Scott Joplin had two brothers who were musicians—Robert B. and Will. Scott’s one-time student and then colleague Arthur Marshall wrote the following about Robert and Will:
I knew Will and Robert Joplin while in Sedalia. They were there about 1898–99. . . . Robert and Will entertained at white clubs, dances and parties at halls. Some time for church socials. Robert was an exceptional guitar player and a good singer; Will was the better singer.1
Will apparently did not work in music for very long; he had toured with a vocal quartet in the 1890s, but the last notice we have of him performing is in November 1902, when he appeared on stage with Scott and Robert. His draft registration in 1917 shows his employment as janitor. He died in 1928, in Detroit.
Robert’s performing career lasted for about three decades, though he never reached Scott’s renown. We probably would not know the name Robert B. Joplin (ca. 1869–1926?) were it not for his famous brother, nor particularly care about his history if we had come across the name. But his life and career, while demonstrating his own character traits, talents, and flaws, can be used to illustrate the life and challenges faced by Black musicians and entertainers of his time. For what his story reveals of those challenges, and for the insights it gives us into the family experiences of Scott Joplin, it is worth examining.
The first sign of Robert is his listing as a Texas-born, one-year-old in the 1870 census of Linden, Texas, taken on July 18. He was about a year younger than Scott, six years younger than Monroe, his only other sibling at the time. Jiles, his father, was listed as a farmer, age twenty-eight, born in North Carolina; his mother, Florence, was twenty-nine, born in Kentucky.
The 1880 census shows that the family had moved to Texarkana, Texas, with an additional three children: a daughter Osie, age ten, and sons William, age four, and Johnny, age three months. Taken on June 17–18, the census reveals that many in the neighborhood had measles, including the three younger Joplin children. Johnny may have succumbed to the disease; we never again come across his name. The father’s name is now spelled Giles—with a “G” instead of a “J”—and the two spellings occur throughout his life.
Florence’s 1900 census listing has her living on the Arkansas side of Texarkana with her daughters Osie and Myrtle. Myrtle was born in Arkansas in February 1882, which informs us that the family had moved to the Arkansas side sometime between July 1880 and February 1882. The census also shows that Florence had a total of six living children, out of fourteen births. Jiles was no longer living with the family, having married another Texarkana resident—Laura Roberts—on October 5, 1893.
A childhood friend reported that at age 16, Scott Joplin formed a quartet that included Wesley Kirby, Tom Clark, and his brother William.2As William would have been only about seven at the time, he is unlikely to have been part of the group; Robert, a year younger than Scott, was probably the brother in the quartet. Though Robert is not actually named, this anecdote is probably the earliest sign of him as a performer.3
On August 28, 1889, Robert married Cora Mitchell in Franklin, Texas, some 250 miles southwest of Texarkana. Although his first name appears on the certificate, he signed “R. B. Joplin,” which might be significant in a later identification. We do not know what the initial “B” stands for. Three years later, in 1892, Robert was in Waco, Texas, about 65 miles from Franklin. He is listed in the town directory working as a cook and living with his father, Jiles. Cora is not mentioned in the directory, though women might not have been included in the directory if they lived with their husbands. Around July or August, 1892, Robert began touring with the Texas Colored Medley Quartet, which included his brother Scott, Richard Denson, and James Rivers. He left the group before late August of 1893 and was replaced by Grant Miner; the quartet continued under his Scott’s leadership for most of the following year, under an altered name, the Texas Medley Quartette.4
Sometime in 1893—we don’t have an exact date—Cora, now living in Texarkana, Texas, gave birth to a daughter, Essie D. Joplin. We don’t know if Robert was at home when his daughter was born and have no reliable information on the nature of the marriage. However, on January 31, 1899, Cora filed for divorce. She alleged that Robert had abandoned her and the child in August 1898, leaving them without support, that even before the abandonment did not support the family and would work, as a cook, only when he needed extra money for fancy clothes. She maintained that he beat her frequently and took the money she earned as a cook ($2 or $2.50 per week), which he would then lose gambling, that he stole and pawned her rings, and had been arrested on several occasions for robbery.
Robert appeared in court on March 6, 1899 with his lawyer, who denied all charges and demanded proof of the allegations. At a trial on October 23, 1899, witnesses testified on Cora’s behalf, stating that they had seen her bloodied by her husband and that she occasionally slept at their homes because she was afraid to return to her own home. The divorce was granted, but Cora didn’t remain single for long; she remarried less than four months later, on February 13, 1900, to Charles Dean, age 47 (Cora was 27). The 1900 census (taken June 28) shows that in the home with Cora and her husband were her daughter Essie D. Joplin, Cora’s mother and brother, and two boarders.
The court records present Robert as a shiftless, thieving brute, but we have no way of knowing if it’s a true picture. That Cora remarried so soon after the divorce suggests that her primary motive for the divorce may have been to marry someone else and that the allegations might have been inventions or exaggerations of her lawyer to help her achieve this end. Whatever Robert’s faults may have been, there is no hint in his later press notices as a performer and theater manager that he was reluctant to work. To the contrary, while he had frequent changes in employment—a common condition in the theater world—he seems to always be seeking to improve his employment circumstances, and he frequently rose to positions of responsibility.
