"The art of gathering a crowd": Florida's Pat Chappelle and the origins of Black-owned vaudeville.

Author:Rivers, Larry Eugene

An intimate December 1914 gathering, reported briefly in the Washington Bee, foretold history's unfortunate treatment of entertainment impresario Pat Chappelle. No monuments memorialized his accomplishments as a great innovator and promoter of African Americans in entertainment. Rather, Chappelle lived on primarily in the hearts of loved ones and admirers when they gathered together as show business friends. In these circumstances, the Bee observed, "Mr. and Mrs. James A. Gibson ... entertained ten members of the 'Dark Town Follies of 1914-15,' who were playing at the Howard Theater, last Friday afternoon." The report continued, "Mr. Gibson was formerly a member of Pat Chappelle's Comedy Company, [and] many happenings of former years were renewed with genuine pleasure." While such friends kept memories of Chappelle alive, historians mostly overlooked the showman. A few exceptions, principally Eileen Southern and Henry T. Sampson, eventually credited him as having organized "road shows" at the beginning of the 20th century, and as one of the first black entrepreneurs to own and manage a theater in the South. Most of Chappelle's story, though, remained to be told. (1)

That story commenced and closed in Florida. Pat Chappelle's grandparents, with fourteen children, had migrated to the state from Chappelle Station, South Carolina, soon after the Civil War's end. They sought opportunity, specifically in Jacksonville, a town already called Florida's "Yankee headquarters." Impoverished, they coped with a devastated local economy. Conditions soon improved, however, as economic growth spurred development and job creation. As carpenters, the Chappelle men worked themselves to modest prosperity. By January 1868 son Lewis Webster Chappelle had advanced himself sufficiently to marry. One year later, he and Anna Galliway Chappelle greeted their first child, whom they named after a fiery American revolutionary, Patrick Henry Chappelle. (2)

The Chappelles lived in a mixed-race Jacksonville suburb called LaVilla. Conditions were generally pleasant there, and by 1870 African Americans claimed majority status. Hundreds of local families enjoyed the chance to advance in life and to associate freely upon something approaching a basis of equality with white residents. The most famous among them offers an important illustration. James Johnson, a Bahamian native, served Jacksonville's grand resort, the St. James Hotel, as its head waiter before answering a call to the Baptist ministry. In 1871 his wife Helen Louise Johnson gave birth to the couple's first child James Weldon Johnson. John Rosamund Johnson followed two years later. Lewis W. Chappelle's children attended the local Baptist church with the Johnson boys, and there the young people grew familiar. Pat Chappelle recalled later in life that "when I was a boy going to Sunday school," the main lesson taught "to all the pupils in the class" consisted of the admonition, "never listen to anyone that has no more than you." Politics, too, drew the Johnsons and the Chappelles together. In 1871-1872 James Johnson sat on the LaVilla town council, as did Lewis Chappelle in 1875-1876. Patrick's uncle, Mitchell P. Chappelle served as mayor from 1874 to 1876, having acted as tax collector in 1873-1874. When James Johnson labored as town clerk in 1876-1877, Mitchell Chappelle once more presided as tax collector before joining the town council for a term in 1877 and 1878. (3)


Of great future importance to Pat Chappelle and the Johnsons, musical influences abounded at LaVilla and in Jacksonville. Historians Jane L. Landers and Wiley L. Housewright have traced the origins of those influences through the Spanish colonial era and in some cases back to Africa. Following the 1821 takeover of Florida by the United States, earlier practices continued to affect music and entertainment locally, and relatively smooth race relations patterns persisted. White and black Floridians living in the Jacksonville vicinity sometimes found themselves attending theater performances and otherwise enjoying music and dance together. African Americans performed on a regular basis. "Concerts by black performers were given in the principal towns of Florida in the 1840s," Housewright observed. "One of them advertised as follows: 'The celebrated Negro Melodists and Serenaders' expect to arrive in Tallahassee about the 5th of April instant, and will give a series of concerts of Negro melody and extravaganzas." The account added, "The Melodists and Serenaders have met with great success wherever they have been, and they feel confident that their performance cannot be excelled if equaled." (4)

