These restrictions were still in affect when the deacons of First Baptist Church agreed to the radical proposition.

To accommodate state law, the establishment of an all-Black church in Richmond had qualifications. First and foremost, the new church had to be led by a white preacher, appointed by an all-white Baptist board of male overseers. Secondly, the church’s constitution and any changes to the document had to be approved by that body. Services could only be held during daylight hours.

First African Baptist Church, 1860s, Cook0287, The Valentine

Within a year, First African Baptist Church raised $7,500 to buy the brick building that had housed their parent church, First Baptist. Though white members gave generously to the fund, Black members, including many who were enslaved, contributed more than half the amount. The building on College Street at Broad was theirs. And within it, 940 members who held virtually no power in the city could aggregate their skills and passions into a powerful institution that served the needs of Richmond’s Black community. The potential became clear very soon, as their appointed white pastor, Robert Ryland, granted Black members a lot of leeway in managing their own institution.

Ryland was no abolitionist. In fact, he routinely preached about the submission of servants to masters. One enslaved congregant, Henry “Box” Brown, who would mail himself to freedom in a wooden box, later recalled that Ryland relished in these calls for submission. Maybe it was a ruse to pacify white anxiety—maybe not. In practice, though, Ryland allowed the 30 Black deacons (elected by Black congregants) to coordinate church activities, handle finances, regulate membership, run the administration and more with little interference. He allowed the members to elect “assistant preachers.” The white overseers, too, rarely intervened in these matters. Perhaps these glimmers of autonomy for an otherwise highly controlled community was what caused the membership of FABC to nearly double in its first year.

Ryland began his services with an opening prayer. Often, he’d call on one of the elected assistant preachers to stand up and give this opening prayer. Then, perhaps 30 minutes later, that same opening prayer was still going on, sounding less like a prayer and more like a full sermon. In this way, Black preachers slyly claimed the right to preach to Black congregants in Richmond. One of these assistant preachers Ryland routinely called upon was John Jasper, who would later gain national fame for his sermonizing and founding Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church here in Richmond.

The independent structure of the Baptist Church in general allowed First African Baptist Church to forge local partnerships and committees, pouring their resources into causes that uplifted and empowered the Black community. They formed mutual beneficial societies and aided those in poverty. With so much poverty and suffering in their own community, the church was nevertheless liberal in their charity.  Members—both enslaved and free—raised money to aid the victims of the 1840s Irish Potato Famine.

One of the more extraordinary developments within the First African Baptist Church was the creation of a community court to mediate disputes and handle discipline. At the time, outside the church’s walls, a Black person was not allowed to testify in court or have a jury trial. An enslaved person could not pursue justice without the approval of a master and, even if justice prevailed, compensation went to that master. With little faith in the white-run government court system just a few blocks away, FABC members found that the justice meted out by their Black deacons was much more fair and compassionate, albeit very strict. It was also cheaper than hiring a lawyer.  And so the FABC court tried cases ranging from adultery to theft to immoral dancing. They also heard complaints against insulted honor or shame. Amazingly, an enslaved congregant could seek justice for the most fundamental and yet most elusive of human rights denied to them in the outside world: dignity.

At their harshest, the FABC court could revoke church membership. While That may not seem exceedingly strict, being cast out from an institution with such reach and resources and thrown into a world where you hold no rights at all, could seem like a death sentence.

First African Baptist Church, built 1876, Circa 1930, V.86.153.726, Richmond Chamber of Commerce Collection, The Valentine

The loosely democratic structure of the church—only free males could vote—prepared some in the Black community for wider government participation. And though enslaved members could not vote on church matters, they had agitated for that right for years, which initiated them into the practice of democratic protest. So with emancipation in 1865, FABC was perfectly poised to harness and direct Black ambition during such a chaotic time. In 1867, they hired their first Black pastor, Dr. James H. Holmes, who had been born into slavery. Membership exploded and the congregation outgrew their building yet again (they had already split to create Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1858). They demolished the brick building and built a new one in its place in 1876. That building, with its grand Doric columns, still stands today, though the congregation moved to Barton Heights in 1955. With full Black control, the church fostered new generations of Black leadership—John Mitchell, Daniel Webster Davis and Doug Wilder were counted amongst its members.

But the legacy of First African Baptist amounts to much more than its illustrious members. In the radical act of fostering dignity in a population that legally had no claim to it, the church empowered everyday people to demand more for themselves and more for their community. Dignity was the first and most important step for everyone: young and old, enslaved and free, male and female. Church leaders knew this above all else.

Around 1875, the FABC Sunday school teacher noticed a dirty, disheveled little girl of about ten years old, playing on the sidewalk outside the church. He invited her to join the Sunday School and she accepted the offer, coming in for the first time, though she only lived a block away. As the teacher’s son later recalled, “The little girl liked what she found, and next Sunday, clean and neat as a pin, she came back.” The little girl who made that small yet dignified step would soon rise through the leadership ranks of the church.  She’d cut her teeth there on civic, business, and political engagement. Her name was Maggie L. Walker.

