Vol. 26, No.3

Ida Wells-Barnett and Chicago’s Pekin Theatre

Karen Bowdre/

Ida Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) is well known as an anti-lynching advocate and activist, but she is less well known for her involvement with the theatre. In this essay, I argue that she played an instrumental role in creating new attitudes concerning the theatre and artistic expression. She engaged in persuasion campaigns in the early twentieth century that stretched the moral boundaries African American communities placed on entertainment. In order to affect this cultural shift she sought to bring the dramatic arts to Chicago through the Pekin Theater shortly after its re-opening in March 1906. The Pekin Theater was the city’s, and one of the nation’s, first theatres owned, managed, and operated by African Americans.[1] In her artistic crusade she battled not only the biases held by middle and upper-class African Americans toward the theatre but also the religious and moral panic patronizing the theatre often brought about in these communities. Her intervention took place over fifteen years prior to Art Theatre Movement, or Little Theatre Movement, and Alain Locke’s “Steps Toward the Negro Theatre,” published in 1922. It also came a decade before W. E. B. Du Bois’s defined Black Theatre as theatrical works “about us [African Americans], by us, for us, near us.”[2]

Though Wells-Barnett can be linked to uplift ideology, she disrupted uplift tenets by being a female leader with a lower class background.[3] While Wells-Barnett gained class status from her job as a journalist as well as international recognition as a reformer, her gender and her original class status (her parents were slaves and later working people), as well as her attitudes about Black leadership, complicated her “elite” position. Nevertheless, she used her voice to create new spaces for Black cultural expression. Using the chapter from Wells-Barnett’s autobiography, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, entitled, “A Negro Theater,” this essay delineates how Wells-Barnett challenged, through her words and deeds, the low opinions various African American communities held regarding the theatre.

Wells-Barnett was one of the most influential African American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[4] She was a teacher, journalist, editor, newspaper owner, anti-lynching advocate, and an activist for the social and political equality of Black Americans. Her anti-lynching crusades in the United Kingdom heightened the awareness of the crime throughout the United States and abroad, while her articles inspired African Americans to challenge racial oppression. Though born enslaved in 1862, her emancipation came when she was three years old. The premature death of her parents and youngest brother due to yellow fever in 1878 led to Wells-Barnett’s decision to leave college and become a teacher to support her family.[5]

One of the first events that reflects Wells-Barnett’s refusal to willing submit to racial oppression occurred during her time as a teacher. While sitting in the ladies’ car on a train from Memphis to Woodstock, Tennessee, in 1884, the conductor demanded she move to the other car..[6] She refused on the basis that she had bought a first class ticket. When the conductor realized she would not move, he tried forcefully to remove her, and Wells-Barnett responded by biting him. The conductor then obtained assistance from a baggage man to remove her, and she got off the train refusing to remain on it in the smoking car. She then hired a lawyer and sued the railroad company. Initially, she succeeded in her suit, but, when the railroad company appealed the decision, the state Supreme Court reversed the decision. Wells-Barnett’s disappointment in the reversal was not only because of the betrayal of her initial lawyer and his retaliation against her, (for he did not appear concerned about winning the appeal and Wells-Barnett removed him from the case, and the debt generated by the court cases), but also because she hoped this ruling would extend to all African Americans.[7] In spite of this set back, she published an account of this lawsuit in the Living Way, a weekly religious newspaper.[8]

This incident was demonstrative of how Wells-Barnett resisted the status quo in several areas of her life. She did not tolerate discrimination and consistently challenged the Jim Crow laws that dehumanized Black people. She documented injustice, and through her writings she hoped to go beyond delineating racial oppression in order to encourage African Americans to mobilize and demand equality. Wells-Barnett’s strong sense of self, and her belief that all African Americans should have full rights as citizens, contrasted sharply with the white sentiment towards Blacks in the South. Her writings also reflected her passion for Black Americans to experience the benefits of citizenship.[9]

Another event that reflects Wells-Barnett’s morality and willingness to stand for her beliefs was between 1900 and 1901 when the pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal), Reverend Abraham Lincoln Murray was accused of making inappropriate advances towards a married female member whose spouse was on the church board. After receiving promises from the one of denomination’s leaders, Bishop Abraham Grant, that Murray would be removed from his position, the Bishop acceded to the opinion of the congregation and allowed Murray to return to the pulpit. She was shocked that “such immoral conduct” was being condoned and let the Bishop know that in spite of her long attendance at the church, (married there and establish Chicago’s first black kindergarten at the church), she and her family would be leaving the church.[10] Shortly after becoming a member of her new church, Grace Presbyterian, Wells-Barnett was asked to lead the men’s Bible study. In this group, she and the young men, ranging in age from eighteen to thirty years old, examined the Scriptures and discussed ways to apply the Word to their lives. From her writings it is very clear that the Bible inspired her to take action against injustice in all of its forms. Hence, it was not surprising that her Bible study would follow in her footsteps. Disturbed by the riots in Springfield, Illinois that led to three Black men being lynched in 1908, some members from the Bible study and Wells-Barnett formed the Negro Fellowship League in order to address racial violence and discrimination.[11] These episodes make clear that Wells-Barnett’s personal convictions and her faith emboldened her to stand for what was right even if these actions did not line up with Black male leaders. Her knowledge of the Bible and her desire for justice would not allow her to follow pastors, particularly when she knew they were not living to the standard put forth in God’s word or advising members on issues where their knowledge was often limited such as the dramatic arts.

