So anyway this week I’ve been showing my school kids clips of dancing from old Shirley Temple movies and an astonishing number of them have asked if Shirley Temple was me as a little kid. I think it’s because I told them the man she was dancing with, Bill Robinson, was my cousin (which he is, though distant).
The amount of times I’ve had to explain that I was not a small blonde white child who grew up in the 1930s is truly astounding.
Black history month day 24: dancer and entertainer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Bill Robinson was born Luther Robinson on May 25th, 1878. His parents died when he was eight and he was raised by his grandmother. From the age of five, Robinson begin dancing for spare change and was eventually chosen as a pickaninny for a local minstrel show (pickaninnies were cute black children who were basically extras and background characters in minstrel shows).
At age 13 Robinson ran off to Washington DC and did a series of odd jobs. Later he joined the Army as a rifleman during the Spanish American war. By 1900 Robinson became active full-time in a career of vaudeville performance, starring in dance troupes, comedy duos, and even blackface and minstrel performances.
At times Robinson came under some heavy criticism for his participation in and tacit acceptance of racial stereotypes of the era, with critics calling him an Uncle Tom figure. However, he did do many things to help improve the situation of blacks, including persuading the Dallas police department to hire its first African American policemen and lobbying President Roosevelt during World War II for more equitable treatment of African American soldiers.
Robinson was the best known and most highly paid African American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century. He was especially well-known for his collaborations with child star Shirley Temple, and the two of them made the first interracial dance team in Hollywood film history. Robinson also starred with Lena Horne and Cab Calloway in “Stormy Weather”, a film loosely based on Robinson’s life.