Archives for posts with tag: Bill Bojangles Robinson

Some people perceive Black History Month as a time to remember injustices and it is. It truly is. It’s also a celebration of perseverance, of courage, faith, and humor. Each of us has many facets and talents and to reduce a person’s life to one piece of that life is to slight them. Richmond’s son, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a good example. His name evokes stunning dance steps, often with a dimpled Shirley Temple, and, while that was part of his legacy, there is so much more. Bill Robinson came home to Richmond often and once, he saw two children almost hit by a car in Jackson Ward. He asked about the lack of a street light at that intersection. When told that the city wouldn’t spend the money in a colored neighborhood, he paid for that street light himself. That’s why his statue stands at that particular intersection at Adams & Leigh. It was sculpted by Jack Witt and erected by the Astoria Beneficial Club in 1973. How do I know that story? Wesley Carter, an Astorian who died at the age of 104, made the trip to deliver the statue to Richmond and he shared his story. Both of these men, Bill Robinson and Wesley Carter, were dedicated to their home town and its people. Richmond has so many people like that.

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Wesley Carter & Kitty, Astoria Beneficial Club      Bojangles Statue

Dr. Carter was a teacher and mentor of countless young people and an institution at Virginia Union University. I met him through his cousin, Barky Haggins. Visiting or calling Barky’s Spiritual Store at 1st & Broad is unlike any other “business.” You’re welcomed into Mr. Barky’s store and his heart and that’s a really big heart. I won’t embarrass him with details but I have heard stories of incredibly generous acts from several Richmond folks and I can vouch for the lift I receive every time I hear his voice or am pulled into a big hug. One characteristic shared by Wesley and Barky is the ability to see humor in events that could as easily inspire tears. Talking about hardships like being the last kid in the bath water in a kitchen tub or walking miles to deliver school work, Wesley would just cackle. He’d shake his head at the absurdity of it all and laugh. That’s an admirable trait.

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                                 Far background, left, is the Norton Street house Barky Haggins grew up in

Both Wesley and Barky reminisced about “2 Street”. That’s 2nd Street in Jackson Ward, the “Deuce,”  where the good times rolled. The Hippodrome was part of that but the whole street was a party. I found a glass negative labeled “Alonzo ‘Spider’ Waller” in Harry Stilson’s photographs and it just looks like it belongs on 2 Street, doesn’t it?

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Alonzo “Spider” Waller

Waller is a well-known name in Richmond. Did you know that Waller & Co. Jewelers is a four-generation family business, established in 1900? That they make a signature watch? A Waller watch is a cherished possession. But my Waller, Alonzo, isn’t from that Waller family. At the Genealogy Roadshow at the Hippodrome, I met a woman who knew someone who was related to him and she promised to give her my card. I’d love to know Alonzo’s story and to share his picture with his family. Sadly, I never heard from Alonzo’s relative but I remain hopeful. Don’t you want to know more about Spider?

Richmond has stories to tell and Richmond In Sight wants to tell them. Celebrating Black History Month is a start but we need to celebrate people and stories like these all year long. Check back for more stories and images and don’t forget that we have a Facebook page. Richmond Views is the blog for Richmond In Sight and RIS is sharing the pictures of Richmond in the early 1900s everywhere we can. If your organization has programs, get in touch. I give presentations ‘most anywhere I’m invited and Black History Month is a great time to see what our African-American Richmonders were doing when Harry Stilson’s streetcar ran on the West Clay line.

 

Classy costume, huh?

Classy costume, huh?

The Virginia State Fair was one of my great-grandfather’s favorite places. He went a lot and took pictures (and movies!) every time. Everything from performers to the Ford Tractor exhibit caught Harry Stilson’s eye. Nearly 100 years later, we benefit from his zeal.

Ford Exhibit, State Fair

Ford Exhibit, State Fair

The fair has been in a few locations over the years. In Harry’s day, it was at Hermitage Road, basically where the Diamond (Parker Field to us old Richmonders) is today. In my Jackson Ward book,released soon, I have oral histories of some of the “kids” who sneaked in to see the attractions. Morris Goldberg’s memories included motorcycle races where they used castor oil “to make them run better” and a story about confronting the Fair barker about the authenticity of one of the “freaks” advertised. He declared that if he paid his money, that person had BETTER not have a head or he wanted his money back. “Get lost, kid” was the response. P.T. Barnum’s “sucker born every minute” theory didn’t apply to Morris Goldberg. If he had slipped through the pried-apart fence to get into the fair, he wanted his money’s worth. So what if he hadn’t spent any?

Acrobats

Acrobats

The movies I donated to VCU Libraries included scenes from the fair 1929-1931. They had elephants! And the rides are still the same…the Caterpillar and the Flier (swings), among others. They had water shows, too. One was the traditional dive from a dizzying height and another showed women doing some kind of tricks in what was basically an above-ground swimming pool. Horse racing was captured for future generations in both stills and movies. If I ever had a minute to spare, I’d research the races to see if a champion was tearing around the Richmond horse track the day Harry filmed.

Bareback riders, 1920 State Fair

Bareback riders, 1920 State Fair

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Caterpillar ride, State Fair

Harry Stilson was the poor man’s photographer and as such, we have found no images of famous Richmonders. No Maggie Walker (but we have her bank!), no John Mitchell, Jr. …but wait! Who is that African American man dancing in that picture? Could it be Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? Naw, probably not but I am still going to the library to check out the newspaper for that year’s fair. You just never know.