The start of her anti-lynching activity occurred when a close friend and two of his associates were lynched in March 1892, the year in which the number of recorded lynchings reached an all-time high. Prior to their deaths, Wells-Barnett, like many African Americans, believed that mob violence by whites directed against both Black men and women was due to the presumed rape of white women. Since Wells-Barnett knew her friend and his partners did not commit this crime, she was motivated to question not only the death of these men but also the majority of lynchings. Through her research, she found that the only “crime” her friend and his colleagues had committed was being a business competitor to the white grocer in town.

The death of her friend started a chain of events that shaped and altered her life significantly. At this time she co-owned and edited Memphis’s Black newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, and she wrote an editorial that refuted the charge that these men died because they were rapists. Wells-Barnett emphasized that the men owned a business that put them in competition with a white grocery store and this was the central reason for the false rape charges. She also intimated that in addition to lynchings being triggered for economic reasons, not rape, they were also the result of the discovery of consensual sexual relations between African American men and European American women. After her editorial was published, an angry white mob destroyed the newspaper office while other associates of Wells-Barnett were attacked. Thankfully, they all survived. Wells-Barnett was in New York City when the Free Speech’s office was assailed and did not return to Memphis because of the threats on her life. A month after the destructive events in May 1892, she wrote an article for the New York Age that was later published as the pamphlet Southern Horrors, her first examination of lynchings using data and interviewers from primarily white sources.[12] Her desire for African Americans to experience the rights and benefits of citizenship was not limited to the political and economic arenas. She saw the potential for creativity in the performing arts that compelled her to contest the negative attitudes some African American communities held toward the theatre. For her, the possibilities the Pekin allowed Black performers, producers, writers, musicians, and audiences were worth the battle and effort to change the viewpoint many Black communities had toward the dramatic arts.

Wells-Barnett worked to create artistic spaces of independence for African Americans. As the country became more segregated and opportunities for Blacks grew more limited, she supported various outlets that encouraged Black improvement or uplift. One of these activities was the dramatic arts. Wells-Barnett was a long time “theatre bug,” and as a young woman she studied the “part of Lady Macbeth’s ‘sleepwalking scene’ for a public reading.”[13] In a chapter from her autobiography, she discussed her efforts to encourage other Blacks to attend quality African American entertainment in the Chicago area in 1906. In the early twentieth century, the stage was still considered morally dubious.[14] Her retelling of the events that culminated in the success of the Pekin Theater, indicates that she felt the dramatic arts were a part of the full range of activities, political, economic, and social, that Black people should be able to experience without bias and prejudice.

After meeting Bob Cole in Buffalo, New York, where she was delivering an address, she noted, “Mr. Cole remarked that Chicago had an institution of which we ought to be proud. He spoke of Mott’s Amusement Hall in connection with this saloon, and he said the decorum of the place was what had attracted his attention, and the acts put on there he thought quite creditable.”[15] Wells-Barnett stated she had “never been to Mr. Mott’s Amusement Hall and this was the first complimentary criticism I had ever heard about it.”[16] Hearing this positive review of the amusement hall from the renowned Mr. Cole made an impression on Wells-Barnett. As part of the Cole and Johnson vaudeville team, Cole significantly influenced early Black musical theatre. The shows his company performed moved away from minstrel stereotypes and brought in talented artists who did not rely on blackface caricatures. With this endorsement, it was not surprising that when Wells-Barnett was invited to the opening of Robert Motts’s Pekin Theater. She happily obliged.

Her invitation stated that Motts “had abandoned the saloon.”[17] The removal of the drinking establishment and its conversion into a theatrical space along with Cole’s recommendation were positive actions that Wells-Barnett desired to encourage. The more steps Motts took towards making the theatre a reputable place, the more Wells-Barnett believed she could commit to supporting it. Moreover, removing the alcoholic establishment from the property created an opportunity for women to attend the theatre, as good Christian women, especially since those from middle-class Black families would not patronize a business serving liquor.

Wells-Barnett was excited about the new opportunities this recent establishment could provide for African Americans. She wrote, “I at once went to his place and saw Mr. Motts for the first time to my knowledge and told him that I had come to congratulate him on the change of business – that the reports I had from his place had given me many a heartache and that we, Wells-Barnett and her husband, would be very glad to cooperate with him in his new venture.”[18] Shortly after receiving the invitation, she visited Motts. Though this was her first meeting with him, in her usual forthright manner, she did not hesitate to tell him how his previous business practices aggrieved her. Her boldness in this and other endeavors demonstrated why she often proved a formidable opponent or ardent promoter.

Fortunately for Motts, Wells-Barnett and her spouse assisted Motts in this unique endeavor. Motts’s business associates had not been as supportive of his new theatre venture as he had hoped. As Wells-Barnett commented, “Realizing his disappointment, I told him that if he would give me use of the place in which to have a benefit for the [Frederick] Douglass Center, I was sure I could bring to him the support he ought to have, and at the same time make some money for the center.”[19] Wells-Barnett was aware that in order for campaigns for justice or businesses to succeed, they needed support, financially and otherwise. She was also conscious that her efforts would meet with some resistance. For some in Chicago’s African American communities, Motts’s theatre would always be linked to drinking, gambling, and other unsavory activities.[20] Nevertheless, Wells-Barnett was willing to go against popular opinion to do what she felt was right. Despite Mott’s past actions, Wells-Barnett felt the theatre was a worthwhile undertaking because it would be a space for the development of African American dramatic and musical talents. However, these activities would need financial support. With her past experiences as an activist for equality and justice for Blacks, Wells-Barnett was more than capable of raising funds and obtaining new patrons for the theatre.