We have no information on whether Robert had any contact with his and Cora’s daughter Essie D. Joplin after the divorce, but Essie continued using the Joplin surname until she married. The 1910 census shows that by that year she had dropped “Essie D.” as first name and middle initial and referred to herself as “SCD Joplin.” Thereafter, most documents refer to her by that name. One variant we found is in the 1914 Texarkana directory, in which her name appears as
“S C Dee”.5 She apparently had some musical talent, for that directory lists her profession as music teacher, and an article in the Pittsburgh Courier of February 24, 1951 names her as a member of a female quartet that performed at a wedding.
In an interview with jazz historian Bill Russell around June 30, 1959, Jasper Taylor, a Texarkana native who became a jazz drummer and recorded with W. C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton, among others, commented that he had gone to school with a relative of Scott Joplin’s, this being Essie D. Joplin. He said she had later married trombonist Willie Turrentine6 (which was in 1916). According to a current relative, family stories recall that Willie would jam with Scott Joplin on the latter’s visits to Texarkana, which would have been before Turrentine had married SCD.
Following his divorce, Robert joined his brother Scott in Sedalia, Missouri; their brother Will was also there, having recently arrived with the Kentucky Rosebud Quartette.7 Robert and Will were in the earliest version of what was to be published as Scott’s Ragtime Dance, first performed in Sedalia at Wood’s Opera House on November 24, 1899, and were also members of Scott’s briefly revived Texas Medley Quartette, expanded to eight singers instead of four.
The name Robert B. Joplin appears in the 1900 census, living as a boarder in St. Louis, Missouri. It may have been Scott Joplin’s brother, but certain discrepancies make it impossible to know for sure. The age of thirty-one is correct, but it disagrees with the listed birth year of 1867, and the birthplace of Illinois is wrong. His employment as a day laborer rather than as a cook or performer has us wondering. Most surprising, he is listed along with a wife of six years named Maple Joplin, age twenty-seven. If this Robert B. was Scott Joplin’s brother and the marriage to Maple was not one of many instances of Robert dissembling, then it would have occurred while he was still married to Cora. We have not come across any further references to Maple’s name.
A Robert Joplin appears in the 1903 St. Louis directory without the middle initial “B” that Robert habitually used. Again, we cannot be certain that it was Scott Joplin’s brother, but in this instance it probably was. This Robert worked as a cook and resided at 624A N. Beaumont, which was not far from Scott’s residence. Scott’s brother was in St. Louis at the time, for on November 25, 1902, an advertisement announced his appearance at the Germania Theater, in St. Louis, with his brothers Scott and Will, performing “Wedding of the Lily and the Rose.” This is a sentimental song from 1892, and the lyric describes a dream of someone who dozes in a flower garden. It might have been in the repertory of the earlier Texas Medley Quartette. On the same program, Scott and someone identified only as Flanagan performed Cuban Belle (incorrectly spelled in the theater announcement as Cubian Bells). Strangely, on another page of that newspaper issue, a display advertisement announces a performance on that same evening of Scott’s Ragtime Dance “by large company of fine dancers and singers.”8 As we haven’t found reviews of the Germania’s shows on that evening, we cannot know what had transpired.
We don’t come across Robert’s name in newspapers until four years later when, on December 1, 1906, the Freeman, an African American newspaper with nationwide circulation, announced, “Robert B. Joplin was in Indianapolis this week with his big extravaganza of sixteen people, en route to Boston, where he will present his new act, ‘The Cuban Belle’.”9
We haven’t found notices of a Boston production, but he was in Cincinnati for a week-long run of the show in late April 1907 and newspaper notices state that he had performed it in Boston and Chicago. The cast had grown from sixteen, which was to perform in Boston, to forty. One might wonder how he could have so quickly developed such a large company, but the newspapers clarify that issue: the company was composed of local talent. However, one of the newspaper items names a dozen professionals who were in the show. The balance of the cast—twenty-eight members—would likely have been unpaid or minimally-paid amateurs.10
The Cincinnati Enquirer, on April 28, 1907, gave additional information about the show:
Robert B. Joplin’s musical comedy, “A Cuban Belle,” is announced as the attraction at the Lyceum Theater for the week beginning with this afternoon’s matinee performance. The author of the play, Mr. Joplin, is a “gentleman of color,” who has selected his cast from the colored talent in Cincinnati, and claims to have the best company that has ever been seen in the production which has been presented successfully in Boston and Chicago, in both of which cities it is said to have made a big hit. For the past six weeks Mgr. Joplin has been rehearsing his company on the second floor of the old Jewish synagogue on Carlisle avenue. . . . The story tells of the love of a New York Bowery colored boy for the daughter of one of the families [that] belong to the colored “four hundred” of the big city. While at a party the young lady is kidnapped by her true love and spirited to Cuba. They are married, the young man reforms, and the bride at a beauty contest is declared the “Belle of Cuba.” The scenes are laid at Coney Island, Greater New York City and in Havana, Cuba.
