The Chitlin’ Circuit

Bessie Smith

The 1920s was a time of prosperity. It was also a time of boiling social, racial and political tensions. The 20s saw a second rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Credited in part by the silent drama film The Birth of a Nation (originally called the Clansman) directed by D. W. Griffith, based on the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr. the formation of this second rising of the KKK reflected the social tensions of urban industrialization and vastly increased immigration, its membership grew most rapidly in cities, and spread to the Midwest and West out of the South.

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Together with Orientals, and Mexicans, the African-American population suffered the most at the hands of those concerned with preserving the long established White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (W.A.S.P.) values that were an integral part of American life. People showed a tolerance for racist views in the media, literature and towards organizations like the KKK. Also the language, living and working conditions and Government legislation that ethnic minorities were subjected to is further evidence that the twenties was an openly discriminatory decade

Even organizations which represented the African-American community and its members such as the Theater Owners Booking Association, or TOBA (commonly referred to as Toby Time, or Tough on Black Artists by black performers) a vaudeville circuit for Black performers in the 1920s and 1930s, generally had worse touring arrangements than the white vaudeville counterpart. Started in 1909 with 31 theaters and having more than 100 theaters at its peak in the 1920s, TOBA booked only black artists into a series of theaters on the East Coast and as far west as Oklahoma. TOBA venues were the only ones south of the Mason-Dixon Line that regularly sought black audiences

Because TOBA did not treat white and black performers equally an alternate circuit of performance venues was created. This circuit was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit”. This circuit included venues in which a multitude of different African-American performers including musicians, comedians, acrobats, and other performers could perform safely. Because theaters were not always available, these venues included school auditoriums. This circuit reached out to the community that TOBA was missing, and the performers would travel to black neighborhoods to bring them entertainment. This circuit existed during the age of racial segregation in the United States from approximately the early 19th century through the 1960s.

Noted theaters on the Chitlin’ Circuit included the Cotton Club, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta; Small’s Paradise and the Apollo Theater in New York City; Robert’s Show Lounge, Club DeLisa and the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore; the Fox Theatre in Detroit; the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas; the Hippodrome Theatre in Richmond, Virginia; and the Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida.

Apollo Theater Poster

Many notable performers worked on the Chitlin’ Circuit, including Count Basie, George Benson, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Lena Horne, Etta James, B. B. King, Patti LaBelle, Bernie Mac, Moms Mabley, The Delfonics, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Wilson Pickett, Richard Pryor, Otis Redding, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, The Supremes, The Temptations, Tammi Terrell, Muddy Waters, and Flip Wilson.Jimmie ” JJ ” Walker.

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