The money gleaned from the benefit would be used by the Fredrick Douglass Center, an organization founded in 1904 by Celia Parker Woolley, a white Unitarian minister and pastor from the north side of Chicago, to assist in its operations. The Douglass Center was created to foster communication between African Americans and European Americans “to promote better race relations, remove discriminatory practices, and encourage equal opportunity.”[21] While Wells-Barnett was aware that having the second annual benefit for the Douglass Center at the Pekin Theater would raise eyebrows, she moved forward with the fund raising event confident that after seeing the theatre and enjoying the various performers at the benefit, many in Chicago’s African American communities would start to regularly visit the theatre.[22]

Using her connections, Wells-Barnett called together female associates to plan the benefit. “When some of them objected, I said that now Mr. Motts was engaged in a venture of a constructive nature, I thought it our duty to forget the past and help him; that if he was willing to invest his money in something uplifting for the race we all ought to help.[23] Wells-Barnett did have a challenge in convincing her colleagues that Motts had changed. According to Wells-Barnett biographer, Mildred Thompson, Robert T. Motts was a “reputed gambling lord.”[24] In spite of his reputation, she willingly invested her time and gathered support for this enterprise. The fact that he was developing a creative, theatrical space for African Americans was exciting to her. Since one of her lifetime goals was to see the improvement of Black people from all walks of life and because Motts’s theatre would provide opportunities for African Americans performers, writers, directors, stage managers, and musicians to advance and excel in their crafts, this plan resonated deeply with her.

When one of the women complained that the project was merely free publicity for Motts, Wells-Barnett stated that “I, for one, was quite willing to give him the benefit of all the advertising we could do.”[25] Her prior experiences made her very aware that enterprises often succeeded or failed based on publicity. She knew that the theatre could succeed but that the “right” publicity would be essential for this success as some potential patrons may have to be persuaded to understand the benefits. This statement also marked Wells-Barnett’s active participation in the project. Once she gained Motts’s approval of her plan, she set about to execute a successful fund-raiser.

Wells-Barnett’s passion for this plan was evident as she outlined Motts’s project: “I described the beautiful little gem of a theater which he had created; told of the stock company of colored actors he had gathered together; of the Negro orchestra composed entirely of our own musicians, and how all employees from the young man in the box office were members of our race, and how proud I was to see a payroll upward of a hundred persons employed by him.[26] Her description of the theatre as a “beautiful little gem” was further evidence of her attachment to the project.[27] Whatever history had been tied to the theatre she was willing to be one of the authors of its new history. The success of this new theatre would not only aid Motts but also enrich the lives of those who enjoyed dramatic entertainment as well as the lives of the employees. African American men and women in the theatrical arts would have a venue where they could hone their skills. And, based on the success of the enterprise, the acting troupe would be able to broaden and expand because they would have a permanent residence. Additionally, Black musicians would also have the chance to increase their technical and artistic proficiency.

Aside from these advantages the theatre would provide, Wells-Barnett added one more. As she remarked, “I felt that the race owed Mr. Motts a debt of gratitude for giving us a theater in which we could sit anywhere we chose without any restrictions.”[28] Being able to choose where one sat was no small thing for Black people in the early twentieth century. Jim Crow laws had stripped away the rights of African Americans and segregated them at this time, making every day a day of indignity for them. Hence, Motts providing a theatre went beyond employment opportunities and a space for artistic performance and enjoyment; it also meant freedom from unjust treatment when engaging in leisure activities.

Having spaces in which African American women (and men) could exist without fear of racial oppression was critical for the development of an identity outside of societal expectations. These spaces were usually all-Black and the stage became a place where people felt there was an opportunity for self-expression. While Black entertainers could not be entirely free when they performed before European American audiences, there were fewer inhibitions when they performed for African American audiences. Actresses could portray dramatic and romantic figures – parts they were not encouraged to take on in front of majority crowds.[29] In addition to the increased freedom performers had in Black theatres, patrons had expanded freedom as well. African American audiences were not relegated to the balcony or “nigger heaven” as they would be in segregated white venues. They could choose their seats and how they would enjoy their entertainment. Gaining these options through this space is clearly one of the reasons the creation of an African American theatre was so important to Wells-Barnett. She was able to see the wonderful potential, creatively and otherwise, that this establishment could bring to Black people.

Wells-Barnett’s organizational skills were well suited for theatre fund-raising. After selecting 100 women to be patronesses, the group established ticket prices. “The price of the tickets was raised from twenty-five, thirty-five, and fifty cents to $1.50 to $2.00 for box seats. Being a novel idea, it became very popular.”[30] Like any good economic strategist, Wells-Barnett knew what she could ask of her contributors. She was clearly targeting African American women of middle class or higher standing because the cost would not have been practical for other communities. The endeavor became very popular, and she attributed part of the success of the project to the creativity of her committee. Another reason for the benefit’s future success was because of the interest it generated in local churches.