Robert called the show a musical comedy and claimed authorship. If it was Robert’s creation and not Scott’s, we wonder why he had not performed it in the 1902 staging in St. Louis. Also, the announced cast of forty performers indicates that the show was vastly expanded beyond the original concept.
Less than two weeks later, May 7, 1907, Robert married Ollie E. Trimble, in Staunton, Virginia. The two are listed in the state marriage registry, which contains discrepancies that might be either clerical errors or misstatements on Robert’s part. His name appears as Robert R. Joplin, not Robert B.; his place of birth is listed as St. Louis, Missouri, rather than Texas; and his age appears as twenty-six, whereas he was actually around thirty-eight. But his identity is not in question; he lists his parents as Giles and Florence Joplin and occupation as “Manager Theatrical Troupe.”
Seven months later, in the December 7, 1907 issue of the Freeman, an advertisement shows that Robert now has a new position. The advertisement begins:
Wanted at all times for the Exclusively Colored
Under white management. Robt. B. Joplin. Stage Director.
. . . . Lincoln Theater. Knoxville, Tenn. . . .
Similar advertisements and notices of the Lincoln Theater ran for several weeks. A notice in the Freeman summarizes the performances, telling of Robert’s involvement:
This bill packed the house at every performance. . . . Well, R. B. Joplin had to sing “Bon Bon Buddie” all week. “Nuf sed.” . . . The manager has been asked to repeat both shows this week, but Mr. Robert B. Joplin, our stage manager and producer, has something up his sleeve that will take them off their feet.11
The next week, the Freeman revealed what Robert had “up his sleeve.” As reported, in part:
The bill for the first half of the week was a unique musical extravaganza “The Leader of the Ball,” with “Prof.” Henry Watterson at the piano, who played the show to the standard. R. B. Joplin called the ragtime dance in a way that had the audience spellbound. . . . R. B. Joplin sang “Montana-Anna,” assisted by the company in real cowboy costumes, and brought down the house. . . . Mr. R. B. Joplin is a credit to his race as a writer and producer. The management of the house asked him for a new bill every Monday and Thursday, and he is Johnny on the spot. . . . R. B. Joplin sends regards to P. G. Lowery and Scott Joplin.12
The ragtime dance that Robert called would have been Scott Joplin’s composition by the same name. P. G. Lowery, to whom Robert also sends regards, was a cornet virtuoso and leader of the P. G. Lowery Band and Vaudeville Company. Lowery was the dedicatee on Scott Joplin’s A Breeze from Alabama (1902).
The February 29, 1908 issue of the Freeman continued the extravagant praises of Robert Joplin:
Robert B. Joplin, our stage manager, presented for the first half of the week “A Female Minstrel,” which took the audience off their feet. . . . R. B. Joplin, conversationalist; . . . Then R. B. Joplin sang “In the Evening by the Moonlight, Dear Louise,” in a rich tenor voice that pleased them all. . . . Finale by the Lincoln Quartet, Geo. Lewis, first tenor; Sank Simms, second tenor, R. B. Joplin, baritone, E. L. Howard, basso. They brought down the house and were forced to respond to several encores. R. B. Joplin is sending them out howling with his funny afterpiece “The Doctor Shop.”
Despite the apparent successes of these shows, Robert left that position soon afterward. A few weeks later, he was at Clark’s Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. As reported in the Freeman of March 21, 1908: “Our new stage director, Robt. B. Joplin, was a great assistance to the boys on the stage.” We don’t know how long he remained at Clark’s Theatre, but a year-and-a-half later, he led a touring company that played at the New Phillips Theater in Richmond, Indiana. As reported in the Richmond Palladium on September 7, 1909:
For lovers of the good old colored shows, Manager Murray has secured Robert B. Joplin’s famous show “Salaam.” This show can not fail to please as they carry with them a cast of sixteen of the best colored performers. The show is made of plenty of good singing, dancing and cake walking of the highest order. Special attention has been given to the costuming of the company, and it promises to be one of the best shows of the season.
On successive days, the troupe played in various theaters in Indiana—Columbus, Hagerstown, and Elwood—with the show changing from “Salaam” to “Swell Coon from Louisiana.” Then, the September 15, 1909 issue of the Richmond Palladium reported a major difficulty:
“I’ll be back in a minute, but I’ve got to go now,” said Robert B. Joplin, colored, manager of the “Swell Coon from Louisiana” company at the Pennsylvania depot this morning. And suiting his action to the word he beat it in a southwardly direction with all the proceeds, leaving a stranded colored show troop [sic] behind, deploring the fact that he owed them two weeks’ wages.
