Black America was the brainchild of Nate Salsbury (1846-1902), the man who was also behind the very successful, long-running Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In 1894, Salsbury found Brooklyn’s Ambrose Park free for a time, since the Wild West Show had just decamped to a new city. Salsbury put his mind to creating a new show to bring into the space.
The concept he developed was a show that would provide Northerners with a view of “the better side of the colored man and woman of the South.” In what must have been a press statement, The New York Times (5-25-1895) wrote: “It will show the labors that the negroes of slavery days engaged in, and the happy, careless life that they lived in their cabins after work hours were over.”
No whites were cast in the show, so no effort was made to characterize slave owners. It was just a show about the “happy life of the Southern slave.”
Black America: Full Extravaganza
Salsbury created a true extravaganza. The Ambrose Park outdoor theatre seated 7000 so he could plan the show on a grand scale; its subtitle was “A Gigantic Exhibition of Negro Life and Character.” He hired well-loved, successful African American performer Billy McClain (1866-1950) to pull the show together for him. (McClain is credited as “leader of the choruses” but probably did the bulk of producing.)
For the price of admission (25 cents for general admission; $1 for the best reserved seats), ticket buyers were also granted access to the grounds where they could stroll through a re-creation of a Southern plantation. Salsbury had arranged for one full acre of cotton to be planted so that field workers could demonstrate the
stages of harvesting cotton. There was an old-fashioned cotton gin where workers processed the cotton, and workers did chores throughout the grounds just as they might have done in the South in the mid-1800s. A replica of part of the plantation house was built, and musicians played on the verandah for the unseen white owners.
One hundred and fifty log cabins represented slave quarters. They served the dual purpose of being used to house the cast and crew.
Salsbury billed the show as historically accurate, educational, and entertaining. The description of the midsection of the program was advertised as “Showing the Afro-American in all his phases, from the simplicity of the southern field hand (especially the phenomenal melody of his voice), to his evolution as the northern aspirant of professional musical honors.”
In an article for NYHistoryblog.org by David Fiske, author of Solomon Northrup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, Fiske also ascribes to Salsbury a belief that “contact and understanding of diverse cultures would lead to a better brotherhood of mankind.”
Indeed, later Salsbury proceeded to produce a Rough Riders show that included men of many races, so perhaps he did believe this. (Or as Fiske notes, at least he felt it was helpful in marketing.)
Staging of Black America
While there were some aspects of the show that borrowed from minstrel shows (and this was only natural as minstrel shows were still enormously popular), Salsbury never advertised it as a minstrel show and took steps to distance the extravaganza from that style of performance. In minstrel shows, even black performers always put on black face, and in Black America, blackface was never used. While there were some numbers that played the slave for a buffoon, for the most part, the performers were given stature and pride in their performances.
The cast of five hundred included three hundred singers to create a massive choir. The 9th Cavalry, a black unit that had primarily served in protecting settlers in the West, was in residence and put on regular demonstrations of their skills. There were also singers, dancers, jugglers, a contortionist, and all variations of other entertainers doing popular styles of dancing including “buck and wing” and the Cakewalk. Salsbury believed in changing the show regularly, so while the basic format remained constant, it was understood that there would be changes in the show line-up, sometimes daily.
The chorus usually opened the program, and in an article by Roger Allen Hall in Educational Theatre Journal, he references The Washington Post: [The grand chorus is] “…one of the …[most] exquisitely beautiful and dreamy performances that has ever been produced.”
Typically the program would include 10-15 songs, including ones like “These Bones shall Rise Again,” “Old Black Joe, “”Roll, Jordan, Roll,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.”
While the intention was to leave behind the minstrel-style of performing, Salsbury did not totally abandon it. A “watermelon” number was a huge crowd pleaser, as was the Cakewalk, a traditional black dance contest. The Cakewalk stemmed from the poverty in which the slaves lived and the dominance of their masters. The event involved dressing up in their master’s or mistress’s old clothing, and then couples would compete as to who could perform the most intricate or interesting dance. In Black America, the winning couple was chosen by the audience, and they received a cake.
In addition to the dancing, skits, juggling, and jokesters, there was the ever-popular human contortionist, Pablo Diaz, generally billed as the “human corkscrew.” “Barrel boxing” was another popular event… two men in barrels vied to topple the other over.
The finale was the Historical Apotheosis, which featured the choir singing in front of giant portraits of some of the people who helped bring about emancipation: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln, among them.
Salsbury the Promoter Plans Parade
Salsbury’s long success with the Buffalo Bill show made him an experienced promoter. Getting Black America introduced in its first city, New York, was his first challenge. Approximately two weeks after the opening of the show, Salsbury arranged for a parade down Fifth Avenue (June 13, 1895). According to The New York Times of June 14th, the parade began at 58th Street and proceeded to 23rd Street where the entertainers then disbanded to make their way to Brooklyn’s Ambrose Park.
The parade was said to have contained all 485 of the “colored people” who were performing. Members of the New York City police at the head of the parade, followed by almost 500 performers. There was a group of “colored girls in white blouses and sailor suits” who performed what they called the Golden Key drill. The cavalry marched (their horses were left in Ambrose Park), and there were about fifteen colored men in evening dress suits, the chorus, and the rear was brought up by the remainder of the cast in plantation costumes.
Along the way, the parade participants stopped and sang some of the plantation and patriotic songs featured in the program.
Black America: A Traveling Show
Like the Wild West Show, Salsbury knew Black America needed to travel in order to make money, so he planned a schedule that included Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. before a return to New York City to perform in Madison Square Garden.
It was a big show to move. Ever the showman, Salsbury ordered a special train of twelve white railroad cars with gold leaf trim and “Black America” emblazoned in red letters across the side.
In the autumn of 1895, Black America returned for a second visit to Philadelphia, after which the show was supposed to travel to Europe.
But for no apparent reason, the European tour was cancelled. As scholars have looked for clues as to what happened, several theories have been explored. Some have written that Salsbury was ill, but his date of death was not until 1902—seven years later–so he certainly overcame whatever he suffered from and went on to produce other shows.
Scholar Roger Allan Hall who has researched the subject deeply and written about it in the Educational Theatre Journal (March 1977) concludes that the actual attendance numbers probably were not fully reported. Perhaps Salsbury, the promoter, made the show sound more successful than what it was.
Lasting Effect from Black America?
From today’s vantage point, we know that much was wrong with the depiction of Southern life as it was first staged in Ambrose Park. However, perhaps by offering such a simplistic view, Salsbury sent a few people scrambling to “fact check” the depiction. The staging of Black America may have begun the process of investigating what Southern life was truly like for black and for white.
Nate Salsbury’s other contribution in staging the show was that he provided a well-run, first-class operation and paid his employees decently. The chorus members were paid $3-5 per week and provided with room and board as well as their costumes. Star performers, of course, received higher wages.
In addition, the show brought at least 500 Southern blacks north to be performers. One would assume this offered opportunity for budding talent. While much of the theatre world was still segregated in the early 1900s, there were black theatres that needed fresh talent, and a few pioneering black filmmakers would begin casting African-Americans in their own films by 1908 or so.
Harlem Renaissance Led to Change
By the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom, and soon the white nightclub scene began to observe what was happening there. This gave a few musicians and singers a toehold in making their way in the broader world of entertainment.
Perhaps Black America was a first stepping stone in this path to artistic equality that is still many stepping stones short of what should be our ideal.
Also see Nicholas Brothers for more about black entertainers.