Sunday, June 27, 2021

Blackface, Yellow-Face and Alligator Bait - Sidney Perrin's Complicated Career


“Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait” is an obscure song first published in 1899, with music by Sidney Perrin and words by Henry Wise.  It is only known today (to the extent it’s known at all) for its “overtly racist lyrics” and title.  It has frequently been presented as circumstantial evidence of the truth of the supposed historic alligator hunting practices, or as one of many examples of the presumed racist origins of the University of Florida’s now-banned “Gator Bait” cheer.  


Reading such recent characterizations of the song might lead one to conclude that the songwriters were Grand Kleagles of the Ku Klux Klan or something on that order.  But context is everything, and not everything is black and white.  The composer and lyricist, Sidney Perrin and Henry Wise, were Black – not white. 

Sidney Perrin was a successful, working musician, singer, playwright and producer, with a decades-long career appearing before white, black and mixed audiences, and writing songs for himself and other singers, white and black.  He was an early ragtime composer who “wrote some of the most celebrated rag songs” of his day.[i]  Perrin’s piece, “Jennie Cooler Dance,” has been singled out from “several precedents” to Joplin’s landmark composition, “The Ragtime Dance,” as the “closest to Joplin’s” work, although “Joplin’s music and lyric are clearly superior.” [ii]

Perrin was an entrepreneur and champion of black enterprise.  He worked at times in groundbreaking, barrier-shattering, all-black musical theater companies that would help delegitimize, and in time supplant, the long-standing practice of white performers appearing in blackface.

To simply dismiss the song, and by extension its composer and lyricist, as “racist” due to what are now viewed as problematic title and lyrics would neglect the complex nature of history and overlook the lives, contributions and hard work of generations of black artists who, like Perrin and Wise, forged successful careers in circumstances much different from today.

Another black artist of the era was associated with an act with an equally now-problematic title.

New York Age, March 23, 1911, page 6.

J. Rosamond Johnson’s Sambo Girls, featuring Edgar Connor and Blanche Deas, start the merriment.  This is a high-class, lively colored act, with J. Rosamond Johnson, to whom the American public is indebted for the composition of much pleasing music, himself in the conductor’s chair directing the orchestra.

New York Age, February 8, 1912, page 6.

The Yonkers Herald, June 13, 1925, page 5.

J. Rosamond Johnson is the composer of the music for the so-called “Black National Anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing”[iii] (his brother wrote the words as a poem in 1900[iv]).  No one is seriously talking about cancelling him or his work based on his association with the “Sambo Girls” and Edgar “Sambo” Connor.  Sidney Perrin’s life and work should be accorded the same courtesy.

Alligator Bait

The title of the song suggests racist content today because the expression “alligator bait” was once widely used as a derogatory term to refer to Black children, and sometimes Black people, generally.  But when the song was written in 1899, the expression had not yet taken on the derogatory meaning it would later develop.  At the time, the expression had long been used on occasion to refer to anyone, black or white, that one might not mind seeing eaten by an alligator.  The earliest known “alligator bait” joke, for instance, is about rich white “Dudes” from New York City vacationing in Florida.  The expression was even used among Black children themselves, as a playful taunt.

The expression came into wider use in 1899, when a photographic print of a group of Black babies sold well across the country – the title of the image was “Alligator Bait.”  It was only after that print became well known, and numerous copycat postcards and other images depicting Black children threatened by alligators became widely available, that the expression would be widely used to refer to Black children, or as an insult. 

“Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait” was published the same year the print came out, suggesting it  may have been written to capitalize on the popularity of the print and well known title.[v]

The Song

The song itself is not about hunting alligators.  Nor is it about wishing anyone be eaten by an alligator.   It’s a lullaby of sorts, about a loving mother using fear to control her children’s behavior.