In addition to lobbying for spaces where African Americans could develop their artistic talents, Wells-Barnett tackled reservations Blacks may have held against the theatre on religious grounds. In her campaign to alter attitudes, she directly addressed concerns about the Pekin and its former reputation by providing the facts she knew about the establishment from her interactions with owner Robert Motts. These were the same tactics and techniques she deployed in her anti-lynching work where she was able to confront the lie of rape and other character attacks on lynching victims through her interviews with those involved in the lynching and her research on what actually triggered these murders. While some may have been intimidated to challenge church leaders, Wells-Barnett took on Chicago clergy’s myopic view of the dramatic arts through her literal battle with religious leaders because she orchestrated a benefit for the Douglass Center at the Pekin Theater.

The benefit fundraising efforts proceeded smoothly until one of the local pastors heard about the event. According to Wells-Barnett, “Rev. A. J. Carey, Sr., then pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, preached a sermon which he prefaced by saying that members of his church had received invitations to be patronesses at the benefit at the Pekin Theater and had asked his advice. He then launched out into a denunciation of the movement, the theater, and the owner.”[31] As pastor of one of the major African American denominations, Reverend Carey was very influential in Chicago. Hence, his sermon rebuking those associated with the fundraiser may have intimidated other women. Wells-Barnett, however, was not one to shy away from a challenge. She was cognizant of the negative associations many held regarding the theatre, but she also knew that talented men, like Bob Cole, were creating art that celebrated the Black experience. She would not allow the short-sightedness of Reverend Carey and other clergy to inhibit opportunities for African American development. Moreover, Wells-Barnett was not deterred by Carey’s remarks because he had supported the previous Bethel A.M.E. pastor Abraham Lincoln Murray, who had been accused of sexual harassment. She had left Bethel A.M.E because of Murray’s actions and the fact that the church’s leadership did not remove him from his post.[32] The Pekin Theater would be a respite for Black women and men from racial oppression, provide a space for performers to further develop their artistic abilities, and for theatre-goers to experience open-seating.

Undeterred by Reverend Carey, Wells-Barnett viewed the incident as positive publicity. She sarcastically observed that “Mr. Carey was serving splendidly as a press agent for the benefit. He wrote a synopsis of this sermon which he sent to every Negro newspaper on the South Side.”[33] Carey’s efforts to publicize his sermon throughout Chicago could have influenced many African Americans not approached by Wells-Barnett’s committee. Her attitude toward Carey reflected that of a woman experienced with verbal intimidation. Clearly, Reverend Carey had forgotten this woman knew how to overcome threats, verbal and otherwise, as she did in the years when she campaigned against lynching. Moreover, she did not view his attack on the benefit as being directed against her but against the theatre (and possibly it’s morally questionable owner Motts). She was also aware that Carey’s intention to derail the event would very likely not come to fruition; she had confidence that Black people would see the Pekin Theater as a chance for cultural entertainment. And she knew how to thwart Carey’s attempt to circulate his sermon through city newspapers.

As a former journalist and editor, Wells-Barnett retained her connections with newspapers even after she had retired from that profession. One of those editors gave her a copy of Carey’s text. She learned that another editor from the Chicago Conservator had planned to publish the sermon.[34] At this point, Wells-Barnett’s husband, Ferdinand, assisted his wife by hiring a lawyer, Edward Wright. “Mr. Wright thereupon prepared a notice which was served upon the owner of the Conservator, the editor, and the Western Newspaper Union which printed it. The notice declared that if the article [Carey’s sermon] denouncing the benefit appeared all three would be sued for damages in the name of the center.”[35] This series of events demonstrated not only Wells-Barnett’s conceptualization of herself outside of societal expectations (Black or White), but also her skills as a strategist. Her knowledge of press operations assisted her in circumventing Carey’s attack. The employment of a lawyer was clearly demonstrative of Wells-Barnett’s past approaches to challenges, but ironically, her maneuvers appear to have confused her male opponents, who did not anticipate a woman acting in such a manner. Needless to say, the article was not published, but the fracas did not end there.

Reverend Carey was a resilient foe and the following Sunday he “gave us another hour’s denunciation from his pulpit. He read the notice which had been served on the editor, signed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Robert T. Motts, [and he described them as a] would-be race leader and the keeper of a low gambling dive.”[36] Carey went on to deliver another sermon at another church, Olivet Baptist, and continued his disparaging remarks. While his comments regarding Motts were not surprising, his phrase describing Wells-Barnett revealed his contempt at being challenged by a woman. Carey’s attempt to disregard her multiple contributions to African American communities displayed his desperation. He was clearly not accustomed to people, especially women, disagreeing with him, and Wells-Barnett’s disregard and determination to follow her own well developed morality provoked his ire. Furthermore, his attempted dismissal of Wells-Barnett was demonstrative of the sexism other Black male leaders like Carter Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois showed as well.[37]

As a devout Christian and Bible teacher, Wells-Barnett knew that one should respect pastors and clergy. Nevertheless, her knowledge of the Bible, as well as her sense of self, would not allow her to blindly follow the direction of misguided leaders. She not only resisted white hegemonic notions of Black femininity, but Black male sexism as well. She occupied a unique position because though she was an influential African American female leader in Chicago in

her later life, she did not conform to elitist notions of class. If she had conformed to Black ideas regarding the theatre at the turn of the century, she would have sided with Carey and the other clergy. Moreover, she learned from Motts first-hand how his theatre would operate and the kinds of material to be showcased. If Motts’s plans had been morally objectionable, she never would have held her fund-raising event at the Pekin Theater. Although the support of local clergy would have made the campaign for the theatre less controversial, Wells-Barnett did not allow the opinions of uninformed church leaders to persuade her.

