This is the grave of Bill Robinson.
Born in 1878 in Richmond, Virginia, Luther Robinson grew up in the aftermath of slavery and the failures of Reconstruction. His parents both died of 1884, his dad evidently of a heart attack but we have no idea what happened to his mother. In any case, a grandmother raised him and his siblings after that point. From the time he was a tiny boy, about five years old, Robinson made money dancing. It might seem mythological that a five year old was good enough as a dancer to make money outside hotels, but then we’ve all seen little kids that actually do dance well, even if they will never become legends like Robinson, and then you add in the cuteness and the racial paternalism that could get whites to throw a few coins at a small Black child and it seems more plausible.
Naturally, this moved into work at minstrel shows. The way this operated was that the minstrel shows featured primarily white performances in blackface, but then they would hire children to be on the sidelines to provide “authenticity” or whatever. So that was Robinson’s job. It was work I guess. But such things would be something Robinson could never escape from due to the times in which he worked. He was a small boy and he worked as a jockey for awhile too after splitting for Washington D.C. in about 1890. While there, he met Al Jolson, several years younger than he, who would become the most famous blackface performer of his time and they worked together some on the streets.
Robinson did take a brief break from dancing in 1898, when he volunteered for the Spanish-American War. He was soon shot by a second lieutenant incompetently cleaning a gun. Luckily it did not kill him or debilitate his ability to dance. He recovered and went to New York. This was at the time that vaudeville was rising and there were few entertainers in the country better equipped to do well in vaudeville than Robinson. He was an astounding dancer, he could sing, he could handle his role in a comedy duo, basically he did what he needed to do to make a buck and he had been doing so since he was a small child. He became famous in 1900 for winning a dance contest in New York, just blowing away the competition. That led to steady work. He could now easily get work in a vaudeville show on the road, where he could show off his amazing moves.
Most of this at this time was in biracial acts for white people. Yep, blackface was still central to Robinson’s world. He did make friends in the white world and they supported him. The well-known white vaudeville performer Rae Samuels worked to sell him as a solo act, the first time a Black act was able to perform as a solo performer in front of whites, in 1914. Soon after, Robinson was one of the highest paid people in entertainment, earning up to $3500 a week if he worked enough. He performed for free for troops of all races during World War I, even though the government was willing to pay. After the war, Robinson spent most of his time based of Chicago, where he could pack audiences desperate to see the master. He was basically inventing modern tap dancing through his nightly performances. He didn’t invent the entire genre of course, but he advanced it so significantly that it was completely different because of him.
There was so much Black talent working in the 1920s that whites realized other white people would actually want to be entertained by them instead of by blackface performers. Imagine that. After a bit of a rough start, Blackbirds of 1928 starring Robinson became a huge Broadway hit and then Brown Buddies (these titles are just brutal to even type today) in 1930 was the same. In 1939, Robinson had his biggest stage success in the Gilbert and Sullivan play The Hot Mikado, where he took his famed stair dance and made it nationally known.
In the 1930s, Robinson was big enough and acceptable enough in white society to star in a series of films with Shirley Temple, starting with The Little Colonel in 1935. This is fascinating in itself because the idea of putting a Black man with a white girl in a movie did cut straight against the taboos of American history. After all, one of key scenes in The Birth of a Nation was the white girl throwing herself off a cliff to avoid the Black man and that was only twenty years earlier. But Robinson was safe enough for white audiences to accept this.
Later in life, Robinson took a lot of guff from other Black leaders for playing the fool in front of white audiences, embracing white stereotypes and blackface comedy. This is a more serious version of the accusations leveled at Louis Armstrong. I can see their point, but this really angered Robinson and for good reason. This was the only way to success for him. Working in front of white audiences and making a living as a Black dancer was placing yourself in a series of very difficult situations that was would take almost otherworldly dignity to pass through. It’s also worth noting that Robinson was at times a political figure. He lobbied FDR during World War II on better treatment of Black soldiers and involved himself in demands to desegregate the Dallas police department. But this treatment of Robinson as an Uncle Tom really grew in the 1960s and 1970s. Hard to think of another performer that Black Power types would be less enamored with than Robinson and the film critic Donald Bogle in 1973 in fact used the Uncle Tom epithet against him.
It’s also worth nothing the mentorship that Robinson provided the next generation of Black stars. That included Sammy Davis, Jr., who had to undergo endless humiliations of his own, and Gregory Hines, who managed to mostly avoid that world. He mentored Lena Horne as well. Even white artists saw him as a mentor, including Fred Astaire. He also mentored Jesse Owens when the sprinter struggled to make a living after his dominance in the 1936 Olympics. This led to Robinson getting his manager to also manage Owens. This also led to Owens racing a horse in Cuba for money. I mean, it was degrading but what were you going to do? Many people said Robinson exploited Owens, but Owens did not feel this way and was grateful for the help.
Despite everything, when Robinson died in 1949, he was absolutely penniless. I think he was just bad with money. He was 71 years old. Ed Sullivan, an old friend, paid for the funeral.
Bill Robinson is buried in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
If you would like this series to visit other dancers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gregory Hines is in Oakville, Ontario and Maria Tallchief is in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Previous posts in this series are archived here.