In the first verse, a mother sings to her son “of slav’ry, past and gone” and tells “him of de good Lord who lived way up above,” all of which is said to be sung “with mother’s love.”  In the second verse, she promises that if he is “very, very good,” she will “buy for him a pretty little toy” and “take him to the bayou that is way down in de woods.”  His “eyeballs fairly jump with joy” at the news, but she cautions that he must behave himself when they visit the bayou.  If not, she warns, there are alligators that eat “black boys, Dat’s bad, and wouldn’t mind their mammy dear.”  In addition to being a means of getting to behave well, the story may also have served to give her son a healthy dose of respect for the real dangers of the bayou.

Ironically for someone whose works raise the specter of blackface minstrelsy, Sidney Perrin spent much of his later career in yellow face, playing a Chinese man in a skit generally referred to as “An Afro-Chinese Fracas.”

John Rucker, The Alabama Blossom, and Sidney Perrin in "An Afro-Chinese Fracus," The South Bend Tribune, December 19, 1924, Second Edition, page 8.


The Songwriters

Sidney Perrin and Henry Wise both appeared with “Black Patti’s Fifty Troubadors” in 1897.  “Black Patti,” Sissieretta Jones, was a classically trained opera singer who had performed for the President of the United States and the Prince of Wales. In the late 1890s, she formed her own travelling company of Black actors, musicians and comedians.  She was the highest paid Black entertainer of her day, and was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2013.


The Saint Paul Globe, January 3, 1897, page 10.

Henry Wise played the lead role of “Rube Green, an Alabama Sport,” in the skit that formed the centerpiece of the show, “At Jolly ‘Coon’-ey Island.”

 The Saint Paul Globe, January 3, 1897, page 10.

Sidney Perrin joined the company later that same year.  He missed one of his first rehearsals, but had a good excuse – he had just married one of the chorus girls.

They met last Wednesday and were wedded yesterday.  This is the romance of twon young troubadours of the Black Patti troupe at the Pleasure Palace, New York.  It happened this way.  A new musical team Hillman and Perrin, was added to the show.  Some of the dusky chorus girls congregated in the wings to watch them extract melody from flat irons, clothes pins, sleigh bells and bamboo rods.  Sidney Perrin happened to look up and catch the admiring gaze of Lillian Daisy, a lemon-colored divinity, with a buxom figure and languishing black eyes.  It was love at first sight, and that is why the couple were five minutes late at the rehearsal yesterday.  Their excuse was entirely satisfactory.

The Butte Daily Post (Butte, Montana), June 5, 1897, page 7.

Henry Wise had been in the entertainment business since at least 1894, when he appeared with Rily Jackson’s “Georgia Minstrels” as a singer and “great character impersonator,” [vi] who could do “good” “old man impersonations.”[vii]

Perrin and Wise would collaborate on at least four other songs, including, “The Cabin Near the Mississippi Shore,” “Pickaninny Mine, Come Hide Away,” “My Alabama Lize,” and “Sleep, My Little Pickaninny, Sleep.”

When Perrin joined “Black Patti’s Troubadors” in 1897, he was paired with a partner named Eugene Hillman.  Hillman and Perrin had been performing together since at least as early as mid-1896, which is the earliest reference I’ve found to Perrin’s career.

In August of 1896, they appeared with Billy Kersand in Richard and Pringle’s “Famous George Minstrels.”  

Pittsburg Daily Headlight (Pittsburg, Kansas), August 22, 1896, page 4.

Hillman and Perrin toured with the Famous Georgia Minstrels several months, as attested by complimentary comments of his performances in Wilmington, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana in 1896.

The company is composed entirely of negro talent and they carry with them an excellent orchestra of colored musicians. . . .

The company is a large one and all of the members are meritorious, but the two comedians, Billy Kersands and Neill Morre, Jr., are genuine artists. . . .

The funny skit and musical act of Hillman and Perrin was one of the best numbers.

The Wilmington Messenger, November 7, 1896, page 4.

Hillman and Perrin went through an amusing and original musical sketch entitled “Wash Day in Musicville.”

The Times-Democrat (New Orleans), December 14, 1896, page 8.

