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Betty Stone: The minstrel show


Betty Stone



The last column I wrote was about traveling circuses. Several people remembered having circus parades in Columbus, as I had seen in West Point and Greenwood; and Rita Miller called to say she remembered seeing the circus unload from the Frisco Railroad just prior to parading up the streets of Columbus. 


This column is about the circus'' first cousin, the minstrel. My sister Margaret reminded me of these and sent me information she researched on Wikipedia.  


What piqued her interest was the memory of visiting our West Point grandparents when she heard the Rabbit Foot Minstrel was coming to town. She was a very young child and somehow, to her horror, got the idea that you had to produce a rabbit''s foot for admission. The thought of killing all those rabbits appalled her. She wasn''t even sorry not to get to go to the show. 


When I wrote about circuses, Margaret chased down her memories and uncovered information about The Rabbit''s Foot Minstrel, a tent show that toured the South for the first 50 years of the last century. It launched the careers of many leading African-American musicians and entertainers, such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Tim Moore, Big Joe Williams, Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee, Rufus Thomas and Butterbeans and Susie. 




Looking back 


The company took its name from its first show in 1900, written by Frank Dumont of Philadelphia, which included circus acts, comedy, dancers, and musical ensembles. Dumont had been commissioned by Patrick H. Chappelle, an African-American former vaudeville performer and entrepreneur from Jacksonville, Fla., who had established a chain of theaters in the late 1890s. 


The company toured successfully in New York as well as the South. Chappelle''s gambling and businesses funded the company''s own railroad car and circus tents. By 1904 it had grown to fill three railroad cars and described itself as "the leading Negro show in America." In 1905 one of the performers, William Rainey, introduced his young bride, Gertrude, to the company. She became known as "Ma" Rainey, one of the stars of the company. 


Chappelle kept several tent shows on the road. When he died in 1911, the company was sold to a white carnival owner, Fred S. Wolcott. By 1918 he moved the show''s headquarters to Port Gibson. Each spring, musicians from around the country gathered there to create a new musical comedy and variety show. It traveled via two railcars. Roustabouts raised a big tent. A brass band paraded through town. The stage was of boards on a folding frame, lit with Coleman lanterns. 


There were no microphones; the featured women blues singers didn''t need them. In fact, they disdained them. They included Bessie Smith and Ida Cox. George Guesnon and trombonist "Pee Wee" Whitaker also starred. The company toured in southern states until it disbanded in 1950. 


The Mississippi Blues Commission has placed a historic marker in Port Gibson commemorating the enormous contributions the company made to the development of the blues.


Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.


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