But his attempt to make a getaway was unsuccessful, for someone telephoned to police headquarters and “Mista” Joplin was apprehended by the big arm of the law, just as he was boarding an interurban to leave the city. He was brought back to the depot where an excited bunch of Afro-Americans awaited him and demanded their salaries in positive terms, that could not be mistaken. However, the manager claimed that he only had 55 cents and that “they couldn’t get blood out of a turnip.” He denied that he tried to run away with the proceeds, for he said there wasn’t any proceeds to run away with. The manager succeeded somewhat in pacifying the excited bunch and every thing went well until he cooly [sic] requested that each member of the troop buy his own ticket to Cincinnati and that he would pay them back (the latter statement being accompanied by a wink). This was like adding insult to injury, and with the excitement at fever heat somebody snatched upon the manager’s suit case and ran down the street with the manager a close second. It was with difficulty that a free-for-all scrap was avoided.
The company played at Cambridge last night and assert that they were forced to spend the entire night on the streets, as the manager refused to provide lodging for them. Some arrangement was made whereby the troop left this morning for Cincinnati on schedule time, but it is expected there was big doings on their arrival at the Queen City.
This unsavory episode again puts Robert in a negative light. The account ends with a surprise: the company continued its tour. One wonders how Robert was able to persuade the ensemble to stay together. The answer might lie in inaccurate newspaper reporting.
Whatever the outcome with the “Swell Coon from Louisiana” company, a few months later Robert had a new position, in Atlanta, Georgia. As reported in the Freeman on January 29, 1910,
Luna Park Theater, Atlanta, Georgia.
Mr. R. V. Cross, our stage manager, presents an all-star cast supported by Robert B. Joplin, the noted song and play writer, who has just finished a six weeks engagement at the Colored Airdome [sic] Theater, Jacksonville, Fla. and is now filling an indefinite engagement at Luna Park Theater. . . . Robert B. Joplin has just presented two of his new songs, a ballad “If I Were with My Thoughts To-Night, Sweetheart, I’d Be with You,” and a coon song, “Since Emancipation Day.”
The two songs are the only music that he is known (so far) to have composed. Both are very rare among collectors, indicating that sales were insufficient for many copies to have been printed. I’ve seen only “Since Emancipation Day,” which is better than most ordinary songs of the day, but with enough rough spots—in harmonic progressions, voicing, and notation—to convince me that Robert’s brother Scott did not have a hand in it. Robert apparently could not notate or arrange for piano, for it was arranged by Sam Patterson, a close friend of Scott’s. Robert had probably become acquainted with Patterson when living in St. Louis in 1902. Both Robert and Patterson were touring in 1909, when the music was probably composed, but we don’t have enough information to say where their paths may have crossed at this later date.
The lyric is interesting in that it celebrates the progress made by African Americans since emancipation, referring to Blacks driving cars and Booker T. Washington’s dinner at President Theodore Roosevelt’s White House. His predictions are that a Black man will someday become president, and an African American’s face will appear on money (as of this writing, work on the Harriet Tubman $20 bill has resumed).13
The following month, in mid-February, Robert was in Dayton, Ohio. In an interview, he claimed that his brother Scott had co-composed these two songs. Robert’s claim does not make sense; if Scott were involved in the composition, there would have been no need for Patterson to write the arrangements14
In April 1911, Robert was in New Castle, Pennsylvania, appearing at Gluck’s Family Theatre as a comedian. The next month he was in Butler, Pennsylvania, appearing as a singer: “Robert B. Joplin, Coon Shouter, is something new. He has a very good voice and sings his songs in a manner that catches the audience.”15In October, he may have been the person listed in a workhouse directory as “R. B. Joplan” [sic], who was arrested on suspicion of arson and sentenced to the workhouse for thirty days. This person is listed as a Black man, an actor, age thirty-two (Robert would have been forty-two), born in Illinois, 5’7” in height, 137 pounds, can read and write, left school at age twelve, received Baptist instruction in Sunday School, never married, a moderate drinker. He was released on November 8. We think this was Robert B. Joplin. The “R. B.” identification instead of a first name is how he signed his marriage certificate with Cora. Also, of the fifty-two people listed on the page, he is only one of two who had used an initial instead of a first name. The sentence of only thirty days suggests that the offense was not considered serious or the suspicion that he was involved was very weak. The sentencing judge, Louis Alpern, presided in Pittsburgh over trivial cases, such as vagrancy and public drunkenness. Sentences were usually fines of $10 or, if the defendant could not pay, thirty days in the workhouse. Robert was apparently arrested with a white man named Charles Anderson, who is listed on the line above on the same charge and received the same sentence.16
Florence Joplin, Robert’s mother, died in Little Rock on July 7, 1911. Her estate consisted of $125, derived from an insurance policy with the Knights and Daughters of Labor. She died without a will and her daughter Myrtle Joplin Brooks, with whom Florence had been living, had her husband (Charles Brooks) apply to the court to administer the estate. The court agreed and the proceeds of the estate were presumably distributed to Florence’s heirs, as listed in the administration petition. The heirs named are five of her six living children. Robert is not included. We can only speculate as to why Robert was omitted, whether it had been Florence’s wish or Myrtle’s decision.