The “Wash Day” sketch may be the same sketch as the one involving “flat irons, clothes pins,” described as part of their act a year later with the “Black Patti” troupe.

Billy Kersand, “King of the Black Minstrels.” [viii]


Billy Kersand was the “King of the Black Minstrels,” and the “most popular Black comedian of the late-19th century,” [ix] whose most lasting contribution to pop-culture may be his popular song, “Old Aunt Jemima,” first performed in 1873, which helped popularize the character of Aunt Jemima, which was later famously used to market pancakes and syrup.

Wilmington Daily Commercial (Wilmington, Delaware), January 27, 1873, page 1.

Aunt Jemima, as sung by Kersands, was immense, and fairly took the audience by storm.  He is certainly the most original genius we ever saw in the minstrel business, and not another man in the profession could do Aunt Jemima with the same effect.

The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio), July 26, 1873, page 4.

He is sometimes given credit for originating the character, but that may not be the case.  A skit entitled “Aunt Jemima’s Plaster” appears as the “Finale” of a minstrel show in San Francisco in 1867.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 9, 1867, page 1.

The comment that “not another man in the business” could perform “Old Aunt Jemima” as well as Billy Kersand may suggest that the character, if not Kersand’s original song, may have been a stock character.

Eugene Hillman (sometimes referred to as George Hillman) also collaborated on several songs, with Perrin writing the music and Hillman the lyrics.  Their songs include, “Mammy’s Little Pumpkin Colored Coons,” “Black Annie,” and “The Black K. P.s.”  

Similar to “Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait,” the “Pumpkin” song is a tough-love lullaby.  A father plays with and sings to his children after coming home from work, and their mother puts them to bed with the mild threat that she won’t buy them molasses candy unless they close their eyes and go to sleep. 

“Mammy’s Little Pumpkin Colored Coons” was “an emphatic hit” when introduced on stage by a white performer named Julius Witmark, in the play, “The Good Mr. Best.”[x]

The Boston Globe, May 4, 1897, page 4.

The staging of that play was also notable because it may be one of the first uses of motion pictures to create special effects in a stage play, and may be the first representation of a video home security system ever portrayed on stage. 

A distinct novelty is introduced in the third act and one that made a tremendous hit last evening.  By the use of the kinetoscope and projectoscope the audience is shown pictures of characters in the play going through performances that are apparently not intended for public view.  This unique effect is naturally introduced.  It is represented as an invention of the late Mr. Tim Best, who had perfected an arrangement by which he could sit in his library and by pressing an electric button could see every room of his house.

Tom Best unwittingly presses the button connected with his wife’s room.  The result is startling to the audience as well as to Mr. Best.  The wife is preparing to retire for the night and is partly disrobed when a man enters and embraces her.  It is subsequently made known that this intruder is the woman’s brother, so of course there is nothing really objectionable in the rather suggestive scene.  Several other pictures are shown and all are very amusing.

The Boston Globe, May 4, 1897, page 4.

After playing this role, Julius Witmark left the stage for six years to focus on his music publishing business.  His company would publish many of Sidney Perrin’s songs. It’s possible that their collaboration on “The Good Mr. Best” may have helped jumpstart Perrin’s career as a commercial songwriter. 

The New York Age, September 14, 1911, page 6.

More than a decade after writing “Mammie’s Little Pumpkin Colored Coons,” Sidney Perrin and his wife, Goldie Crosby, performed in trio with a similar name, but without the problematic word – the “Pumpkin Colored Trio.”   

The Pumpkin trio is composed of all colored people who received their musical education abroad and have sung in many foreign countries.  They have sweet voices and it is a big hit.

The Waterloo Courier (Iowa), November 17, 1911, page 11.

The Pumpkin Colored Trio is composed of Messrs. Henry Saparo and Sid Perrin the famous composers and stars of their own productions, in addition to Miss Goldie Crosby, the soubrette who made the English Music Hall patrons sit up and take notice.  Miss Crosby has appeared throughout Europe with great success and with elaborate wardrobe is a great assistance to Messrs. Saparo and Perrin.

