The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bill Bojangles Robinson

Bojangles 1933
The corner of Leigh St, Chamberlayne Ave and Adams Street has reflected the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson long before 1973 when his monument was dedicated on the spot becoming the first monument dedicated to an African-American in Richmond,Va.7

He was born at 915 N. Third St in Richmond (the building is now gone)1 on May 25, 1878,2  but there seems to be some question about that exact date.  Bill was reportedly born Luther Robinson and took his younger brothers name as a kid.3  After his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson died in 1885, he was taken in by his grandmother Bedilia Robinson, who was an elderly former slave and in bad health.7  Judge John J Crutchfield, didn’t think Bedilia would be able to take care of him, so he took him into his home.7  Bojangles began shining shoes, doing odd jobs and dancing to make money when he was 6,3 and at age 8 he was touring the south  with Mayme Remington's troupe out of Washington DC in the show The South Before The War.2

Bojangles Statue blocks from where he was born,photo by Jeff Majer
He claimed he didn't know where the nickname "Bojangles" came from,1 but there are many possible origins including coming from the word "jangler", meaning contentious.4  In James Meehan's bio of Bo the name is linked to a man named Lion J. Boujasson, who had a hat making and repair store in Jackson Ward where Bill grew up.  The kids including Bill called him “Bojingles” because they could not pronounce his name.  When one of the hats was stolen the kids mocked the merchant, “Who stole Bojingle’s hat?” said one and one replied “Why Bojangles took it,” speaking of Bill.7 

He didn’t get fame until he was in his 50’s and was a professional never drinking or smoking.7  Bo once performing for 12 years without a full week off.7  He did admit to being addicted to vanilla ice cream (usually eating 4 quarts a day,)  and gambling.7 He once said, “These are the feet that earned four million dollars and these are the hands that through it away.”7

He also had a quick temper and carried either a gold-plated revolver,4 a revolver with a pearl handle,7 or it had both, there seems to be some conflicting information.  When he arrived in New York in 1900, instead of using violence, he challenged the tap dancing star Harry Swinton to a Buck-dancing contest and won.4

In New York he faced the racism of the "two-colored" rule in vaudeville that restricted blacks from performing in pairs.4  In 1907 when he split with his white partner he moved back to Richmond and became a waiter at The Jefferson Hotel.1  One day he happened to spill oyster soup on Marty Forkins, a big time show biz agent.1 When Forkins found out he was a dancer, he tried him out.  He was so impressed that he managed him for the rest of his life.2

He became a Broadway star in 1922 and made his first movie Dixana in 1930 with a mostly white cast.4  He went on to be in more then a dozen other films including the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer,1 Harlem is Heaven in 1933 the first all black made film ever, and four movies with Shirley Temple, in which he taught the white child superstar to dance.4  

Bojangles 1936
Robinson who once said “I went to four schools, two days a piece”7 was not only a performer.  He also served in WWI with the 369th Regiment of New York,2 was one of the founding members of the Negro Actors Guild of America,4 a champion backwards runner, getting him in the Guinness Book of World Records and he gave away more then one million dollars in his life leaving him in debt.  When he died he didn't even have enough to cover his funerary costs.7  In 1933, the same year he was named "Mayor of Harlem", he returned to Richmond and saw two children almost get hit by a car trying to cross the road at Leigh and Adams on their way to Armstrong High School across the street, so he provided $1,400 to erect a traffic light at the intersection.1  He also returned to flip the switch turning the light on.7  It was the first traffic light north of Broad St where mostly African-Americans lived.7

Bojangles Statue, Richmond, VA Photo by Jeff Majer
He was honored during his life in Richmond's Church Hill neighborhood with a theater named after him.3  When he returned for the opening of the theater on 29th and Q St, he left his foot prints in the concrete.7  He was also honored on June 20, 1938 when the City of Richmond declared it Bill Robinson Day.7

The original plaque at the square, at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center
When he died in 1949, his traffic light was draped in black.1  In New York, the newspapers said that about 500,000 people came to see his funeral procession, the mayor of NY City walked at the head of the procession, Harlem schools were closed and President Truman sent his condolences.7

Today at the corner is a statue of the Richmond native with the inscription: Dancer, Actor, Humanitarian, Native Son of
Richmond; Internationally Famous Actor and Dancer Rendered Many Kindnesses to the Citizens of Richmond
Bojangles Statue, Photo by Jeff Majer
It is on a piece of land given by the city now called “Robinson Square”.5  It is a 9’ piece of aluminum donated by Reynold's Metal Company weighing 652lb with his head 16’ above the street.7  When it was made it was the largest cast aluminum statue ever made.7   The local Astoria Beneficial Club commissioned John Temple Witt, a sculptor and art professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA to design the monument.5  Having some early construction problems because of the size, Witt ended up making 7 pieces that were cast in Dayton, Ohio at the  Valentine Match Plate Company.7  It shows Bojangles performing one of his most famous dances on stairs introduced in 1918, in which  each step made a different sound.4   Bill’s childhood friend, Leonard V. Eggleston, got the honor of unveiling the monument on  June 30, 1973.7

Thanks to the Black History and Cultural Center for help with this post.

7. Virginia Cavalcade, Winter 1978

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1 comment:

  1. I was thinking of the beautiful but poignant song "Mr. Bojangles" which made me wonder about his life. Well, he had quite a full life, with high highs and low lows. What a master of dance this interesting American Negro was!