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Max Morath : Racism in Vaudville
Max Morath You couldn't play a legitimate white show as a black person playing black because of racism. As you get into -- one of the great unbelievable tragedies about the black performer in vaudeville is that black performers worked in blackface. Bert Williams, the greatest of them all, fabulously talented man, comedian, actor, composer, big good-looking six-foot-four guy worked in cork, burnt cork, his entire career, which ended in 1922. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel, his partner, were highly successful in vaudeville as early as about 1919 or 1920, and Mr. Blake was on record as saying that he and Mr. Sissel were the first to refuse to do that. They refused to go onstage in rags and cork. They worked in tuxedos.

Plessey versus Ferguson in the Supreme Court, which allowed separate but equal, was 1896 and it went into effect almost overnight. And by 1900, segregation, separate bathrooms, separate -- was in place. Jelly Roll Morton spoke of that. He said after '96, he said "The bigotry got bad." Now not that it wasn't there prior to that, but it was not legalistically so. And I don't think there's any question about the fact that that Supreme Court decision and all the ideology back of it and the tenor of the country and the attitude toward blacks which was manifested in that decision had greatly to do with what happened to black performers and blacks in general for the next 50 years. And certainly it manifested itself in show business in many dreadful ways.

The fact of the matter is that nobody thought it was terrible. I mean the coon song was out there being sung, being written by some blacks, too, by the way. One of the worst coon songs from our point of view today was in 1896 by a guy named Ernest Hogan, who was a prominent black composer and musician, called "All Coons Look Alike to Me". And it was a big hit. It was a terrible time from that point of view and the fact that everybody thought, "Well, it's okay." Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor worked in blackface clear into the 1920s.

Nobody thought about racism except black people. I'm sure they didn't like it, but it was an accepted thing. It's hard to speak about this today. It's hard to realize the day-to-day degradation that these people had to submit to. Now, meanwhile, it's very important to say this. And, again, 1900 becomes a pivotal year because Bert Williams and his partner, George Walker, are coming into New York from the West Coast. And New York, by 1900, has become the fulcrum. If it ain't published in New York, it probably isn't gonna make it in Des Moines. This has happened. So into New York come Bert Williams and his partner, George Walker, and a group of other black composers and librettists. And I've studied these men pretty closely. And I'm happy to -- to say that they were a number of cuts above most of the other Tin Pan Alley composers. I don't know whether it was because of the adversity that they faced or because they simply had more talent, and I'm not speaking necessarily about ragtime music. Some of them were involved in ragtime. Most of them were in the theatre. James Weldon Johnson, who went on to become an American ambassador and a major poet, was one of the first librettists as early as 1900.

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