Sid Perrin has for years been known as one of the few real colored comedians who can make people laugh without resorting to the common or vulgar methods.  Mr. Saparo was featured for several seasons in “the Duke of Darktown” and will sing several of his own compositions . . . .

Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), November 5, 1911, page 7.

Whereas Sidney Perrin performed at times with groundbreaking African-American acts of the period, his Pumpkin Colored Trio broke barriers in a small way, as “the first and only colored act” up to that time to sign with the Beekler Brothers theatrical agency.  

The song “Black Annie” is about different styles of dances, and the title appears to be the name of a particular dance step.  The “K. P.” song is a march, with lyrics about members of a fraternal order (presumably the Knights of Pythias) in uniform, parading with their band down the street.

Hillman wrote the words and music to at least one song without Perrin, a song entitled, “I’m a Modern Black Adonis, and a Dead Swell, Swell,” about a well-dressed man who’s full of himself.

In 1898, Hillman and Perrin were appearing with Al G. Field’s “Refined Negro Minstrels, The Most Expensive Colored Minstrel Company Ever Organized to Travel.”  Their name appeared near the top of the “50 Prominent People” in the company.  

The Mail (Hutchinson, Kansas), December 3, 1897, page 8.


In addition to writing music in collaboration with lyricists, Sidney Perrin sometimes wrote the words himself.  His most lasting contribution to American music is his 1902 effort, “Dat’s De Way to Spell ‘Chicken.’” 

The song was an international hit.  In 1904, an American visiting France noted the song’s popularity there.

It seems that instead of tiring of the cakewalk, the French people are crying for more and more.  Each former favorite among their national dances has one by one been ousted in favor of this grotesque but irresistible American gyration.  “Coontown Chimes,” by Howard Webster, still holds its own as the official cakewalk tune, while the popular coon song at present is “Dat’s de Way to Spell Chicken,” by Sidney Perrin.  Done into French it goes something like this:

“Chee – dat’s de way to bee gin,

Haitch – dat’s de next lettah een,

Ei – am de third,

Chee – dat’s to seesong de vord;

Kah – dat’s a fillin’ een,

Ae – eet’s near de end;


Dat’s de way to spell cheecken.”


The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), January 31, 1904, page 11.

The song is still around today, usually sung as a children’s song.  There are dozens of versions of the song on Youtube, sometimes under another title, such as “C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken,” “The Chicken Song,” or similar combinations or permutations.  

In 1904, while touring with an all-Black company called “The Policy Players,” Perrin wrote and appeared in a musical comedy called “The Bogus Prince.” 

The Policy Players, a company of colored performers, numbering about thirty, opened at the Rocky Springs theatre on Monday night for a week, at popular prices. . . .

They produce a musical comedy, “The Bogus Prince,” which was written by Sidney Perrin, one of their number, and tells the story of a scheming negro, who, in order to capture the hand of a pretty colored girl, makes up as a wealthy prince only to be exposed by an accomplice, to whom he owes money.

Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), June 7, 1904, page 6.     

The piece abounds in good comedy and excellent musical numbers.  The leading comedy role is played by Sidney Perrin, who, through his clever work and ludicrous by-play, found enthusiastic recognition from the audience.

Dayton Daily News, September 24, 1904, page 13.

He was still with “The Policy Players” when they visited Washington DC in 1906.

“The Policy Players,” which opens at the Majestic Theater tomorrow matinee, for two weeks played to standing room only at this same theater on the occasion of its former visit.  The cast contains the names of the original company.  Among the most prominent are Sidney Perrin, who will again be seen I the role of Sam. . . .  As an extra attraction Thursday there will be a prize cakewalk; Friday night, Amateur night; Saturday night, buck dance contest, open to all comers.

Evening Star (Washington DC), August 26, 1906, page 19.

