Jackson Ward’s Lost Emperor

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Gilpin Court is not Richmond’s finest neighborhood. By many metrics, the 783-unit public housing complex – the city’s largest – is in fact the worst place to live within Richmond’s boundaries. Nearly 70 percent of its residents live below the poverty line; statistics released earlier this year by the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority indicate its average annual household income is only $8,753. A search for its recent appearances in Richmond Times-Dispatch articles reveals its 60 acres to be perhaps the most dangerous anywhere in the city.

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And then there are the units themselves. Several are in obvious disrepair, their thin plastic siding somehow sheared off to expose plywood walls beneath. The most striking aesthetic features of these homes, aside from their uniformly drab and cheerless color schemes, are ubiquitous mounds of concrete, which were long ago poured over boulders and today face the street resembling nothing so much as enormous unfinished sand castles (or perhaps the Flintstone residence). Their function, or how anyone could have found them an appealing alternative to grass, remains impossible to fathom. Simply put, Gilpin Court is no place to live, and its current condition is an embarrassment to the city.

In the middle of it all, almost hidden by dumpsters, is a humble tribute to its prodigiously talented and heroically dignified namesake, Charles Sidney Gilpin.

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Gilpin was the youngest of 14 children, born in 1878 to a nurse and a millworker living near present-day Gilpin Court in a home that would be demolished in the 1940s to make room for Interstate 95. Gilpin’s neighborhood, Jackson Ward, was a home to thousands of freed slaves and for decades after his birth would thrive as a hub of black commerce and entertainment. (Its most famous son, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was born six months before Gilpin, and would enjoy greater fame and prosperity than him for most of his life, for reasons we’ll explore shortly.) Gilpin dropped out of school at 12 to apprentice for three years at The Richmond Planet – during which time he would have worked closely with another Jackson Ward luminary, John Mitchell, Jr. – before leaving town in the mid-1890s to join a minstrel show, having discovered an aptitude for performing.

The details of Gilpin’s next 20 years are a bit sketchy, but from the jobs he’s known to have held and the traveling they would have entailed emerges a portrait of unbridled ambition and self-belief. He first went to Philadelphia, where he tried to resuscitate his journalism career as a printer for The Philadelphia Standard, but quit when white employees complained about his presence. He’d find subsequent employment there as a vaudeville entertainer, but moved to Chicago after being repeatedly denied more serious dramatic roles.

Once there he received his first steady work as a legitimate actor – he’d apparently turned his back for good on the minstrel and vaudevillian circuits in which blacks were typically typecast and demeaned (and in which by now “Bojangles” was thriving) – and even moved briefly to Ontario to perform plays in front of more accepting audiences. Along the way, he supported his ambition by finding intermittent work as a barber, Pullman porter, elevator operator, and even a boxing trainer. Finally confident in his abilities as a seasoned actor, he moved to New York City in 1915, and proceeded to electrify the city with his talent almost overnight.

Within months he was the lead actor of the Harlem-based Lafayette Theatre Players, performing in three well-received plays before leaving over a salary dispute. He’d soon be cast by British playwright John Drinkwater, playing former slave Rev. William Curtis in Abraham Lincoln, a heavy-handed and historically inaccurate depiction of Frederick Douglass’s influence. Pretty much the only thing critics agreed upon – other than the fact that the play itself was abysmal – was that Gilpin’s performance was like nothing they’d seen before from a black actor. A young, unknown playwright named Eugene O’Neill was in attendance for one of the play’s performances one evening, and thought so much of Gilpin that he promptly cast him as the lead in an experimental play he’d just completed called The Emperor Jones.

It was a role that would send Gilpin to an untimely and tragic death, but not before making him the most famous and esteemed black actor the country had ever seen.

A 1938 poster for the play

A 1938 poster for the play

The play, which opened on Broadway in November 1920, also made a star of O’Neill for its creative and unorthodox structure. It consisted of eight scenes, all of which but the first and last were extended, artistically demanding monologues from Gilpin’s character, Brutus Jones. The plot – which described the escape of Jones, a convicted black American murderer, from prison to an unnamed Caribbean nation, where he would establish himself as ruler before dying in a rebellion – was a caustic parody of recent military intervention in Haiti, and its subversive nature attracted audiences in droves.

