Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a standout tap dancer, actor and performer, and the best-known and highest-paid Black entertainer for much of the early half of the 20th Century. Mr. Robinson’s iconic legacy has remained intact, and this native son of Richmond, Va. has gone on to inspire other greats over the years.
Born May 25, 1878, Robinson was raised in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. His parents died when he was just seven years old, so his grandmother, a former slave, raised him.
It was around then that Robinson started dancing, earning pennies performing acts in front of the city’s Globe Theater with a friend. He was discovered by a manager who cast him as a “pick” or “pickaninny” actor in a “blackface” stage show performed by whites.
Robinson joined Mayne Remington’s pickaninny chorus in 1891, traveling to New York in 1900 where he began performing in vaudeville shows. In those early days, the only way Blacks could perform was in pairs and thus Robinson was often partnered with George W. Cooper.
He split from that tandem in 1915 and started on his solo act. Robinson’s graceful style of tap dancing revealed a level of elegance never before seen in vaudeville, which further catapulted his career. By 1928, Robinson was a crossover artist who was embraced by white and Black audiences.
A Broadway revue intended for whites, The Blackbirds Of 1928,featured an all-Black cast and made Robinson a darling of the national media. However, many Blacks felt his happy-go-lucky image and “Bojangles” nickname was a form of selling out. According to Robinson’s own accounts and those of his biographers, in truth he was very proud of his race and stood up for himself other Blacks on more than several occasions.
As a former veteran, Robinson fought for equal rights for Black soldiers during World War II and he lobbied for the hiring of the first Black policeman in Dallas. Robinson balked at critics calling him terms such as “Uncle Tom,” and broke many barriers onstage and in Hollywood by his sheer will and talent alone. Robinson’s first name was actually Luther.
Reportedly, he forced his brother, who was named Bill, to switch names with him as he hated his own. His nickname came from a term “jangler,” which was someone always causing mischief. Robinson was also known for his cheery disposition and his “Everything’s Copacetic” catchphrase.
Robinson starred in 14 Hollywood films, alongside stars of the time like Shirley Temple and others. Robinson was also the inspiration for a TV movie by late tap legend Gregory Hines in 2001.
A park in Harlem bears Robinson’s name and his birthday was established as National Tap Day via a joint congressional resolution in 1989. Robinson died at age of 71 on November 25, 1949.