In 1909, he wrote the music for a comedy written by Miller, Lyles and Miller, who first established their acting credentials as “amateur student-actors-playwrights” at Fisk University.[xi]

Messrs. Miller Lyles and Miller, comedians and playwrights, made their first appearance before the public as comedy stars in a play written by themselves, entitled “The Colored Aristocrats,” with ensemble music composed by Sidney L. Perrin.

Nashville Globe, September 10, 1909, page 2.

In 1910, Perrin appeared with a group called the “All Star Stock Company,” in a production entitled, “A Night in New York’s Chinatown.”  Elements of the play suggest why the company he had toured with before had been known as “The Policy Players,” and introduce a character similar to the character that Sidney Perrin would be most closely associated with later in his career.

The setting for much of the play was in Chinatown.  According to a review in the Black-owned newspaper, The Broad Ax (Chicago), the characters in the play were in Chinatown “to play the policy game” (something akin to the “numbers racket”) and “see the sights.”[xii] The bit about the policy game may have been a long-running gag that could have given its name to Perrin’s earlier acting troupe.

One of the performers in the cast (not Perrin) played a role described as “great Chinese character.”  The review did explain what the character did, or what was so great about it.  But it may have inspired a character Sidney Perrin would play regularly for many years.


Yellow-Face Performer 

The earliest reference to Sidney Perrin performing his “Chinese” character is from 1920, at a time he was co-owner of his own production company, the Perrin-Henderson Company.

All Star Comedy Company Score Big Success at the Lincoln Theatre.

Sid Perrin, as Chin-Chin Chinaman, received at one of the performances repeated applause for ten minutes solid.  Although he had a severe cold that affected his throat, he graciously returned to the footlights and again and again sung the chorus.  The success of this number is not due so much to this late popular song as it is to the wonderful Chinese impersonation of this old-time performer who for many years made the rounds of the big white circuits.

Kansas City Sun, July 24, 1920, page 7.

The description of the song as a “late popular song” suggests that it was the song written in 1917, not the song of the same title written for the show, “Geisha,” in 1898 (yes, there are two songs by that title, written nearly 20 years apart).

Chin-Chin Chinaman (1917), University of Maine Library.

See him coming down the street, Hear the patter of his feet, Old John Chinaman, bundle under arm, Old John Chinaman, never does you harm.

Cleaning up your collars, Saving up your dollars, Welly, welly good; (You sabby) . . .

He goes on his way, Gets your little shirtee, cleans it when it’s dirty, Brings it back next day, His almond eyes are always full of Chinese josh, But if you’re wise, You’ll bring your tickee for your wash, He’ll tell you, “Sing foo, Wing woo, Wassa malla you?”

That’s all he’ll say, In his dinky, winky, blinky, chinky, Chin-chin Chinaman way.

Hanley, James F; Goodwin, Joe; and MacDonald, "Chin - Chin Chinaman" (1917). Vocal Popular Sheet. Music Collection. Score 2543.

Perrin would later perform his “Chinese” character with John Rucker, in an act billed as Rucker & Perrin.  They were together as early as October 1922.

Rucker and “Ah Sid”[xiii] Perrin are at Keeney’s Theatre, Brooklyn N. J.

New York Age, October 7, 1922, page 6.

Although they joined forces as an act in 1922, Rucker and Perrin’s professional connection may extend back to “Black Patti’s Troubadours” two decades earlier. 

The “Black Patti’s” chief aid is John Rucker, “The Alabama Blossom,” a colored comedian with an irresistible comic countenance, and a rich vein of humor.

The Chattanooga News (Chattanooga, Tennessee), October 7, 1901, page 8.

Rucker’s nickname is also similar to a song attributed to Sidney Perrin, “Ma Alabama Blossom,” which was copyrighted in 1902.  It is not clear whether the nickname or the song are connected, or, if so, which came first.  In any case, the two had a long history together.

Rucker and Perrin were still performing the same “Chinese” act (or something like it) in 1923, when they joined the cast of “Struttin’ Along” in San Francisco, with headliner “Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds” in San Francisco.  

