James A. Bland (born this day in 1854) was “The Prince of Negro Songwriters” and “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man“, author of some 700 songs, including “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”. A graduate of Howard University (and the son of one America’s first black college graduates), it may seem like a racial setback for him to have become an African American minstrel man. Yet, it could be argued that he was one of the most prominent, distinguished and celebrated African Americans of his time, ultimately breaking down barriers rather than perpetuating them.
After several years performing with Haverly’s Genuine Colored Minstrels, he lived in England from 1881 through 1896, where he was the toast of the town and gave several command performances for Queen Victoria. When he returned to the states however, minstrelsy was dead. He played the black vaudeville circuits, and died in obscurity in 1911. Ironically, he was to be much honored posthumously.
And now here’s Vernon Dahlhart & Company performing “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers”:
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.