Carey continued his campaign against the theatre and brought his concerns to an alliance of ministers. These clergy formed a committee and attempted to stop the benefit by appealing to Mrs. Wooley, a Unitarian pastor and founder of the Douglass Center, to stop the center’s involvement and promotion of the theatre.[38] As part of their request, the group of clergy “promised to set aside a Sunday and take a collection for the benefit of the center if it really was in need of money.”[39] The willingness of the clergy to redirect their own church offerings to the center exposed how serious they were in wanting to prevent the benefit from occurring at the theatre. The pastors had apparently forgotten that one of the three families Mrs. Wooley contacted when she decided to establish the center was the Barnetts.

The Ministerial Alliance had also not foreseen the strength of the connections that Wells-Barnett had developed in Chicago. Not only was she notable for her national and international social activism and her work in Chicago (she established a kindergarten for Black children at Bethel A.M.E. Church and a women’s club was named after her), her husband was an attorney and prominent politician. “Mrs. Wooley heard them through, reminded herself of their opposition to the establishment of the center itself, and that at no time during its existence had the ministers ever visited her in body before, simply told them she had asked Mrs. Barnett to give some one big thing, out of which money might be made for the needs of the center and that she did not feel justified in interfering with the plans I had made.”[40] The pastors had not anticipated that their previous opposition to the center would have future ramifications. Mrs. Wooley created the center because she wanted a place where African Americans and whites could meet, discuss issues, and improve relations between the races. Since these men had resisted the center, Mrs. Wooley now was leery of their offer of assistance, even if it was from their own offerings.

Wooley’s support may have had more to do with not wanting to cross Wells-Barnett on this particular issue as the women did not always see eye-to-eye.[41] Wooley also “declined to accept their offer of a collection, reminding them that their churches all were in debt and she thought they would need their offering for themselves.”[42]This statement, from Wells-Barnett’s autobiography, concurred with her distrust of those who abused their pastoral authority – these clergy had not determined the facts, attempted to incite their congregations against the theatre, condemned its owner, and were willing to use their offerings as a bribe for an establishment, the Frederick Douglass Center, which they found reprehensible two years ago. Since none of these men was her pastor, and they proved to be questionable regarding the Pekin Theater, Wells-Barnett felt justified in disregarding the request of the clergy.

Wells-Barnett encountered two other setbacks prior to the benefit. The first came from the editor of the Daily News. Wells-Barnett had wanted the paper to print her announcement of the event. Charles Fay, the editor, declined to do so based on the past reputation of the theatre. Though this was disappointing, she was able to use other newspapers to publicize the event. The second impediment was the cancellation by one of the groups performing for the benefit. Anna Morgan ran a successful studio and “had promised to have that year’s graduating class give us a play.”[43] Unfortunately, Morgan did not notify Wells-Barnett of her change of plans until after “tickets and some literature had been printed.”[44] Though Morgan did offer to repay Wells-Barnett for the expenditures incurred, Morgan felt she had to cancel this engagement “because she had learned of the Pekin’s notorious reputation; that the young ladies in her school of acting had come from the best families of the city and that she could not afford to take them into such a place.”[45] Morgan had been able to train women from reputable families and was concerned for the reputation of her students. One could argue that she had legitimate apprehension in light of Motts’s and his establishment’s character. What complicated and nullified her concern was the fact that Wells-Barnett and her colleagues were sponsoring the event. Wells-Barnett would not have attached herself to an occasion that would impugn the reputation of African American women. Most of her activism involved making it clear to the general public that Black women were hard working and virtuous. Morgan’s withdrawal may have been encouraged as a final effort on the part of the Ministerial Alliance.

Clearly disappointed by Morgan’s actions, Wells-Barnett’s response exemplified her frustration with those who allowed themselves to be controlled by public opinion. “My reply to Miss Morgan was not very diplomatic, I grant, but I said to her that her young ladies could not have a very secure hold on their reputations if giving one night’s performance would cause them to lose them.”[46] Though Wells-Barnett was active in dispelling myths about the moral degeneracy of African American women, she also knew there were times when one had to honor prior commitments. One performance at the Pekin Theater for the Frederick Douglass Center should not mar the reputation of Morgan’s students. For Wells-Barnett, addressing injustice and inequality often demanded functioning outside of societal norms. If she had adhered to the mores of educated, middle-class African Americans, she never would have started her campaign against lynching. Fortunately, Wells-Barnett believed that the issue of lynching (and other injustices) urgently needed to be exposed and stopped. Since she knew she was a woman of high moral standards, Wells-Barnett did not allow sexist ideologies to prevent her from being in the public sphere.