 Mamie Smith is best remembered today as the first Black musician to make a record of any kind, and the first to record the blues, both in 1920.[xiv]  Her first blues recording, “Crazy Blues,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. 

In 1923, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds headlined the show, “Struttin’ Along,” in San Francisco.  The show was believed at the time to have been the “first colored company that has ever brought musical comedy to San Francisco.”[xv]

San Francisco’s “jazz-hungry” ears are being entertained in fine fashion through the efforts of Mamie Smith, John Rucker, Sid Perrin, Frisco Nick and the 75 others in “Struttin Along,” the all-colored musical comedy which yesterday entered into its third week.  With Miss Smith, known as a phonograph record star of note, presenting her Jazz Hounds in an array of syncopated melodies, and with the other notables in the cast “doing their stuff” to good advantage, the Century has been thronged since the opening night.

San Francisco Examiner, February 18, 1923, page 22.

The show was a hit, spending three weeks in San Francisco, then touring up and down California, from Hanford to Santa Ana.

Carolyn Snowden, as she appeared in “Struttin’ Along,” The Modesto Bee, April 21, 1923, page 13.


Hanford Sentinel (Hanford, California), April 23, 1922, page 3.

The cast of “Struttin’ Along” did more than just perform their show during their busy touring schedule, they also played baseball. 

The visiting nine, composed of players from the “Struttin’ Along” revue, has a first class reputation., having won 48 out of 56 games while traveling around the globe. . . .

The Sacramento Star, April 3, 1923, page 8.

The Struttin’ Along company has a number of fast baseball players who formerly played professional ball.  This team beat Seattle in an exhibition game.

The Fresno Morning Republican, March 26, 1923, page 8.

I found no box scores among the several references to their team I found, so it is unknown whether Rucker and Perrin were on the team, and if so, how well they played.

Rucker & Perrin left the show before September, and continued touring up and down the West Coast, headlining at vaudeville houses under their own billing, with their skit, “An Afro-Chinese Fracas.”

Rucker and Perrin in “An Afro-Chinese Fracas,” Modesto Morning Herald, September 8, 1923, page 3.

John Rucker and Sidney Perrin, who helped make the late successful all colored revue “Struttin’ Along” a great success in San Francisco and New York, will be the headliners for the vaudeville performance at the Strand theatre tonight.  These clever colored performers present “An Afro-Chinese Fracas,” which will no doubt prove to be the funniest act ever here.  They are big time actors in every sense of the word, as they have played with some of the best musical shows on Broadway and also have made people laugh in all the leading vaudeville theatres in this country.  A special set of scenery carried by Rucker and Perrin represents a Chinese chop suey palace and goes to lend atmosphere for their act.

The Modesto Bee (Modesto, California), September 8, 1923, page 3.

John Rucker and Sidney Perrin, late features of “Struttin’ Along,” are back where they started with their comedy classic, “An Africo-Chinese Fracas.” Rucker’s mouth gets no smaller and Perrin’s “chink” is still a clever character study.  The men quarrel in amusing fashion and indulge in close harmony.

Spokesman Review (Spokane, Washington), September 17, 1923.

They performed the same act together over the course of several years.

John Rucker, the “Alabama Blossom,” and Sidney Perrin, as hostile Chinaman and Negro, are as comical as they make them.  Perrin plays a Chinese song on a Chinese instrument, and nearly throws a fit doing it.

The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana), July 18, 1924, page 14.

Still another good act is presented by John Rucker and Sidney Perrin, a Negro and a Chinese, who call their offering “An Afro-Chinese Fracas.” The skit is brimful of laughs and has its share of song and dance.

Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), May 25, 1926, page 14.

The Yonkers Herald, September 26, 1928, page 4.

Both lads are of dusky complexion but one works as a Chinese.  They get into an argument and what an argument it is.  The banter and patter is humorous indeed, but there is a lull here and there in the scrap to permit the introduction of several specialties.

The Yonkers Herald, September 27, 1928, page 4.

