Let us consider them: a late-middle-aged African-American man in formalwear, and a blond, curly-haired tyke. They’re bursting with enjoyment as together they dance up and down a run of stairs. This is an old black-and-white movie, and if you’ve experienced any cinematic culture during your life, you’ve seen a few snippets of this scene. It is, in a way, remarkable: A black man and a white girl are paired to dance in a film made during the Great Depression. Most everyone was in hard times, yet the color line was in full force. She is Shirley Temple, the first of many child stars from California, and he is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson from Richmond. At that moment, they are two of the most famous people on the planet.
Shirley Temple Black, who died Feb. 10 at age 85, performed in four movies with Robinson. Constance Valis Hill, a historian of tap dancing, wrote a 2012 piece for The Huffington Post in which she cited Robinson and Temple as a groundbreaking interracial couple. That scene, one of U.S. cinema’s most popular classic moments, is from The Little Colonel (1935). Hill writes: “Robinson was chipper and effervescent when he playfully jibed with the house servant played by Hattie McDaniel; he was even more so when he enticed the Southern patriarch’s 6-year-old granddaughter (Temple) to go upstairs to bed by teaching her his famous stair dance. She took his hand and learned his steps, and they danced their way into cinema history as the first interracial tap-dancing couple, albeit a 6-year-old white girl and 57-year-old black man.”
Bill Robinson — born Luther in 1878 — grew up with his younger brother, Percy, in old Jackson Ward. Robinson’s parents, Maxwell and Maria, both died in 1885, leaving him and his brother under the charge of paternal grandmother Bedilia Robinson, who had grown up in slavery.
He took the “Bojangles” moniker before leaving Richmond to perform vaudeville. A 1973 recollection by childhood friend and dance partner Lemmeul V. “Eggie” Eggleston describes the nickname as coming from Robinson’s attempt to “mis-cheevously (sic) misappropriate” a big beaver hat he liked from a Broad Street store run by Lion J. Boujasson. The kids who mispronounced the name teased, “Who took Bojangles’ hat?” — then they pointed at Robinson and said, “Bojangles took it.”
Robinson may or may not have worked as a teenage waiter at The Jefferson Hotel while between show tours. Robinson’s white agent, Marty Forkin, told a tale in which he was dining at The Jefferson, and after some slight, Robinson spilled soup on him. Somehow out of this, Forkin decided to sign Robinson to a contract. Robinson danced at The Jefferson for the 1933 Beaux Arts Ball, though Jim Crow laws prevented him from staying there as a guest. The same weekend he came to perform for the ball, he inaugurated the traffic light where his statue stands today.
Robinson gave huge amounts to black charities and became a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He co-founded a Negro Leagues Baseball team, the New York Black Yankees. He also fought in World War I as a member of New York’s 369th Infantry, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” His role in advancing dance and the place of blacks in film is what led dancer Gregory Hines to create a 2001 television movie about Bojangles.
But in changing social times, the “Bojangles” persona became problematic. Lena Horne, miscast alongside him in Stormy Weather as a love interest despite a near-half-century of age difference, didn’t care for him. In Horne’s biography, Robinson is described as a purposeful subservient who carried a pistol, was poisonous to other blacks “and truly believed in the wit and wisdom of little Shirley Temple.”
That Robinson had his troubled side was well known. In his later life, he gambled and died broke, and was then given what, at that time, was Harlem’s largest funeral.
Shirley Temple was a woman who came of age during the civil rights struggle. And though she had few of the challenges Robinson faced, there is something quite contemporary and a little odd about her rise. The American entertainment machine of the Great Depression in the 1930s latched onto Temple’s dimples and vivacity to make her the best-known person in the world. She was trained to entertain, but when the lights went out and the cameras didn’t roll for her anymore, she didn’t crack up, or end up as carrion for tabloid vultures to pick over. Still, it wasn’t easy.
Her first marriage dissolved, and her later films failed to make money, in large part because the studios didn’t know how to cast a former little girl who’d grown into a young woman. She did some television, but that didn’t work well, either.
In her autobiography, Child Star, she recalls meeting “Uncle Billy” again in 1949 in Los Angeles, where he’d come for a one-night charity performance. He downplayed her impending divorce decree, saying his second marriage had broken up, but he was happily remarried and had adopted a daughter. But, Robinson added, his new wife couldn’t dance. He “cocked his head sideways and flashing that same wide-eyed, toothy smile so indelibly printed in childhood memory,” she wrote.
“I’m in hard times now, and gray, too,” he told Temple. He ran one hand over his head. “But after all, I’m seventy-one.”
The former co-stars reminisced until Robinson gave “a delighted, rolling chuckle” and said, “Both of us came a long way since that first staircase dance in 1934.”
Robinson died soon afterward, on Thanksgiving Day 1949. A brass band led the funeral cortege. “What they played was not a dirge, however,” Temple wrote, “but music Uncle Billy would have wanted, dance music, in slow motion. Our entertainment careers were ending just as our duets always had, in good time and in step.”
Robinson’s funeral was organized by entertainment writer and eventual television host Ed Sullivan. The first plan was to have the body lie in state at Abyssinian Baptist Church. But anticipated crowds caused a last-minute change, according to biographers Jim Haskins and N.R. Mitgang in their book Mr. Bojangles. There was a shift to the 369th Regiment Armory, at Fifth Avenue at 142nd Street. Word got around, though, and 32,000 people lined up to pay their respects. The star-studded roster of mourners included Bob Hope, Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Irving Berlin.
Temple re-started her life through California politics, which led to appointments and ambassadorships to the United Nations and Ghana. She became the first female White House chief of protocol and arranged Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.
After a breast cancer diagnosis and a mastectomy, she was one of the first prominent women to speak about her experience. Temple was married twice, the second time to businessman Charles Black, who admitted he’d never seen her films. They married in 1950, and had a son and daughter. The couple was together until his 2005 death from a bone marrow disease.
Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson dance on those stairs whenever a film montage is made of such moments. They are in millions of people’s heads. But there is more to both of them than we see.