What they were treated to, by all accounts, was a singularly transcendent performance by Charles Gilpin. Within weeks of the play’s opening, it had moved to a larger venue to accommodate an ever-increasing audience. Months later, it would move again for the same reason. In 1921, he was the undisputed star of Broadway.

Accolades and awards came quickly. In 1921, Gilpin received the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for exceptional contributions to his race. As context, the medal’s 1920 recipient was W.E.B. DuBois, and two years later it would be awarded to George Washington Carver. Later in 1921, Gilpin became the first American black ever to be named one of the year’s ten most significant contributors to theater by the Drama League of New York. This announcement spurred significant protests and fears of retribution, but the Drama League refused to retract its invitation to Gilpin for the awards banquet. He bravely attended, and was the unequivocal darling of the evening:

From the March 7, 1921 issue of The New York Times

From the March 7, 1921 issue of The New York Times

Still later in 1921, he accepted President Warren G. Harding’s invitation to be honored in Washington. Gilpin’s incomprehensible rise from Jackson Ward to the White House was complete. It would prove to be the last major public recognition he’d ever receive.

Gilpin’s downfall was triggered by his objection to the screenplay of The Emperor Jones, which used language that was – even for that relatively unenlightened era – wildly offensive. It forced him to say the word “nigger” no fewer than 35 times each performance, and to speak in O’Neill’s condescending conception of African-American dialect throughout. Here’s a representative sample, taken verbatim from the screenplay:

Lawd, I done wrong! And down heah whar dese fool bush niggers raised me up to the seat o’ de mighty, I steals all I could grab. Lawd, I done wrong! I knows it! I’se sorry! Forgive me, Lawd! Forgive dis po’ sinner!

For three years as the play enjoyed unabated success, O’Neill listened impassively to Gilpin’s concerns, and dismissed them each time. The lines and Jones’s depiction were racist, he agreed, but consistent with his dramatic intent. The rift between them deepened when Gilpin would substitute “black babies” or “my people” for the racial epithet during performances, and by 1924 had become irreparable. Gilpin, ever a man of principle, told O’Neill he would not perform his signature role for the play’s scheduled performances in London that year, in what would have been his first ever trip to Europe. Unfazed, O’Neill cast an unheralded football player and aspiring lawyer named Paul Robeson in Gilpin’s part. The play enjoyed continued success abroad, and marked the first major role of Robeson’s remarkable career.

That same role would prove Gilpin’s last. Disillusioned with the industry he’d sought so long to enter, he moved to Cleveland in 1924 and started a small theater company offering dramatic opportunities to blacks. He began drinking heavily, and returned to menial jobs such as operating hotel elevators to get by. In 1925, he was offered a final lifeline – the chance to make a “moving picture” in a small but steadily growing town called Hollywood to play the title role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but turned it down when he was told he’d have to perform the part in a stereotypical, demeaning manner.

He moved to New Jersey in the late 1920s, his drinking worsening each year. In 1929, he permanently lost his voice; a particularly cruel affliction for someone who’d used it so eloquently only eight years earlier to thank the audience at the Drama League of New York’s awards banquet. He died, penniless, the next year, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Today, his name is not even on the cemetery website’s list of notable people buried there. Gilpin Court would open 13 years later.

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If there’s a single attribute Gilpin demonstrated so brilliantly as his immense talent, it’s his incorruptible dignity. Each step he took toward the role that would make him a guest of honor in the White House – as well as each that drove him ever farther away from that audacious pinnacle – was forged by his uncompromising convictions. He rejected the simplest path to success for black entertainers at the time – the kind of self-parody in which “Bojangles,” it must be said, trafficked almost exclusively – to pursue a more noble and principled one.

To have that path derailed by those very principles must have produced a pain we can’t pretend to understand. It’s heartbreaking enough to see Gilpin’s name attached today to an eyesore so unsafe, so unworthy. No, our imaginations are better served by the thought of Jackson Ward’s forgotten emperor listening with what must have been gratitude, watching with what must have been vindication, as the ballroom crowd in New York stood and began to applaud for a second time.

One thought on “Jackson Ward’s Lost Emperor

  1. Pingback: Jackson Ward's Lost Emperor: Charles Sidney Gilpin

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