Excerpt from When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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When Broadway Was Black

The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical that Changed the World (aka Footnotes)

by Caseen Gaines

When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines X
When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines
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    May 2021, 352 pages

    Feb 2023, 352 pages


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Yet even in this idyllic African American community, racial animus was a frequent visitor. Both of the city's segregated schools were in the aptly named College Hill section, which often led to trouble. The poor white kids walked through the affluent Black neighborhood from the industrial Cotton Factory area, where Flournoy Miller surmised that "the KKK must have hidden their sheets," on a war path every morning. When they came across the well-dressed Black kids on their way to school, they'd throw insults and punches. The daily brawls became incessant, prompting the district to stagger the start times—8: 00 a.m. for the white students, an hour later for the Black ones—in an attempt to keep the peace. However, even at a young age, Flournoy was keenly aware that the rage the young white kids felt was due to their upbringing, emanating from their parents' economic anxieties and generally poor lot in life. Classism and racism were equally prevalent within city limits, and the poor whites lashed out at what they perceived to be an injustice. As they saw it, even the poor Blacks had a better chance of achieving the American dream than they did. "The Cotton Factory folks were seldom if ever seen in the better class white neighborhood for all servants there were negroes," Miller recalled. "The poor whites were not considered good enough for servants. A poor man, Black or white, when he is not needed, is not wanted."

For the first nine years of his life, Miller grew up without a want in the world, but that changed when Sissieretta Jones, who was otherwise known as the Black Patti, came to town. Jones was a classically trained, internationally renowned soprano who, with annual earnings of nearly $8,000, equivalent to more than $235,000 125 years later, also happened to be one of the highest-paid Black entertainers of the day. In 1892, she performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison and sang at Madison Square Garden in front of seventy-five thousand music lovers. The following year, she returned to the White House for President Grover Cleveland and became the first Black woman to headline at Carnegie Hall. By 1894, she was traveling up and down the East Coast, playing one-and two-night stands, primarily for white audiences, who saw her as a novelty. The Millers snagged tickets for her concert at the opera house in downtown Columbia, and as he watched the opening-act comedian easily draw laughs from the crowd, Miller was captivated. He was equally impressed when Jones took the stage. She was beautiful in a long gown, and as she sang, every member of the audience sat in the palm of her hand. Miller had never seen anyone as talented as her, and he realized before the night was over that when he grew up, he wanted to be onstage.

His fascination with performing grew when the Millers moved to South Pittsburg, an industrial town where people primarily made their living working in coal mines and foundries. Lee Miller held several jobs—he served as the Black school's principal and wrote editorials for the South Pittsburg Weekly, a white newspaper, under the pen name "Rellim," Miller spelled backward—but the one that changed the outcome of his sons' lives was his bill-posting service, where Flournoy and his older brother, Irvin, worked. The siblings relished chatting with promoters from traveling shows about the places they had been and the unique experiences they'd had. Each conversation made the brothers more eager to pursue a life in show business. F. E., as Flournoy's friends called him, wanted to be a star, while Irvin wanted to be on the "right side of the desk."

But they knew the business had a dark side. Traveling minstrel shows usually announced their arrival in a new town with an animated parade, which, on occasion, would run them into trouble with white folks who didn't take kindly to what they saw as a brigade of "uppity niggers" disrupting their peace and quiet. Miller had heard of several incidents throughout the country, primarily in the South, that made his skin crawl. In one case, some white guys let a team of horses loose to run through a parade, nearly killing a few young Black boys in the process. Most of the instances he'd heard about were verbal assaults and efforts to disrupt the cavalcade. The disgruntled locals would attempt to shout down the Black musicians, inciting the bandleader to conduct his performers to play louder. In nearly all these incidents, the troublemakers were part of the city's lowest white class who, like the residents of Cotton Hill, took particular umbrage at the sight of African American people strutting down the street in suits with walking canes, playing music, and dancing through the street, and it incensed them even more to see the wealthier members of their race cheering them on. "As I look back, I have a feeling that the white man's hatred was motivated by jealousy more than anything else," Miller later explained. "There were cases where a white man's colored mistress would become interested in one of the flashy dressed men and if the white man would find out about it, he would ofttimes cook up some charge against him and incite the white ruffians against the entire troupe."

Excerpted from When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines. Copyright © 2021 by Caseen Gaines. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

When first published in hardcover in 2021, this book was titled Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way. In paperback, it was renamed, When Broadway Was Black: The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical that Changed the World. The reviews below were written ahead of the hardcover edition being published, and thus refer to Footnotes.

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