“In spite of all the opposition,” Wells-Barnett writes, “the benefit was a huge success. The society leaders vied with each other in their box parties and the house was filled with the most representative members of our race. It gave them a chance to see what perhaps they would have been years in realizing, what a very auspicious effort was being made right here in our town by a man who sincerely wanted to do better things.”[47] The event’s success was not only demonstrated by the amount of money raised, $500 which was the average cost of a car in 1906, but also viewed as an achievement by the local papers who praised the event as well.[48] It also was a triumph because Wells-Barnett was confident the event had planted a positive vision about the theatre in the minds of others. Through the benefit, many Blacks witnessed that the theatre was not disreputable.

The Pekin provided a space where African American performers, writers, and musicians could operate and develop their respective skills without having to cater to European American audiences. The Chicago American noted in 1906 that it was, “the only theater in the country, probably the only regular playhouse in the world, owned, managed, and conducted by colored people, presenting with a stock company of colored artists, original musical comedies, farces and plays written and composed by colored men in this city.”[49] In March 1906, the first play presented in the remodeled theatre (a fire had destroyed the interior of the theatre) was the three-act musical comedy The Man from ‘Bam, written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who went onto to write the Broadway hit and Black musical comedy Shuffle Along in 1921, “book by Collin Davis, lyrics by Arthur Gillespie, and music by Joe Jordan.”[50]

In its initial months, the theatre exhibited new and mostly original productions, usually musical comedies or farces, every two to three weeks. Other shows performed at the Pekin were “The Mayor of Dixie, Two African Princes, My Friend From Georgia, In Zululand, Captain Rufus, Count of No Account, One Round of Pleasure, and Doctor Dope.”[51] The Pekin’s stage manager was Charles Sager, its producing director was J. Ed. Green, the resident director of music was Joe Jordan, and its composers Will Vodery and Lawrence Freeman.[52] Some of the acting talent developed at the Pekin “included Lawrence Chenault, J. Francis Mores, Charles Gilpin, the prima donnas Lottie Grady and Rosa Lee Tyler, Pearl Brown and, later, Abbie Mitchell.”[53] Green was an actor, playwright, and manager as well as the producing director. In addition to Gilpin, who gained national prominence in Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Emperor Jones, Green and actor Harrison Stewart were two of the brightest stars of the theatre according to theatre scholars Errol Hill and James Hatch. Hence as Wells-Barnett noted, “It has been a very great pleasure to remember that many of the leading actors and actresses in the race got their first training in Bob Motts’s stock company. The same is true of the musicians.”[54]

Shortly after the benefit, prominent Black organizations in Chicago used the Pekin for events and one of the pastors who vowed never to step foot in the theatre made a speech there for a political meeting. With the theatre’s increased popularity, Motts tried to build upon its reputation. He sent “two recent productions [Captain Rufus and The Husband] to New York during the summer for a short two-week stay at Hurtig and Seaman’s Music Hall in Harlem” in 1907.[55] Though Motts seemed to have wanted to attract investors to his theatrical endeavors, his scheme made New Yorkers desire their own all Black playhouse with performers and musicians.

Wells-Barnett’s efforts to alter attitudes about the theatre in Chicago occurred simultaneously to critics of the stage gaining importance in national newspapers. Black newspapers informed Black communities about political, economic, and social events, and many papers also shared their views on how these events affected African Americans. These organs also covered African American entertainers and were not shy about criticizing performances they felt perpetuated racist ideas about Blacks. Sylvester Russell was the first African American theatre critic to receive recognition nationally. He was a former singer and wrote for the Indianapolis Freeman from approximately 1900 to 1910 and later for the Chicago Defender.[56] Scholar Henry T. Sampson notes that Russell’s “graphic and detailed show reviews and other theatrical commentary” reflect the ways Black entertainment was viewed by a “contemporary observer.”[57] Though some performers disliked his criticism, it gained favor when entertainers and audiences realized his desire was to improve the quality of African American performance.[58]

As Russell grew in stature, other Black newspapers hired writers to examine the dramatic arts. Another prominent writer is Lester Walton, who wrote for The New York Age as their drama (and later film) critic. Like Russell, Walton was involved in the theatre as a song writer, playwright, manager, and producer both prior to and after his assignment with The Age. Walton was a founding member of the Frogs, Inc., a theatrical club in New York City with other African American entertainers such as Bert Williams and George Walker.[59] Walton and Russell brought seriousness and respectability in their examination and review of Black entertainment and their writings along with Wells-Barnett’s bringing new audiences to the Pekin theatre change how African Americans thought about the performing arts.

As perceptions about the theatre changed, the Pekin inspired other African Americans nationally to create local legitimate professional Black theatres. Wells-Barnett observed that “other parts of the country encouraged by our success also established theaters of their own among our people and many of them were called Pekin Theaters.”[60] According to Bernard Peterson, there were at least seven other Pekin Theaters in existence in the early twentieth century and the Indianapolis Freeman noted in an article dated 10 May 1910 that there were 53 Black theatres “owned and managed by Negroes.”[61]

Though she had faced opposition, Wells-Barnett belief in the importance of this project created a vision that went beyond Chicago. Theatres for African Americans throughout the nation spoke of self-reliance and entrepreneurship along with the formation of Black theatrical companies, managers, and musician staffs. Though not all of the theatres were owned and operated by African Americans, these were spaces where Blacks did not have to endure discrimination and had the opportunity to develop artistically. With the benefit of hindsight (she wrote her autobiography in the 1920s or 1930s), Wells-Barnett could celebrate the success of the Pekin Theater. Not only was it a theatre with an African Americans stock company, it was the first and for many years the only playhouse where plays were created and produced by Black talent.[62]