Robert next appears in early April, 1912, in charge of the Ruby Theatre, in Louisville, Kentucky. The report describes him as “formerly of Pittsburgh, later of Cincinnati,” and promises that he would book only first-rate shows. The theater had been closed for repairs and renovations after a fire, and its reopening had weekly delays until May 6, when Robert’s bookings made their first appearances. By the end of June, the theater had discontinued vaudeville and Robert was gone.17 For the rest of the year, and the beginning of 1913, Robert made appearances in theaters throughout the East and Canada as a singer. In November 1912, he won a cakewalk contest in Greenville, Pennsylvania, receiving $100. His planned itinerary would have him going next to Conneaut, Ohio, and then New Castle, Pennsylvania.18
In 1913, Robert settled in Buffalo, NY, which would become his home base for a decade. He initially lived at 507 N West, and then, for a longer period, at 105 William Street. The Freeman notes that he, along with James Anderson and the team of Bradford and Bradford were “putting on stock.” This means they had formed a repertory theater group that would put on different shows nightly from a prepared repertory. A newspaper notice a few weeks later from the town of Lancaster, on the outskirts of Buffalo, confirms their intention: “On Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings—special attraction at the Empire Theatre—a musical comedy by the Robert B. Joplin Co. of 8 people, all colored, with entire change of program every night.”19
In May 1914, Robert, as stage director for the Three S. Amusement Company, advertised in the Freeman for performers: “WANTED AT ONCE! The Three S. Amusement Co., of Buffalo, N. Y. Would like to hear from colored performers, ladies and gentlemen: singers, dancers and men who double B & O [band and orchestra] preferred.” This was to be for a traveling company that would have rehearsals in Buffalo in July, and begin touring in a private train car on August 1.20We’ve found no further notices for this company.
Notices in late March 1915 report him singing “Teach Me to Pray” at the Michigan Avenue [Street?] Baptist Church in Buffalo, a historic institution that played an important part in the “underground railroad,” and leading a “Big Colored Minstrel” company at the Eagle Theater, February 22–24 and March 3–5, in nearby Tonawanda. In late May, an item indicated he was rehearsing the “Robert B. Joplin’s Famous and Original Cotton Blossoms Company,” which would open in Buffalo and then tour through New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.21
On April 1, 1917, Robert’s brother Scott died in New York; he was interred at St. Michael’s Cemetery, in Queens, on April 5. Two days later—April 7—the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered World War I. When armistice was declared (November 11, 1918), ragtime was fading as a popular musical style, giving way to jazz.
On May 15, 1917, the “Chattels” column in the Buffalo Courier recorded that Robert B. Joplin repaid a $750 loan received from Anna L. Joplin. That amount was almost half the annual income for most New York families at that time. The 1920 census lists Anna Joplin as another one of Robert Joplin’s wives.
In the spring of 1919, Robert was planning to go on the road. In April, he advertised for a violinist to lead an orchestra for a traveling show, salary $18/week plus expenses. A month later, he advertised for a cast of six men and six women who could dance and sing, for a summer touring musical comedy company. We have not found any further notices about this company, which seems to have been another of Robert’s projects that did not develop.22
The U.S. Census taken in Buffalo on January 2, 1920 lists Robert at 105 William Street; the two apartments in the building, aside from the street level store, were designated as rentals. Robert was living with his wife Anna. Aside from the marriage, which we cannot confirm, and Robert having a middle initial “D” rather than “B”, the information in the census is mostly correct, listing age 50, occupation theatrical manager, his father from North Carolina, his mother from Kentucky. But Robert B. Joplin, theater manager, is also listed in the census taken on January 14 in Westchester, NY, at 146 South 7th Avenue, more than 350 miles from Buffalo. He is listed there with his wife Ollie E. This would be Ollie E. Trimble, whom he had married in Staunton, Virginia, in 1907. Except for his name and profession, none of the census information in his Westchester listing is correct.
The following month, February 1920, an item in the Chicago Defender lists him as producer, stage director, and manager of the “Famous Georgia Minstrels.” He was also a performer for the company, as the notice states, “Robert Joplin stops the show with ‘Oh, How Happy Old Ireland Would Be’.” It ends with a San Francisco mailing address for Robert.23
By the summer, Robert was back in Buffalo at 105 William Street, and on August 14 the Buffalo Evening News reported his arrest for burglary and assault. A follow-up article in another newspaper reported that Robert and an unidentified accomplice entered the residence of Gus Cheros at 3:30 AM. Cheros, when awakened, struggled with the intruders and sustained injuries requiring treatment at an emergency facility. A few days later, the paper reported that charges against Robert were discharged. The Buffalo Enquirer on August 23, nine days after the incident, gives a more detailed story. Robert lived in an apartment on the second floor of the building; the butcher’s shop was on the street level. On the night in question, the butcher was making so much noise while cutting meat at 3:30 AM that neighbors complained. Robert, failing in an attempt to get the butcher to stop, called the police. When the police arrived, the butcher accused Robert of assault and attempted robbery, which is why Robert was arrested. After he was cleared of the charges, Cheros was arrested and charged with malicious prosecution, false arrest, and $10,000 in damages. Robert indicated he would sue for that amount and for false arrest.24
The newspaper report raises an issue that remains unclear. It says that Robert had rented the space to Cheros, which seems to indicate that he owned the building, contradicting the census taken a half-year earlier, which describes him as a renter. Perhaps Robert had rented the street level space as well as his second-floor apartment, subleasing the former? Or, more likely, this is another instance of inaccurate newspaper reporting or an error in the census.
