Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was known for being the highest paid African-American entertainer in the first half of the 20th century. His career mirrored changes in American entertainment tastes and technology. Robinson had a signature routine was the stair dance, in which he would tap up and own a set of stairs in a rhythmically complex sequence of steps.
Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878. Robinson had a cheerful demeanor that made him a favorite to many White and Black audiences. He did not care for his given name of Luther. Additionally, as a young man, he earned the nickname “Bojangles” for his contentious tendencies. By the young age of 5, Robinson was dancing for a living, performing in local beer gardens. When he was just 9-years old he joined Mayme Remington’s touring troupe. In 1891, he joined a traveling company, and became the vaudeville act. His greatest success came as a nightclub and musical comedy performer. During this time, Robinson was only performing in Black theaters in front of Black audiences.
Robinson took a break from performance to serve as a rifleman in World War I. Along with fighting in the trenches, Robinson was also a drum major who led the regimental band up Fifth Avenue upon the regiment’s return from Europe. According to Biography, in 1928, he starred on Broadway in the hugely successful musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, which featured his famous “stair dance.” Blackbirds was a revue starring African-American performers, intended for white audiences. The show was a breakthrough for Robinson. He became well known as “Bojangles,” which connoted a cheerful and happy-go-lucky demeanor for his white fans, despite the nearly polar-opposite meaning of the nickname in the black community. His catchphrase, “Everything’s copacetic,” reinforced Robinson’s sunny disposition. Despite his fame, Robinson was not able to transcend the narrow range of stereotypical roles written for black actors at the time. By accepting these roles, Robinson was able to maintain steady employment and remain in the public eye.
Robinson was married three times, his second wife, Fannie S. Clay served as his manager and assisted him in created the Negro Actors Guild of America, which agitated for the rights of African-American Performers. Another interesting fact about #Bill Robinson is he was involved in baseball as well as theater. In 1936, he cofounded the New York Black Yankees team, based in Harlem, with financier James Semler. The team was a part of the Negro National League until 1948, when Major League Baseball first integrated racially. Read more.