Orpheus McAdoo: Circled the Globe with African-American Talent

Orpheus McAdoo (1858-1900) was a terrifically successful African American minstrel show impresario, back in the era when “genuine” all-black minstrel shows were the rage, paving the way for the time when African Americans could enter mainstream show business without any minstrel element at all. As it happens, the bulk of McAdoo’s career would be spent abroad.

McAdoo was born to slaves on a North Carolina plantation; he was a child of seven when the end of the Civil War brought him freedom. His mother, a house slave, was not just literate but cultured, judging by McAdoo’s first name, which indicates both a familiarity with Greek mythology and probably a love of music. McAdoo attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia and then taught school for a number of years.

He remained associated with Hampton for several years, teaching at their prep school, and singing with the Hampton Male Quartet, which toured professionally. In the mid 1880s he joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers (founded at all-black Fisk University), and toured internationally with them (England, Australia, India and East Asia) for five years. In 1899, McAdoo broke off and founded the Virginia Concert Company, a.k.a. the Virginia Jubilee Singers. With this company, he traveled to England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1899 he founded his Georgia Minstrels and Alabama Cakewalkers, featuring the performers Flora Batson, Billy McClain, and McClain’s wife Cordelia among the large cast. This was the first time McAdoo shows contained minstrel comedy and vaudeville elements. Previous to this, his tours had primarily been vocal concerts consisting of spirituals and selections from the minstrelsy repertoire (e.g. Stephen Foster songs). At this moment of success, McAdoo died in Sydney in 1900, only 42 years old. His impact may have been greatest in Capetown South Africa, where a minstrel festival was founded called the Kaapse-Klopse which continues to this day.