Research Spotlight: Black Performers in Albany, New York (early-mid-1900s)

Albany, New York, has long had venues for performing arts, such as the Palace Theater, the Harmanus Bleeker Hall, and more. Even the Albany Institute brought talented artists to the area for special events. At this point in my research for the Albany African American history project, I am focusing on three early 20th-century artists.

What can we learn about Albany’s Black history if we zero in on a few black performers? As the Albany African American History Project continues and we analyze these historic documents, what questions are we left with?

Plays and other staged performances reflect what kind of performances White people are willing to accept and enjoy from Black performers. These same performers can create works that criticize, in creative ways, the system of America they live in.

Let’s analyze what we can learn about Albany’s Black history through three performers who came to Albany. These three acts spent time in Albany at different times, performing different arts to various audiences. The first is a poetry reading here at the Albany Institute of History & Art in 1944. Next is Johnson and Cole’s operetta, The Shoo-Fly Regiment, and Jim Europe’s jazz band, both who performed in the early 20th century at Harmanus Bleecker Hall.    

Margaret Walker (1915-1998)

Poster promotion for Margaret Walker, winner of the Yale Prize for Younger Poets, for a reading event at the Albany Institute of History and Art on Jan 27, 1944 | AIHA archival collection

In 1948, Margaret Walker, the Winner of the Yale Prize for Younger Poets, performed here at the Albany Institute of History and Art. In a promotional flyer found in the Albany Institute’s archives collection, this advertisement says she will be “presenting readings of her book of poems” as part of the Albany Inter-racial Council’s “A Part of the Nation Speaking” series.

She came on January 27, 1944, and read from her collection “For My People,” named for her poem of the same name. The collection won her the Yale Prize for Younger Poets. She was the first Black woman to win the prize. Black people are not represented as a monolith in her work, and these stories’ inclusivity wowed audiences. Her work contains themes of legacy (“Lineage”), protest (“For Malcolm X”), and her desire to write (“I Want to Write”).

Walker was a notable member of the Chicago Black Renaissance movement with other artists, activists, and writers, such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Walker assisted Richard Wright with research for Native Son in the late 1930s, before she visited Albany. Her own novel Jubilee was published in 1966.  

Cole and Johnson (Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson)

"The Co-Stars who will Present New Musical Comedy", The Freeman, July 7, 1906, page 5

Bob Cole, Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson wrote The Shoo-Fly Regiment. For several nights, the musical comedy came to Albany to the Harmanous Bleecker Hall in 1907. It was not the first time Rosamond or Bob Cole performed in Albany. They had taken the two-person show of Cole and Johnson to Albany a year prior. Cole and Johnson’s brothers had a successful history working together, writing and performing vaudeville acts, and traveling across the US, London, and Paris.


This performance shows a changing scene in popular acts. They had created the first Black operetta, which was more structured than their vaudeville act. It has an all-Black cast, including Cole’s comedy stylings and Rosamond’s singing. Shoo-Fly tells the story of Hunter Wilson, who puts aside a teaching career to fight in the Spanish-American War, a decision that is disapproved of by his fiancé’s father. Wilson goes on to the Philippines and returns alive a military hero, earning him the respect of his fiance’s father. After her father’s blessing is given, his fiancé takes him back. This work was likely an introduction to many Albany audiences to the real Tuskegee Institute, fictionalized as Lincolnville Institute in the play. It is also an opportunity for audiences to engage with how Black people were interacting with foreign military conflicts despite fighting for a country that didn’t treat them equally.

At this time, much like today, there were differences in how some journalists covered these artists. In the Albany Argus, the Cole and Johnson had their show advertised, for sure, but the words chosen are interesting compared to how Black newspapers covered them. Essential details like show dates, times, and prices are there-- but no pictures. There is also language indicating surprise at the quality of the work and additional kudos to their White manager.  Compare this to The Freeman, which had a full interview and deep dive into their creative process and inspirational location, like Tuskegee. They also had a set photo of Cole and Johnson in the article. The first article is from Indianapolis’s The Freeman, and the second two articles shown here are from Albany’s  The Argus newspaper.

Another significant difference with this work was that this was the last piece that James Weldon Johnson would write with them before focusing on his political and literary career. Nationally, Johnson wrote the lyrics of/composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the “Negro National Anthem.” John Rosemond Johnson composed the music, and James Weldon wrote the lyrics, and it became a well-known protest song from the 1960s through today.

Online Newspapers

Newspaper clippings (below) from The Argus from February 11, 1907, page 5 and The Argus from February 11, 1907, page 3

Lieutenant Jim Europe and His Hellfighters

Lieut. "Jim" Europe and his "Hell Fighters", The Argus, April 1, 1919, page 12

James “Jim” Europe performed in Albany and was a well-known composer and musician.

Born in Alabama, he came to New York City as a pianist and made connections with others in the Black theater scene at the time. He wrote “On the Gay Luneta” for The Shoo-Fly Regiment and was the music director for Cole and Johnson’s second show, The Red MoonOne of his well-known songs was “Missouri Blues.”

Europe was recruited during the first World War to create a band for the 15th Regiment. This troupe gained the name the Harlem Hellfighters from their bravery, and many of them came from Harlem (Albany’s famous member was Henry Johnson). Europe gained the title Lieutenant and recruited players from as far as Puerto Rico. Performing in France, the French showed great admiration for the jazz stylings and gave him great acclaim, which was noticed back in America. After the war, Europe returned and began to tour the Hellfighters band across the country. They played at the Harmanus Bleecker Hall for two nights before heading to Binghamton, New York. The music talent received good reviews in Albany by The Argus. Jim Europe spread his music internationally and across the state through these tours.     

Some Thoughts, and Some Questions

There is a wealth of information in these acts about what popular arts travel throughout the country and make Albany a stop. We can see how art changes through Cole and Johnson's switch from vaudeville to musical comedy with an all-Black cast. We can see how organizations gave Black artists a platform to speak to the many nuances of Black politics and culture by elevating a young voice like Margaret Walker. We can see the intersections of wartimes and jazz through the postwar tour of Lieutenant Europe.

These works do inspire further questions, like how did they travel? When Bob Cole traveled with Black Patti, they were in a private train car to emphasize their wealth and, as time went on, minimize interactions with Jim Crow. Where did they stay when they were in Albany? Were they staying with local folks at their homes or the Kenmore Hotel, originally started by Adam Blake? What were their impressions of Albany, their people, and the audiences who attended these shows?

There were a lot of reasons that Black people came to Albany. Some were born here; many traveled during the Great Migration or from New York City to get better jobs. For any community to thrive, there must be an element of fun available to them. In addition to fun, in art expression, especially from marginalized people, there is claiming of political power by claiming stage and voice. Access to a poetry reading or a musical performance gives space for Black Albany residents to have fun and see folks that look like them. It's entirely possible that one of these shows was the first live performance of a local Black child in Albany.

Comments

If you attended one of these shows or a show with Black performers at one of these venues, please reach out to Lacey at wilsonl@albanyinstitute.org.

 

 

More Information Links

Henry Johnson

 

Margaret Walker

 

Jim Europe

Albany African American History Project

This article is part of the Albany African American History Project at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Learn more about the project, and get in touch with our research team, by visiting the project page on our website.