“These Ladies Do ‘Business’ with a Capital B”: Female Entrepreneurship in Early 20th-Century Black Theater

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:20 PM
Imperial Ballroom A (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Michelle R. Scott, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Just prior to the 1920s and the era of national acclaim for legendary blues music
queens such as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, there was a moment in black musical stage
history where black women attempted to initiate economic agency and power within the
vaudeville theater industry. In 1914 the famed black vaudeville sister act, the Griffin
Sisters, took ads out in the national black press declaring that they were “hanging out a
shingle.” After nearly 20 years on stage, Emma and Mabel Griffin announced the
opening of their own theatrical booking agency, school, and theaters in Chicago and
Washington DC, representing a monumental moment in black female agency in
vaudeville theater. Using show reviews, newspaper interviews, census schedules, and city
directories, this paper explores the 1900-1918 entrepreneurial efforts of the Griffin
Sisters, known for being “ladies” who “did business with a capital B.” It traces the
challenges these women had in crafting respectable feminine moral images on stage,
while asserting race pride and financial autonomy off stage in the male dominated world
of American entertainment. As migrants themselves, I argue that the Griffin Sisters serve
as prime vehicles to explore black intra-racial migration patterns prior to the Great
Migration, black female economic empowerment, and civil rights activism in early 20thcentury