Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mister Bojangles

February is Black History Month. Since moving to Virginia I have always wondered about our Bojangles restaurants, was there a connection to "Mister Bojangles" Bill Robinson the dancer? I knew of the song from the 1960's. 
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in 1934
Then I got an email from Virginia Tourism that told me Bill Robinson was born here in Virginia, in Richmond. 

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film. Audiences enjoyed his understated style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug in favor of cool and reserve; rarely did he use his upper body, relying instead on busy, inventive feet, and an expressive face.

A figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather, loosely based on Robinson's own life.

At the age of five, Robinson began dancing for a living, appearing as a "hoofer" or busker in local beer gardens. He soon dropped out of school to pursue dancing as a career. In 1886, he joined Mayme Remington's troupe in Washington, DC, and toured with them. In 1891, at the age of 12, he joined a traveling company in The South Before the War, and in 1905 worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville team. He gained great success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway. Not until he was 50 did he dance for white audiences, having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the black theater circuit.


A statue of Bill Robinson sculpted by Jack Witt in Richmond, Virginia, at the intersection of Adams and West Leigh Streets.


Robinson was successful despite the obstacle of racism. 

A favorite Robinson anecdote is that he seated himself in a restaurant and a customer objected to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson leave, he smiled and asked, "Have you got a ten dollar bill?" Politely asking to borrow the manager's note for a moment, Robinson added six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up, then extended the seven bills together, adding, "Here, let's see you pick out the colored one". The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.


Perhaps this is where the idea came from to name the restaurant chain Bojangles? I am not sure, they are named for Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, I have confirmed.

Read more about Bill Robinson here, his military history, his life and his death.

There is a Bojangles Famous Chicken and Biscuits just a mile down the road from The Claiborne House Bed and Breakfast here in Rocky Mount, VA.  In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared "National Tap Dance Day" to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson's birth. I wonder if the restaurant is full on May 25th every year? I will have to go and find out! History is history. We can't rewrite it, but we can sure learn from it.