Advocate for Change

While some aspects of his lyrics and performances may cause to people today to judge him retroactively, he was, in his time, an advocate for change.  In 1912, for example, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Black-owned newspaper, The New York Age, encouraging the creation of more Black-owned theaters. 

To the Dramatic Editor of The Age:

I suggest that you name the new theatre the Problem Theatre.  It will be an example of what determination will do, and the other Negroes in other cities may venture to erect other houses for a good cause and keep them from suffering the humiliation of being barred by whites.  In fact, all such undertakings as your venture in every branch of business will solve the problem.  This is the only one version of naming the theatre “Problem.”

SIDNEY L. Perrin, Pumpkin Colored Trio.

The New York Age, February 8, 1912, page 6.

Perrin’s letter was one of many appearing in the New York Age over a period of several weeks, suggesting a name for a new theater then in the planning stages. 

The colored citizens of New York are greatly in need of two things – a theatre large enough to accommodate a thousand or more persons at one time, and a building containing lodge rooms where our colored fraternal organizations can be accommodated without being compelled to pay an excessive rental, as is the case to-day.  Realizing conditions, and with a view to bettering them, as well as making it a profitable commercial enterprise, the Johnson Amusement Company has been organized.

The New York Age, November 30, 1911, page 6.

Other suggestions included, Dunbar, Douglass, Attucks, Hamilton, L’Overture, Dumas, Dessalines, Booker T. Washington, Equality, Optimum, Eureka, Cosmopolitan and the Top Round. 

The name they ultimately settled on was the Walker-Hogan-Cole Theater, or W-H-C Theater, in honor of pioneering black entertainers, George W. Walker, Ernest Hogan and “Bob” Cole.

Perrin’s suggestion of “The Problem” as a name was a reference to racial discrimination.  One year earlier, Perrin had experienced related problems while staging a musical he wrote, with an all-black cast, in a new theater in Cincinnati which was under black management, but not black ownership.  The experience likely informed his focus on the ownership of theaters in his letter to the New York Age. 

The Magnolia Theatre, Cincinnati, will open Monday, July 17, presenting the Magnolia Amusement Company in an original musical comedy, entitled “Southland,” book, music and lyrics by Sidney Perrin. . . .

In the cast will be Sidney Perrin, comedian; Lottie Grady, soubrette; Fannie Wise, operatic soprano . . . .

The house will be the largest and finest operating under a colored management.

The New Age, July 13, 1911, page 6.

The theater was under black management, the white owners having hired W. H. Smith, who had previously managed the Howard Theatre in Washington DC.[xvi]  Unlike other theaters in Cincinnati, the theater was to be open to all races equally. 

By all accounts the theater and show were a financial success.  But nevertheless, the white owners shut down the theater and cancelled the show after less than two weeks.  Ironically, the move may have been triggered by backlash from some quarters of Cincinnati’s black community. 

Cancelling the show, even for well intentioned reasons, resulted in unintended yet foreseeable consequences.


The Magnolia Theatre, Cincinnati, O., which opened last week and did a good business, was abruptly closed this week.  The following statement has been forwarded to The Age for publication relative to the closing of the house:

The Magnolia Theatre was remodeled expressly for colored people.  No money was spared in fitting it up and every detail had been looked after from the front to the dressing rooms.  The men who financed the enterprise were Messrs. Edward and Harry Hart.  They have two other theatres in Cincinnati, namely the American and the Gayety, but following the policy of other theatres in this city they do not allow colored people to enter them.

Edward Hart is a staunch Republican, and was elected as alderman some few years ago, the colored voters electing him.  When he concluded to open a theatre which would give them all the privileges that other races enjoy, he expected that the colored people would appreciate and praise him; but a great many of them backed up by a local colored paper, heaped abuse on the Harts and referred to their other theatres that did not allow colored people to enter.  A few of the local churches also resented the idea of people being barred from the American and Gayety Theatres and then expecting them to support any enterprise that the Harts might offer.