A half-year later, on February 3, 1921, the Buffalo American newspaper had a page 1 article about a “Big Minstrel Extravaganza,” with a cast of forty, that would be presented at an unspecified date for an unspecified charity. Robert was the person in charge:
. . . The star comedy will be furnished by the team of Joplin and Rowles. . . . Too much credit can’t be said of the producer and stage director of the company, Mr. Robert B. Joplin, who succeed in influencing some of Buffalo’s prominent white citizens in backing the company and they are all assured of success.
We all know Joplin is a theatrical man, having traveled with some of our leading Colored companies, and is widely known as one of the old famous “Georgia Minstrel Kings.” Mr. Joplin was in California last season as interlocutor and stage manager for the celebrated Georgia minstrels, headquarters at San Francisco. . . .
Don’t forget they will appear in a downtown theater, name to be announced in the next issue.
Following issues of this newspaper have no mention of the event and it apparently never reached the stage.
In early April, Robert and two others filed a certificate of incorporation for the McAvoy Vocal Social Club: “the object is the moral and intellectual improvement of its members, and the cultivation of music, vocal and instrumental.” The directors were Robert B. Joplin, 105 Williams Street; James Brown, 105 Williams Street; and John Hopkins, 273 Kensington Avenue. We could find no further notice of this organization’s activities. We also wonder why the name “McAvoy” was chosen. It is not the name of any of the directors, and we’ve been unable to find a historic or then-current figure who might have been honored or memorialized with the club’s name.25
Five months later, the name McAvoy was again used, now for a theater owned and managed by Robert:
Joplin First Negro to Open a Theatre in City of Buffalo
The theater-goers of Buffalo will be treated to a new theater which will open on or about September 24, under the management of Robert B. Joplin. Something Buffalo has never had before and something that the colored citizens of Buffalo always longed for, is a theater operated and owned by a colored man, in as much as the management of this theater will not in any way emphasize discrimination.
He sincerely solicits the patronage of the colored citizens of the city of Buffalo. . . .
The name of the theater has been changed from “The Sun” to “The McAvoy Theater,” catering to high-class pictures and up-to-date vaudeville, booking the biggest colored acts, tableaux and musical comedies in the business. There will be two shows a night, changing vaudeville twice a week, Monday and Thursday. . . .
The management will employ colored girl ushers, a colored orchestra and colored operator.26
The article, featured on the first page of the Buffalo American, has Robert’s usual public relations claims, but also makes racial appeals for support. It names Robert not only as the theater’s manager, but also as its owner. Robert’s ownership is asserted, also, in Billboard, a weekly theatrical paper, and in the New York Age, a Manhattan-based African-American newspaper. These notices would not have been to encourage patronage, but to inform his colleagues of his success. We wonder if someone named McAvoy helped finance the theater’s purchase, accounting for the name, but we have no evidence of this. The opening night was a success, as the newspaper described the theater as being packed. After the two films (no vaudeville mentioned in the review), Robert introduced four speakers—two white politicians, a Black businessman, and a Black doctor—who spoke of the progress being made by African Americans.27
Through the next few weeks, the theater featured race films, such as The Birth of a Race (1918), which was a rebuttal to the notorious Birth of a Nation (1915), which portrays African American men as stupid, vicious savages intent upon raping white women, with the Ku Klux Klan members presented as valiant, heroic saviors. Among other movies shown at the McAvoy were The Right of Birth (1921) and A Man’s Duty (1919).
Robert moved from his apartment on William Street to 396 Spring, presumably to be closer to the theater, shortening the distance from about twenty blocks to four. However, he was having problems. He suffered a personal theft from his new apartment of $200 (or $198, in one report) and $200 from the theater ticket office.28The theater did not last long. The Buffalo American had a policy of promoting Black businesses and causes and regularly had items urging that the theater be patronized. The McAvoy Theatre had advertisements in that paper weekly, until December 1, 1921. After that date, no notices of the McAvoy appeared in Buffalo newspapers.
Whereas his efforts to establish a stable business continued to flounder, Robert remained active, attracting notice. In December, when the McAvoy apparently failed, Robert was back in the news for his participation in a minstrel show that was announced as an “Unprecedented Success. Largest Paid Admission of Colored People in the History of the City.”
