Our subject’s real name was Reuben Crowders; he took the stage handle Ernest Hogan during his minstrel days because it sounded Irish – -in emulation of the leading minstrel men of the era (Christy, Dixon, Rice). Born in Kentucky ca. 1865, he started out as a child performing as a “pick” with Black Patti’s Troubadours.
Today Hogan is unfortunately best known as the author of the 1896 hit song “All Coons Look Alike to Me”, which was such a smash hit that it set off a national craze for so-called “coon songs”. While the content of the songs is today (and was even then by some) considered racist, a broader view shows that Hogan was also one of the key figures responsible for the popularity of ragtime in general — the sword, as it so often is, was double-edged. In 1898, he toured with Isham’s Tenderloin Coon Company. The crowning irony is that, despite his complicity in the perpetuation of certain stereotypes (his stage name was “The Unbleached American”) , he was still hated and resented by angry whites to such an extent that he was nearly lynched along with George Walker in a New York race riot in 1900. He apparently couldn’t win!
Yet there had to have been satisfactions. After all, the mob of animals was after him for having been so successful. Hogan was the first African American to perform on a Broadway stage (albeit in shows like The Octoroons, Jes’ Lak White Folks and Rufus Rastus), one of the first to play “white vaudeville” (at such prestige houses as Hammerstein’s Victoria and the Winter Garden), and he made thousands in royalties from his songs and the shows that he penned. He passed away in 1909. The cause, consumption.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.