In spite of such opposition the Magnolia was doing a great business and it was not on account of non-patronage, but Mr. Hart being a man of great wealth considered that as he had provided the best theatre in the world and had adopted an equal privilege to all that he (personally) should be praised and not censured and so keenly did he feel the uncalled for adverse, and what he considers unjust criticism, that regardless of the bright future and financial success the project had already shown he came to the conclusion that as long as the colored people did not unanimously appreciate his efforts he would turn it over to his own people, as he though more of his feelings than the large amount of money he had expended.

A great many colored people are already deploring the change of affairs.

The New York Age, July 27, 1911, page 6.





[i] The Voice of the People (Birmingham, Alabama), August 26, 1916, page 8 (“Many Negroes – Irving Jones, Will Accooe, Bob Cole, the Johnson brothers, Gussie L. Davis, Sid Perrin, Ernest Hogan, Williams and Walker, and others wrote some of the most celebrated rag songs of the day.”).

[ii] Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime – Scott Joplin and His Era, Oxford University Press, 2016 (an abstract of chapter 9, “The Ragtime Dance 1902” (available online on the mobile view of says that among the “several precedents” to Joplin’s work, “The Ragtime dance,” Sidney Perrin’s composition, “Jennie Cooler Dance,” is “closest to Joplin’s” composition . . . though Joplin’s music and lyric are clearly superior.”).

[iii] It was referred to as the “Negro National Anthem as early as 1919, and possibly earlier.  The Dallas Express, September 27, 1919, page 5 (“A feature of the opening exercise was the singing of the Negro national Anthem, written by Welden Johnson, field secretary of the N. A. A. C. P.”). Earlier references to the singing of a “Negro National Anthem” do not unambiguously identify the song or its authors.

[iv] “History Explained – Lift Every Voice and Sing,”

[v] For more background on the history of the expression “alligator bait,” the apparent myth of using children as live, human alligator bait, and the University of Florida “Gator Bait” cheer, see my earlier posts, “Live Human Alligator Bait, ‘Fact or Fiction,’” Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, April 9, 2020 ( and “Tigers and Bulldogs and Gators, Oh My! – a History of the University of Florida’s ‘Gator Bait’ cheer,” Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, January 12, 2021 (   

[vi] Altoona Tribune, March 26, 1894, page 4.

[vii] Altoona Tribune, March 27, 1894, page 4.

[viii] “King of the Black Minstrels: Billy Kersands,” M. Swift,, November 26, 2020.

[ix] “King of the Black Minstrels: Billy Kersands,” M. Swift,, November 26, 2020.

[x] The Pittsburgh Press, September 19, 1897, page 14 (“The music in ‘The Good Mr. Best’ is said to be a feature so much so that at times it takes on an appearance of comic opera. Julius Witmark’s songs, ‘Sadie,’ ‘The Sweetest Thing in Town’ and ‘Mammies Little Pumpkin Colored Coons,’ are reported as having made emphatic hits.”).

[xi] The Nashville Globe, September 10, 1909, page 2.

[xii] The Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), November 26, 1910, page 2.

[xiii] “Little Ah Sid” was a character in a poem, published by Bret Harte as early as 1883, about a Chinese boy, new to America, who mistakes a bumble bee for an American butterfly. He catches one and puts it in his jeans – hilarity ensues. See, for example, The Ottawa Daily Republic (Ottawa, Kansas), February 22, 1883, page 2.  The poem was frequently reprinted in various newspapers for decades.  “Little Ah Sid, the Chinese Kid,” was later used as the title of a long-running newspaper comic strip, beginning as early as 1904.  The reference to Sidney Perrin as “Ah Sid” here appears to be a pun on his name and the familiar Chinese character, not a name he used in his act.

[xiv] “The Forgotten Story of America’s First Black Superstars,” Dorian Lynskey,, February 16, 2012.

[xv] The San Francisco Examiner, February 6, 1923, page 9.

[xvi] The New York Age, June 8, 1911, page 6.