Mapping African-American Entertainers before the Jazz Age

This interactive map plots the performances of African-American singers, dancers, and instrumentalists in the German lands up to the First World War. Click on the image to go directly to the map, where you can filter the results by year, zoom in and out to see which cities or regions had the most performers at different times, and find more details about the performances. Above all, this resource is aimed at illustrating the significant presence of African-American entertainers before 1914 and stimulating further research.

Click on the image to go directly to the map

Fisk 1896We are generally familiar with the presence of Black musicians and dancers during the interwar period, when jazz became both an international sensation and a topic of considerable debate in the German lands. But African-American entertainers had appeared on German stages as early as 1856, and the brief stint by George Hicks’s Georgia Minstrels in Hamburg in 1870 marks the first Black-managed company of Black performers in central Europe. These early tours do not seem to have made a lasting impression, but the tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (right) and Jarrett and Palmer’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company in the late 1870s made a significant impact on German and Austrian audiences.

They demonstrated that there was a ready audience for performances of American Blackness, represented both by spirituals (Fisk) and by minstrel song and dance (Jarrett and Palmer). Although these groups were managed by white impresarios and Jarrett and Palmer’s company presented African Americans in an unflattering light, the Black performers nevertheless confounded audiences’ expectations. Their mastery of concert singing and the inventiveness of their modern music and movement presented a striking contrast to the images of Blackness presented in ethnographic “people shows” [Völkerschauen] as well as in the blackface minstrel shows that were popular in large cities at the time.

Selika and Velosko FooteThe successes of these troupes laid the groundwork for later groups, like Foote’s Afro-American Company in 1891 (including Marie Selika and Samson Williams, at left) and the Black America Company in 1896. These were also organized by white impresarios, but all of these large troupes provided immediate opportunities for members to take control of their own performing. Already in the early 1880s but more regularly from the late 1890s, there was an ever-increasing number of smaller groups of African-American performers circulating around and through the German lands. Their popularity increased along with the popularity of American music and dance forms after the turn of the century, as many of these were associated with African Americans.

Brooks and DuncanThe successes of these troupes laid the groundwork for later groups, like Foote’s Afro-American Company in 1891 and the Black America Company in 1896. These were also organized by white impresarios, but all of these large troupes provided immediate opportunities for members to take control of their own performing. Already in the early 1880s but more regularly from the late 1890s, there was an ever-increasing number of smaller groups of African-American performers circulating around and through the German lands. Their popularity increased along with the popularity of American music and dance forms after the turn of the century, as many of these were associated with African Americans.

MorcashaniThey performed in the widest range of styles, including comics and clowns like Edgar Jones, concert singers like Sissieretta Jones, dancers like Dora Dean Babbage and Charles Johnson, and instrumentalists likes Sarah Bowman and Pete Hampton or Will Marion Cook’s Nashville Students. Most of these performers were African Americans, although some, like the Black British singer Josephine Morcashani (left), took on an American persona. In their various ways they performed versions of American Blackness and played with audiences’s racialized expectations. These provocative performances were an important part of a broader debate about race, nation, culture, and modernity taking place within German and Austrian popular culture.

This mapping project is part of an ongoing book project, and I welcome any feedback. I also encourage anyone interested in the topic to do their own research by looking into their local newspapers, especially if you see performers where you live. If you find entertainers not shown here, please let me know the details and I’ll make sure you’re credited in the map.

Jeff Bowersox

Credits:

This map, and the larger research project on which it is based, would not be possible without the foundational work of Rainer Lotz, who painstakingly pored through trade journals and other sources to establish touring itineraries for many of the performers included here. From this base I was able to survey local, national, and foreign periodicals for more details, and it is worth noting that the digitization of newspapers has made it much easier to find performers who otherwise would be easy to miss in the small-print of an advertisement or a passing note of a theater review. AustriaN Newspapers Online (ANNO) is a wonderfully easy-to-use resource that is continually expanding. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for Germany, although the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek’s Digipress does provide searching functions for many important newspapers and Europeana’s relatively clunky and unreliable system does allow for searches in some Hamburg and Berlin newspapers. Otherwise users can access digitized papers, albeit mostly without any search functions, through the Zeitschriften Datenbank and regional libraries like the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin or the Sachsische Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden.

I would also like to give a very special thanks to Justin Joque and his students at the University of Michigan Library, who provided both the base code and invaluable advice at every step of putting this together.