Stay tuned for another in-depth and fascinating blog exploring another Richmond Story as a part of Black History Month on Sunday, February 21!

 

Black History Month 2021 Gallery Guide

We are excited to provide all Valentine visitors with this gallery guide (both at our front desk and for download HERE) that highlights a selection of the objects, images and stories on display across our galleries that help tell the diverse history of Richmond’s Black community.

This Black History Month Gallery Guide focuses on objects in our lobby, our permanent exhibition and across the museum. Yet it’s important to remember that even as we celebrate, we must work to tell these stories all year long. Confronting our uncomfortable past both as an institution and across our region is central to our mission.

We hope you will use the 2021 Black History Month Gallery Guide as a jumping off point; one that will inspire you to further explore the Valentine and other area cultural institutions to learn even more about the history and contributions of Richmond’s Black community.

Richmond Story: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Black History is Richmond history. From Richmond’s founding in 1737 to the present day, Black Richmonders not only built this city with their hands, but  also indelibly shaped its politics, religion, entertainment, businesses and institutions. As we get closer to Black History Month, the next few posts will highlight Black Richmonders who have done just that. In some cases, their influence has spread beyond Richmond. In others, the impact comes not an from individual, but a collective of everyday people. Of course, while it’s impossible to adequately represent the breadth of Black influence, but we will endeavor to tell fascinating, complicated and important stories about Black Richmonders.  The first of these subjects was an entertainment giant who gained worldwide fame on the big screen, though he started out as a little boy shelling peas for two cents a basket at the 17th Street Market.

Birthplace of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, 915 N. 3rd Street, Circa 1950, V.79.120.1094.01, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

Luther Robinson was born in 1878 in a small wooden house on 3rd Street in Jackson Ward. Orphaned early in his childhood, he was raised by his grandmother, a formerly enslaved woman. Black Richmonders had few educational opportunities, and Luther had to blaze his own path early on. At the age of five, he began dancing for pennies on the sidewalk. By seven, he had snagged his first role as a dancer in a traveling show. These early years elude a hard historical record, as the origins of cultural giants often do. Some accounts show him running away to D.C. at the age of nine to dance full time, while others place him in Richmond dancing in local beer gardens at that age. No matter the specifics, we do know that by the time he was a teenager, Luther had changed his name to Bill and was established in Black vaudeville circuits around D.C. Among his friends, he had also earned a nickname— Bojangles—for his contentious attitude. This nickname and its future contradictions would perfectly encapsulate his blockbuster career that has been called both groundbreaking and retrograde, both defiant and subservient.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s dance career unfolded at a peculiar time in this nation’s history—the forces of segregation were rising at the same time as the appeal of Black entertainment. Popular, everyday entertainment began to threaten the “color line.” For this, many laws and industry norms dictated what Black performers could do, for whom they could perform, where they could perform and with whom they could perform. Blackface was still popular and even expected of Black artists. The “two-colored” vaudeville rule prevented Black performers from appearing alone onstage. Because of these restrictions, from 1902 until 1914, Robinson was required to have an onstage partner. He also danced almost exclusively in Black theaters for Black audiences. But, during this time, he pioneered a new form of tap-dancing. His style was elegant, quick and mesmerizing to behold.

Into the 20th century, white audiences grew less content to watch white performers going through the motions in front of more skilled Black background dancers.  So the astonishingly talented Robinson and his partner, George W. Cooper, attracted notice. They soon became so popular that the duo began to flout the rules of segregation. They performed in white-only venues in addition to Black venues. By World War I, Robinson went solo. In 1918, he became one of the few Black performers to headline a show at the prestigious Palace Theater, in New York. At that show, he introduced his new “stair dance,” in which he danced up and down a staircase not only with dizzying ease and skill, but also producing different rhythms and tones on each step. It was a masterpiece of showmanship that would make him world famous, which you can watch here.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Jack Dabney, and Jesse Owens, 1936, V.99.61.15, The Valentine

In the 1930s, As Robinson broke down barriers of segregation with sheer talent, he found himself breaking out of the vaudeville world and into the stages of Broadway and Hollywood. But more complicated barriers arose in tandem with his stardom. In these worlds, he was limited to the roles written for him by white writers.  Unsurprisingly, they were nearly always stereotypical. His most famous and frequent role was that of a cheerful, enslaved butler dancing alongside Shirley Temple. The pair made four movies together.

With fame, Robinson’s nickname ‘Bojangles’ took on an ironic meaning. Initially derived from the term ‘jangler”—an argumentative, angry person—white fans began to associate his nickname with the smiling, docile roles written for him. The nickname itself then became a stereotype of Black servility, even though Robinson was famous among his friends for his temper, his gambling and for carrying a gold-plated pistol.