Wells-Barnett swayed public opinion in African American communities at a time when Black women were invisible and not considered human beings by the larger public. It was also a time when ideologies in Black communities, particularly middle-class groups, restricted women’s work. While some African Americans would have been troubled by the career of a married woman, the public life of Wells-Barnett demonstrated how women could conduct themselves in public. Interestingly, she found the stage a place where a greater opportunity for African American self-expression existed. Despite the moral concerns regarding entertainment and the racist images and imaginings about Black women throughout American culture, she worked to dispel myths regarding the theatre; she would not allow public perception of proper female behavior to prevent her from challenging negative attitudes about the theatre. Her belief in herself empowered her to constantly consider the possibilities and not the barriers. Moreover, Wells-Barnett desired to inspire others and ensure that African American achievement in the dramatic arts and beyond would not stop with her death.


Karen Bowdre is currently an independent scholar, who has published on African American media and romantic comedies in Black Camera: An International Film Journal, Falling in Love Again: The Contemporary Romantic Comedy, and Cinema Journal. Her research interests include race and representation, gender, early African American theatre history, adaptation, romantic comedies, telefantasy, and telenovelas. Her book Shades of Love: African Americans and the Hollywood Romantic Comedy is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press. She is also the co-editor of From Madea to Media Mogul: Critical Perspectives on Tyler Perry which is forthcoming with University of Mississippi Press.


 

[1] According to Professor Edward Robinson, the Pekin first opened as the “Temple of Music” on 18 June 1905 and was rebuilt in 1906. See Edward A. Robinson, “The Pekin: The Genesis of American Black Theater,” Black American Literature Forum 16, no. 4, Black Theatre Issue (Winter 1982): 136-138. The only mention of Wells-Barnett’s work with theatre I have found was in Errol Hill and James Hatch’s comprehensive work on Black theatre: Errol Hill and James Hatch, A History of African American Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 191.

[2] Hill and Hatch, History, 216-217. Errol Hill ascribes Du Bois’ description of Black theatre to an article believed written by the latter in The Crisis, XXII:3 (July 1926), 134 titled “‘Krigwa Players’ Little Theatre Movement.” See Hill, “Black Black Theatre in Form and Style,” The Black Scholar 10, no. 10, Black Theatre (July/August 1979): 29-31. Another example of a Black female intellectual and her contributions to theatre being overlooked can be found in Monica Smith Ndounou’s exceptional essay on Anna Julia Cooper. Ndounou, “Drama for ‘Neglected People’: Recovering Anna Julia Cooper’s Dramatic Theory and Criticism from the Shadow of W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (Fall 2012): 25-50.

[3] Uplift ideology is described by Kevin Gaines as a “self-help ideology” employed by the Black elite to separate themselves as being better than other African Americans because of their education and class status. Gaines views these elites as being ministers, intellectuals, journalists, and reformers and throughout his text references Wells-Barnett as an elite. Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 13, 44-45, 79-80. Though Gaines does acknowledge her elite position was often dismissed by sexist Black men, she does not fit neatly in this category, as her views about class alter over time. For example, when Wells-Barnett had two suits pending in the Tennessee Supreme Court regarding her removal from the ladies car of a train, she resented the fact that affluent Blacks used their money to “bypass the indignities of discrimination rather than [defend] their race.” Mia Bay, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 57.

[4] Historians Mia Bay and Paula Giddings document how during Wells-Barnett’s lifetime her accomplishments were not acknowledged by other African American leaders and in Black history; both attribute this to sexism operating within Black communities. Bay, To Tell, 3-13. Paula J. Giddings, Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Amistad, 2008), 1-7.

[5] Since Wells-Barnett was a significant figure prior to her marriage to Ferdinand Barnett in June 1895, many biographers only use her maiden name when discussing her prior to her marriage. In this chapter, my main focus is her work for the Pekin Theatre (when she was married) but in order to give background information, I also reference her achievements prior to her marriage. In order to avoid confusion, I use her married name throughout my text.

[6] This incident shows the changing nature of Jim Crow laws. Wells-Barnett had ridden this same route on the ladies car in the past without problems or altercations.

[7]. Bay delineates the lawyer controversy in her biography of Wells-Barnett. The initial lawyer on the case, Thomas Cassells, was an important African American lawyer and politician. Because of his disinterest, she fired him and hired James M. Greer, a European American. Cassells became one of Wells-Barnett’s lifelong enemies. Bay, To Tell, 45-58.

[8]  Mildred I. Thompson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of an American Black Woman, 1893-1930 (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1990), 11-14.

[9] Bay notes the importance of Reconstruction to Wells-Barnett and how it and her parents shaped her ideas concerning equality and rights. Bay, To Tell, 15-17.

[10] Alfreda M. Duster (ed), The Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 298, Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 439 and Bay, To Tell, 281.

[11] Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 472 and Bay, To Tell, 282.

[12] Wells-Barnett’s best known pamphlets are Southern Horrors (1892), A Red Record (1895) and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900). Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 1-3.

[13] Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 281-2, Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 12.