These Florida traditions had evolved by the early 20th century not only to touch the Chappelle and Johnson families, but also the nation, with religious and fine secular music benefiting particularly. Most Jacksonville area schools emphasized musical training and performance. Renowned concert tenor and teacher Sidney Woodward of the Florida Baptist Academy, a predecessor institution of Florida Memorial College, inspired many students. The Florida Baptist Academy Quartet, nurtured by Woodward and his predecessor N. W. Collier, earned acclaim throughout the East Coast and the Bahama Islands. (5)

Other area residents, also inspired by local teachers, aimed to achieve on an even grander scale. Rosamund Johnson, for one, chose in the early 1890s to pursue music at Boston's New England Conservatory. Woodward had not yet commenced teaching in Florida, and debuted in 1893 as a performer at Boston. In that city Johnson and Woodward became friends, while Johnson's venture to New England presaged other and similar experiences. For example, William Speights made his way from Jacksonville to Boston in 1901 before making a name in theater and popular songwriting. And, not long before Speights left Florida, James Weldon Johnson had sat down in his Jacksonville home following a visit by brother Rosamund and friend Woodward to pen lyrics to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's birthday. When Rosamund added music, their creation became "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," often called the Negro National Anthem. Rosamund later teamed in Boston with friend Bob Cole, formerly of the Black Patti Troubadours, and pursued a career in vaudeville. With James W. Johnson sometimes writing songs, all three earned a measure of fame markedly different from that of their one-time neighbor Pat Chappelle. (6)

Chappelle's career differed from that of the Johnsons mainly due to differences in musical tastes. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries for most Americans, musical tastes ran in a direction other than that offered at the New England Conservatory. "Americans seemed more attentive when listening to popular music," one scholar acknowledged. "The nation also preferred brass bands to string orchestras." Popular music understandably flooded Florida's towns and countryside, with brass bands of remarkable skill earning great renown. A visit by the Key West Cornet Band to Jacksonville, for example, would have impressed young Pat. One such occasion presented itself "when President [Grover] Cleveland visited Jacksonville." As a local reporter noted, "This band headed the procession and furnished music at the public reception, which was held in the St. James Hotel." (7)

Jacksonville produced numerous groups happy to compete for honors and attention with the Key West Cornet Band, striking up, in the process, much of the music that served as backdrop to young Pat Chappelle's life. The Union Brass Band and, a few years later, the Welcome Cornet Band each drew spirited applause at every performance. Fame earned by the leading local bandsmen proved so enduring that it sometimes lasted lifetimes. William "Fiddler" Green numbered among them. Appropriately, Green's 1904 obituary declared that "for many years he has lightened the hearts of pleasure seekers with the enticing notes of his violin." (8)

The music, the excitement, and the fame could not help but impress lads such as Chappelle. Noting that one of his first ambitions involved becoming "a drummer in a band," James Weldon Johnson recalled:

When I was quite small, the crack brass band of Jacksonville was the Union Cornet Band, a Negro band; in fact every good brass band in Florida at that time was a Negro band. I remember going to the state fair at Jacksonville and seeing a review of the state militia, all white. Every contingent in the review marched behind a black band, for the reason that there were no good white ones. The companies even from far-away Pensacola brought their own colored band. The Union Cornet Band had a wonderful drummer. He was Martin Dixon, a slim, good-looking black dandy, who had been a drummer in the Civil War. The boys in Jacksonville, white and black, boasted that when the band played for a funeral, Martin could beat a continuous and unbroken roll on his muffled drum all the way from the church to the cemetery. I did not see how life could offer anything happier than marching behind the blaring brass beating a drum as Martin Dixon did and enjoying the admiration and envy of all the boys in town. (9) Another influence on youths such as Chappelle and Johnson was the minstrel show. At times referred to as minstrelsy or "Ethiopian minstrelsy," these theatrical performances emerged in the 1820s and 1830s. Eileen Southern described the shows as "an exploitation of the slave's style of music and dancing by white men, who blackened their faces with burnt cork and went on the stage to sing 'Negro songs' (also called 'Ethiopian songs'), to perform dances derived from those of the slaves, and to tell jokes based on slave life." Only after about 1864 did black, as opposed to white, minstrel shows proliferate. The various troupes of the Georgia Minstrels, for instance, toured Florida regularly in the post-Civil War era, as eventually did Hicks & Sawyer's Colored Minstrels. By...

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