Any collection in Special Collections is a gem, and like a gem each collection has many facets depending on how it is viewed and each facet contributes to the beauty of the gem. Such is the case with the Wilbur “Buck” Clayton photo collection in the UMKC LaBudde Special Collections department. There are many facets here: jazz history, world traveler, life of a musician etc. One particular facet has leapt out at me in the last couple of weeks and that is the history of African American entertainers in America. The Buck Clayton
collection contains photos of many famous entertainers from the early 1930’s, many of whom were instrumental in paving the way for African-Americans in the world of
entertainment. In a run of photographs of various Jazz venues there were several taken of the Apollo Theater. When the theater opened to black audiences in 1934 it became one of the most important venues for African American talent in the country. Established
performers as well as amateurs all played the Apollo and left their mark on entertainment history.
One such performer who’s photo is found in the collection is David “Pigmeat” Markham, a comedian, actor, singer and dancer. He began his career in traveling burlesque shows and was a part of Bessie Smith’s Traveling Revue in the 1920’s. A regular at the Apollo, Markham often
performed in blackface. Famous for developing the “Here come de Judge” routine, white audiences didn’t really hear it until Sammy Davis Jr.
performed in on Laugh In. Markham also originated the famous “Funk & Wagnalls” line and was later given a chance to appear himself on the show.
Because his Judge routine was often set to funky music he has come to be seen as a progenitor of rap. At a time when much of television simply didn’t have black characters or tried to tone down the racial stereotypes Markham was an unabashed purveyor of old school routines, many of which he’d performed decades before in black face. Critics didn’t approve and Markham didn’t care. What was funny mattered. “A lot of people have pointed out that my comedy is not exactly high-class … I won’t argue with that. And a lot of others say my characters like the Judge … do not represent the modern Negro; that they are caricatures. Well, I won’t argue with that either, [as] long as we admit they’re funny. But when these people tell me I gotta change my act – well, that’s where I will argue.” Agree or disagree with him Markham was an influential and controversial entertainer that all African American performers had to reckon with.
Another pioneer’s photo to be found in the Buck
Clayton collection is that of Louise Beavers. An actress, Beavers appeared in dozens of movies from the 20’s through the 60’s often in stereotyped roles of maids, housekeepers or slaves and became known as a “Mammy” character. Indeed, these types of roles at first made her hesitant to start acting, saying once “In all the pictures I had seen… they never used colored people for anything except savages.” Yet it was her warm personality that came through in her on screen roles that people loved and responded to and she became more popular, often playing in roles whose character helped another white character in some important way. An important early, non-comic role was that of Deliah in the film “Imitation of life” where her character’s story played a serious secondary plot role. It was important because it was “the first time in American cinema history that a black woman’s problems were given
major emotional weight in a major Hollywood motion picture” In 1976 she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
With two Hollywood stars to her name who could forget the contributions of Hattie McDaniel? Best known for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind” McDaniel had a long career in radio, she was the first African American woman to have her own show, as well as films. She was often criticized for not
taking a stronger public stance on civil rights and for playing what many called stereotypes. She maintained that too loud a voice would cause roles for African Americans, already too few, to dry up. A controversial figure to be sure, yet an important part of the story of African Americans in the world of
My jaw fell open when I was working on the collection and opened a folder and saw this lovely photograph of Billie Holiday. An always controversial figure Holiday did take a decisive stand in civil rights when she sang and recorded the song “Strange Fruit” in 1939. At time when lynchings were still a common enough
occurrence and segregation and racism were acceptable in the country the song was a loud and influential song of
impassioned protest. She sang it regularly despite some fear of retribution. The song was so powerful there were rules in place for her performances. “Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore.”
As with any history, the history of African American’s in the entertainment world isn’t all the same and one note, it’s as varied as the actors who made that history as I hope these photos demonstrate. Many other enlightening and important facets wait to be discovered amongst the gem that is the Buck Clayton collection.
~ Contributed by Garth Tardy, Library Specialist-Special Formats Cataloger