[14] Robert Allen unpacks several transgressive moments on theatrical stages such as burlesque that include women impersonating men and creating a spectacle that unnerved middle class audiences and critics. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

[15] Duster, The Crusade, 289. Bob Cole was another notable African American vaudeville entertainer. In addition to being a talented performer and part of the Cole and Johnson team, he was also a stage manager and playwright for his own stock company. For more information on Cole and Johnson see Seniors’, Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture and Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009), 178.

[16] Duster, The Crusade, 289-290.

[17] Ibid, 290.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Giddings reports that once members of various African American groups realized the benefit for the Douglass Center would be held at the New Pekin controversy surrounded the event. Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 458.

[21] Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 447.

[22] Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 453-461.

[23] Duster, The Crusade, 290.

[24] Thompson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 112.

[25] Duster, The Crusade, 290.

[26] Ida Wells-Barnett describing the Pekin Theatre and owner Robert Motts. Duster, The

Crusade 290.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Aida Overton Walker, a choreographer, actress, and singer, discussed the limitations forced on African American performers: You haven’t the faintest conception of the difficulties which must be overcome, of the prejudices which must be left slumbering, of the things we must avoid whenever we write or sing a piece of music, put on a play or sketch, walk out in the street or land in a new town. No white can understand these things. Every little thing we do must be thought out and arranged by Negroes, because they alone can know how easy it is for a colored show to offend a white audience. Let me give you an example. In all the ten years that I have appeared in and helped produce a great many plays of a musical nature, there has never been even the remotest suspicion of a love story in any of them. During those ten years I do not think there have ever been a single white company which has produced any kind of musical play in which a love story was not the central motive. Now, why is this? It’s not accident or because we don’t want to put on plays as beautiful and artistic in every way as do white actors, but because there is a popular prejudice against love scenes enacted by Negroes. This is just one of the ten thousand things we must think of every time we make a step. The public does not appreciate our limitations, or, rather, the limitations which other persons have made for us. Chicago Herald, dated 10 January (year missing) clipping, Robinson Locke Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

[30] Duster, The Crusade, 291.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 439.

[33] Duster, The Crusade, 291.

[34] In 1878, Ferdinand Barnett founded the Chicago Conservator, one of the first African American newspapers in the Chicago area (see Thompson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 48). Later, Wells-Barnett would join the staff of the paper and become an editor. This incident occurred after both had sold their interest in the paper.

[35] Duster, The Crusade, 291.

[36] Ibid, 291-292.

[37] Wells-Barnett was upset Carter Woodson had not mentioned her anti-lynching work in his history of significant African Americans. See Linda O. McMurry’s To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 336. And Patricia A. Schechter in her essay, The Anti-Lynching Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1920, http://dig.lib.niu.edu/gildedage/idabwells/pamphlets.html (accessed 8 Oct. 2014), observes that “(a)t her death in 1931, for example, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) journal, The Crisis, that her work had been “easily forgotten” and “taken to greater success “by others.”

[38] Thompson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 94.

[39] Duster, The Crusade, 292.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Though Wooley desired interracial interactions between African Americans and European Americans, she had a definite bias against poorer Blacks. She felt that “the ‘hordes’ of southern blacks, most of them ‘ignorant and dissolute,’ who ‘lowered the standard of the colored population in our midst’” Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 456. Wells-Barnett’s knowledge of how lynching victims were criminalized enabled her to have a view that people can “change for the better.” Ibid, 457.

[42] Duster, The Crusade, 292.

[43] Ibid, 293.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Giddings, Ida: A Sword, 458. Information regarding 1906 from website http://local.aaca.org/junior/mileposts/1906.htm. Accessed 8 Oct. 2014.

[49] Hill and Hatch, History, 192.

[50] Hill and Hatch, History, 192-193.

[51] Ibid, 193.

[52] While the other positions were listed by Hill and Hatch, the composers were listed by Bernard L. Peterson, Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960 (Westport, Greenwood, 2000), xi.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Duster, The Crusade, 293.

[55] Hill and Hatch, History, 194. Captain Rufus was written by J. Ed. Green and Alfred Anderson and the music came from H. Lawrence Freeman and Joseph Jordan; the play was set in the military and a musical comedy. The Husband was written by Miller and Lyles.

[56] Peterson, Profiles, 220.   Sylvester Russell wrote for The Chicago Defender’s “Musical and Dramatic” Column along with other writers. See Anna Everett’s Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949 (Durham: Duke UP, 2001), 18-35, for examples of Russell’s film criticism as well as Russell’s, 36-41.

[57] Henry T. Sampson, The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910, (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988) 282

[58] Ibid, 293

[59]Peterson, Profiles, 252-253. Lester Walton was The New York Age’s theatre critic and editor of the column “Music and the Stage.”

[60] Duster, The Crusade, 294

[61] Hill and Hatch, History, 199

[62]Ibid, 205-206.

 


Logo_Publications

Ida Wells-Barnett and Chicago’s Pekin Theatre by Karen Bowdre

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 26, Number 3 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents:

  • Ida Wells-Barnett and Chicago’s Pekin Theatre by Karen Bowdre
  • History is Distance: Metaphor, Meaning, and Performance in Serenade/The Proposition by Ariel Nereson
  • Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives by Vanessa Campagna
  • “Persian Like The Cat”: Crossing Borders with “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” by Tamara L. Smith

www.jadtjournal.org
jadt@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
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