The Minstrel Cake Walk and Dance given by the Citizens’ Committee for the benefit of the Colored working girls home, at the Broadway Auditorium last Tuesday evening, was the biggest success in the history of Buffalo at any paid admission entertainment by Negroes. . . . As interlocutor, Mr. Rob Joplin was the right man in the right place. He is a professional star in a minstrel, and the precision with which the show progressed showed the result of his ability.
The duet by the two professionals, Mr. Joplin and Mrs. Boutee was grand, showing a wonderful range of voice for Mrs. Boutee, and a well controlled, clear rendition by Mr. Joplin.
Then came the great cake walk we have heard and read so much about, and it was a perfect exhibition of modesty and grace. . . . Then came Mr. Joplin and Mrs. Boutee. This couple exhibited the old-fashioned cake walk in perfect style and made a big hit.29
In March 1922, Robert repaid a chattel mortgage of $120 to Abraham Gareleck. In September, a suit was stolen from his residence. Buffalo’s Columbia Theater on October 5 advertised a Mary Pickford film and vaudeville appearances by Robert and two others.30We don’t know when he left Buffalo, but by January 1924 he was in Chicago:
Robert B. Joplin, billed as America’s greatest baritone, upholds his reputation with some to spare. He is lately of the Queen City Troubadours, having spent 23 years with that company in Europe. The fullness of his voice completely captivated the large audience.31
The claim of being in Europe for twenty-three years is false. A few months later, he was in the hospital: “Robert B. Joplin, 461 Bowen Ave., well-known baritone singer and brother of the late Scott Joplin, took suddenly ill and was taken to the county hospital. He is in ward No. 53, fifth floor, and wishes to hear from friends.”32He recovered, and the following month was again on stage: “Robert B. Joplin, the famous baritone, has opened Performers’ Inn at 8 W. 31st St., Chicago.”33Back in Buffalo, a puzzling classified advertisement appeared in the Courier on March 19: “UPRIGHT PIANO—Will sacrifice my equity of $230.00 on nearly new upright piano; leaving city for Europe. Ask for Mrs. Joplin, 473 Main street.”34Was this Mrs. Joplin the Anna who was listed as his wife in the 1920 census? Lottie Joplin (Scott Joplin’s widow) had told Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, authors of They All Played Ragtime, that Robert had died in Paris, France, where he was performing in vaudeville.35Lottie’s word was not reliable, but if that belief or rumor had reached Anna, she—not knowing Robert was in Chicago—might have thought she could find him in Paris.
A year later, on May 8, 1925, he resumed his conjugal habits and married again. The bride was Cecile J. Millon, age given as 19. Robert gave his age as 36, shaving 20 years off his true age. The following January 21, 1926, Cecile gave birth to a daughter, Cecile Josephine Joplin. Almost a year after that, a Robert Joplin died at home—4229 Calumet Avenue, Chicago—of chronic myocarditis and nephritis. Was this Robert B.? The death certificate has information that might line up with what we know of Robert, but there is nothing conclusive. It lists his age as approximately 50 (Robert B. would have been 57) and his employment as a chef on the railroad. He is listed as unmarried, and the address is not the same as where Robert and Cecile lived when their daughter was born the previous January—4431 Indiana Avenue—but the two addresses are in the same neighborhood, six blocks apart; he and Cecile may have separated.
This Robert Joplin was buried on January 7, 1927, at Chicago’s Oak Forest Cemetery, a facility for the indigent and unknown. An online search of that cemetery did not locate him. The strongest argument connecting this death certificate to Robert B. is that there are apparently no further newspaper items about him. Even if he had gone to France, he would have sent back notices of his great successes, whether or not they had occurred. Robert B. Joplin probably died alone on December 29, 1926, was buried in a paupers’ grave, and his friends, colleagues, and relatives were unaware of his passing.
Robert B. Joplin started his working life as a cook and ended it as a chef. Had he stayed with that vocation, he probably could have made a satisfactory living. With his demonstrated initiative and persuasiveness, he might even have excelled and become highly successful. Instead, he chose to build upon his talent as a singer and dancer and embarked upon a career in Black musical theater, a highly uncertain and risky endeavor.
We don’t know the extent to which his career mirrored those of many other Black performers of the time; we suspect that, despite his stumbles, he had greater resourcefulness than most. We’ve come across a few instances of his linking himself to his more famous brother; that connection could have been significant in creating opportunities. He wanted to go beyond bookings as a singer and dancer; he wanted a stable and long-lasting position of responsibility, whether as a troupe leader, stage director, or theater manager or proprietor. This was where his ambitions floundered; we don’t have enough information at this time to determine the reasons for the failures. Perhaps he was just reaching too high and could not fulfill the requirements of his positions, or maybe negative personal traits overcame the initial favorable impressions that he seems to have made.
