1903 February 18

“In Dahomey,” First All-African-American Musical, Opens on Broadway

 

In Dahomey, the first all-African-American vaudeville show on Broadway, opened on this night in New York City. The musical starred Bert Williams and George Walker, who had been performing together for several years. According to the New York Times, a “thundercloud” had been hanging over the production since it was first announced, as some people feared that a “race war” would erupt over the first all-African-American show on Broadway. No disorder occurred, but seats for the show were racially segregated (and this was in New York City, not the south).

Bert Williams went on to a highly successful solo career, both on the stage and through his recordings. In June 1910 he was featured in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies 1910, also on Broadway, the first African-American to achieve that distinction. He appeared in several subsequent Ziegeld’s Follies productions. In the 1917 show he shared the stage with W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor.

Williams’ most famous composition and recording was Nobody, a lament by a person down and out in life who nobody would help. (Nina Simone later recorded a beautiful version of the song.)

Throughout his career, Williams encountered a number of instances of racism, including the fears of violence at the opening of In Dahomey. In August 1900 rumors in New York City spread that a white police detective had been shot and killed by an African-American. William got home safely, but his partner George Walker was pulled from a streetcar by a mob and beaten. In 1904 a white southern performer objected to a racially integrated show, but the producer went ahead with the show. On one occasion in the 1920s, Williams attempted to buy a drink at the exclusive Hotel Astor. The white bar tender tried to chase him away by saying it would cost $50. Williams responded by placing a roll of $100 bills on the bar and ordered a drink for everyone in the room.

Williams could afford to buy a drink for everyone in the room at the Hotel Astor. Through his stage performances and recordings, he earned a very large income. Around 1920, he reportedly was one of the three most successful recording artists in the world, along with Al Jolson.

Learn more: Ann Charters, Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams (1970)

And more: Camille F. Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams: Burt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star (2008)

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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