In defiance of both interpretations of his nickname, however, Robinson was not complacent when it came to race relations, nor was he hard-hearted. Though he made millions over the course of his career, he gave away vast amounts to Black charities in Harlem, where he lived.  In one year alone, he performed in four hundred benefits. He was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He even co-founded a Negro League baseball team, the New York Black Yankees. Visiting Richmond in 1931, he joined Maggie Walker’s Independent Order of St. Luke. While here in 1933, he witnessed Black children attempting a dangerous intersection in Jackson Ward in order to get to school. He contacted the city and paid all costs to install a set of traffic lights at the intersection—the first traffic light “North of Broad.” For this act of charity, Richmond would later get its first monument to a Black citizen, in 1973, in Robinson’s honor at that intersection. But after a lifetime of charitable acts just like that one, Robinson died penniless in 1949, at the age of 71.

Ceremony at Bill Bojangles Robinson Monument, 6/24/1986, V.91.04.1032, Richmond Newspapers, Inc., The Valentine

Robinson died a decade before the first modern civil rights movement in this country. He never saw a lunch counter sit-in. That is important to keep in mind when discussing his legacy. He may have performed in stereotypical roles, but his mere presence in mainstream movies in the 1930s was a revolution in itself. He bucked plenty of trends that threatened to limit his career: he never performed in blackface, he performed solo, he performed with white performers and before white audiences before any of these things were considered acceptable. But what does it mean that most Americans remember him as a smiling, antebellum butler? One can imagine that it was a very skillful, difficult way of moving ahead—an optical illusion—through hostile territory.

 

Ps- The “stairs dance” is as amazing as it sounds and worth watching:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtHvetGnOdM

Richmond Story: the Gibson Girl

There’s a good chance you’re reading this right now in sweatpants. If you feel any shame in the frumpiness that has defined 2020, you’ll likely feel better after considering other eras in fashion history that were not so comfy. One punishing fashion in particular—the Gibson Girl look—has its roots in Richmond history.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, writers and culture-makers in America began to sell the idea of a “New Woman.” Post-Victorian, white, liberated, talented, educated, athletic, opinionated, politically-active, superior and stunningly beautiful, this new American woman infiltrated newspapers, magazines and advertising. She was the exact opposite of the pure and immobilized Southern Belle. She hiked, painted, played tennis, wrote serious poetry, played the violin, could hail a taxi and crack dry jokes. 

The New Woman trend did help to make real ambitious women acceptable and even fashionable in mainstream society. But what made the image so popular was not simply her superhero talents, but the fact that she could do this all effortlessly, while laced into a corset, balancing a top-heavy hairstyle and dragging a long skirt. At least the corseted, cinched-up Southern Belle wasn’t expected to climb mountains! Ironically, though she had shed bustles and hoopskirts, the liberated New Woman was still tightly bound to a very narrow visual ideal of beauty.   

Warning: there will be more ironic turns before this post is through.

Illustration from Everyday People, Charles Dana Gibson, 1904, V.72.109, The Valentine

The symbol of this ideal came to be called the Gibson Girl, named after Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator from Massachusetts who is credited with creating her image in the early 1890s. Gibson’s illustrated women were wasp-waisted, with a big, flounced hairstyle that implied a hasty solution amid a flurry of activities. She often appeared bored and superior to her suitors and her surroundings, even the mountains she scaled. And all this—from her disdain to her sporting records—the Gibson Girl doled out with absolute grace.

 In what some scholars call the first American fashion craze, real women began to model themselves on the Gibson look, which in turn became a satirical cartoon of their ambitions. The floppy hair, the bored expression, and the impossible waist dominated American fashion for decades, until World War I.  But what real woman could possibly embody all that the fictional Gibson Girl represented?  Could a woman of such beauty, talent, brains, artistry, ambition, fitness, and grace possibly exist?

In another twist of irony and fate, Charles Dana Gibson himself found one. Her name was Irene Langhorne. She was from Richmond. And he married her.

Irene Langhorne was born in 1873, in Danville. Like many families in post-war Virginia, her family struggled financially. But Irene’s father eventually struck success in the railroad industry and he moved his family to Richmond. Here, Irene received the best private education available to girls at the time.

Irene Langhorne, Late 19th Century, P.71.47.61, The Valentine

With her poise, beauty and charm, she became popular among Virginia’s illustrious social circles. Of course, she dressed and cinched herself in the popular Gibson style. Then, Irene’s fame crossed state lines. In 1893, she was invited to lead the grand march at the Patriarch’s Ball in New York City—one of the most prestigious social events in the country at the time. She was the first Southern woman to do so. A year later, in 1894, she was seated next to Charles Dana Gibson at a dinner in New York. He had already gained notoriety with his Gibson Girl illustrations and now found himself sitting next to a woman who so closely resembled his fantasy. They were married in 1895 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond.

The newly-wedded Gibsons moved to New York City, where Charles continued to draw with his wife as his main model. The woman who had fashioned herself after the style developed by her husband’s hand had now become a real life model for his future drawings. As for Irene, she dedicated herself to progressive politics—a fitting vocation for a New Woman. At first, she was simply acting out the ideal. As she admitted in late interviews, she first got into politics “for fun.” But she soon developed a true passion fighting for government aid for the underserved, especially children, and for politics. She helped to found Big Sisters, campaigned for women’s suffrage, built an orphanage, and chaired the Eastern Women’s Bureau of the Democratic National Committee. During the first World War, she worked with the Red Cross and was appointed by New York City’s mayor to chair the Committee on Local Defense. 

By the 1920s, the Gibson Girl look had been overtaken by the flapper craze—a loose style defined by its lack of corsets. Though critics labeled it a silly party-girl fashion, it was quite plainly a style that allowed more comfortable movement through the world. But Irene Langhorne Gibson and other successful women proved that the New Woman had outgrown the male fantasy as a mere fashion trend. She and others ensured that new generations of New Women were here to stay, no matter how they dressed—even if they wore sweatpants.

Richmond Story: The 1811 Richmond Theater Fire

In the 19th century, theater was the primary public entertainment for all socioeconomic classes, from the gentry to the enslaved. To meet the high demand and keep fresh faces and talent in rotation, traveling theater companies roamed the country, stopping for months-long stints in cities before moving on to the next place. Thus embedded in a city for a season, the actors and actresses became temporary citizens and minor celebrities among the population. 

In August of 1811, the Placide and Green Company, from South Carolina, arrived for a season in Richmond.  Among them was an English actress named Eliza Poe. At the Richmond Theater at Broad and 12th Streets, the company performed different plays several nights a week. Wealthier Richmonders paid a dollar to sit in front of the stage, or in suspended boxes above the crowd.  Less well-to-do attendees, including the enslaved, could sit in the balcony for 25 cents. A typical night’s entertainment could last five hours, with two full-length plays separated by short skits. 

The Richmond Theater seated 500, though the December holiday season strained its capacity.  On December 26, with the General Assembly in session, the evening’s performance had drawn 600 spectators to the 3-storey brick theater.  In a town of only 10,000, that was 6% of the population. State legislators and even the Virginia Governor George W. Smith came. The second play that night was a “pantomime”—a musical slapstick production—called The Bleeding Nun. For this, 80 children were also in attendance for the performance that would quickly become the deadliest urban disaster in American history at the time.

538.01, The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, on the night of the 26th December 1811, Drawn February 25, 1812, The Valentine

After the end of the first act of The Bleeding Nun, a crew member accidentally raised an onstage chandelier that had not been snuffed out.  The flames caught on 34 suspended hemp backgrounds, painted with oil. Within a few minutes, the roof of the theater was engulfed in flames.

The poorly designed theater had few exits. The discount seats in the balcony and the stage had separate doors, but those on the floor and in the boxes could find no easy way out. The fire spread so fast and became so hot so quickly that witnesses claimed people died in their seats, overcome by shock. The wealthier patrons in the upper boxes packed the only small staircase, which collapsed. Historians estimate that the temperature inside rose to 1,000 degrees.  In the chaos, trapped on the second and third storeys, burning people threw themselves out of the windows.

Despite acts of heroism by both the enslaved and the elite, rescue was utterly impossible for many of those trapped.  The entire building burned to the ground too quickly.  Seventy-two people died in the Richmond Theater that night—including 54 women and girls. 

Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved man who personally rescued 12 women from the upper windows, returned to the scene the next morning: “There lay, piled together, one mass of half-burned bodies—the bodies of all classes and conditions of people—the young and the old, the bond and the free, the rich and the poor, the great and the small, were all lying there together.”

Governor Smith was only identifiable by a stock buckle.

A stunned city went into mourning as news of the horrific disaster spread around the world.  With so many of the dead burned beyond recognition, the victims were all entombed together on the spot, over which Monumental Church was soon built as a memorial. Richmond officials prohibited any plays, balls or assemblies for four months in respect for the dead. With their contract thus cut short, the shocked, embarrasse, and traumatized Placide and Green company quickly cleared out of town.

They did, however, leave one person behind. Just a few weeks before the fire, one of company’s star players, Eliza Poe, had died of an illness in a boarding house here.  he left behind a three-year-old boy named Edgar.  A prominent local family, the Allans, adopted him and made him a wealthy Richmonder overnight. Many believed this to be a fortunate turn for the impoverished orphan, though perhaps Richmonders could never quite shake his association with so much death and destruction.  Perhaps that shadow followed him all of his life.