Whatever interest we have in Robert B. Joplin, it is primarily because of his brother, Scott Joplin. Our last words must be on whether Robert’s life give us any additional insights about Scott. The two had dissimilar personalities. Robert was an outgoing, persuasive self-promoter, given to exaggerate his reputation and accomplishments. Scott, in contrast, was frequently described as extremely subdued, modest, and highly respectable; though his compositions were significant accomplishments and recognized as such, he was usually reluctant to talk about them. The lone report of his making a false claim is in an anecdote from his nephew Fred (son of Monroe), who said that in a visit to Texarkana in 1907 Scott spoke of a triumphant tour of Europe,36which never happened. Their behavior patterns seem to meet only in misstating their ages, apparently a common untruthfulness at that time. The adult Scott consistently shaved years from his age in federal and New York census listings and on his marriage license with the much younger Freddie Alexander in 1904, giving his correct age only in his 1913 marriage to Lottie Stokes.
This biographical sketch is composed of fragments pieced together from documents, newspaper items, personal testimonies and—necessarily—speculation. While writing this article, we would occasionally come across new evidence that required revision of an earlier conjecture. As more evidence is discovered, the revision process is likely to continue. The result is imperfect, but it’s a start.
1 Extract from letter dated 1/27/1950, quoted in part in the unpublished notes of Harriet Janis in preparation for the book They All Played Ragtime, by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1950; 4th ed. Oak Publications, 1971).
2 Ann and John Vanderlee, “Scott Joplin’s Childhood Days in Texas,” Rag Times, Jan. 1974, 3.
3 Kirby and Clark did not have notable careers as performers, but at least one newspaper item reports on their performing with Scott in 1898. See Parsons (Kansas) Weekly Blade, May 21, 1898, 1.
4 Robert is named in the quartet “Texas Colored Singers,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Mar. 26, 1893, 11. The article says the group, which it praises, was formed eight months prior. The last news item we have for the quartet is Sep. 29, 1894. For additional information about the group, see Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime. Scott Joplin and His Era, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 11–14. More newspaper items about the group have been found since publication of this book.
5 Using her married name, “Hill,” her listing appears “Hill S C Dee.”
6 I thank Elliott Hurwitt for information about Taylor’s interview. We could find no family connection between Willie Turrentine and jazz musicians Stanley and Tommy Turrentine.
7 “Made Sweet Music,” Sedalia Capital, Oct. 11, 1899, 1.
8 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 25, 1902, pp. 14 and 6.
9 “The Stage,” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), Dec. 1, 1906, 5.
11 Lincoln Theatre, Knoxville, Tennessee,” Freeman, Feb. 8, 1908, 5.
12 “Lincoln Theatre, Knoxville, Tenn.,” Freeman, Feb. 15, 1908, 5.
13 I thank Eric Marchese for providing me with a copy of the music.
14 “Ragtime Man Here,” Dayton Herald, Feb. 17, 1910, 9.
15 Display advertisement, New Castle News (PA), Apr. 15, 1911, 3; “At the Majestic,” Butler Citizen (PA), May 23, 1911, 3.
16 Allegheny Workhouse admittance and discharge records, “Pennsylvania, U.S., Prison, Reformatory, and Workhouse Records, 1829-1971.”
17 In the Freeman: “Gossip of the Stage,” Apr. 6, 1912, 5; “Past Week at Louisville,” Apr 13, 1912, 4; “Crit M’Kinley’s Death,” Apr. 20, 1912, 1; “Past Week at Louisville,” Apr. 27, 1912, 4; “Past Week at Louisville,” May 4, 1912, 1 and 5; “Ruby Theater, Louisville, Ky.,” May 11, 1912, 4; “Ruby Theater, Louisville, Ky.” May 25, 1912, 4 and 6; “The Ruby Theater,” Jun. 22, 1912, 4; “Gossip of the Stage,” Jun. 22, 1912, 5.
18 “Gossip of the Stage.” Freeman, Nov. 2, 1912, 6.
19 Freeman, Mar. 15, 1913, 6; Enterprise Times (Lancaster, NY), May 1, 1913, 8.
20 Freeman, May 30, 1914, 5.
21 Respectively: Buffalo Evening News, Feb. 27, 1915, 5; Evening News (Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, NY), Feb. 20, 1915, 5, and Mar. 1, 1915, 5; Freeman, May 29, 1915, 5.
22 Buffalo Evening News, Apr. 24, 1919, 31; Buffalo Courier, Mar. 30, 1919, 24.
23 Chicago Defender, Feb. 28, 1920, 9.
24 Respectively: “Hold Negro for Burglary,” Buffalo Evening News, Aug. 14, 1920, 11; “Held on Burglary and Assault,” Buffalo Times, Aug. 15, 1920, 30; “Exonerates Joplin,” Buffalo Times, Aug. 20, 1920, 7; “Asks for $10,000 for Alleged False Arrest,” Buffalo Enquirer, Aug. 23, 1920, 10.
25 “Papers in Incorporation of M’Avoy Vocal Social Club,” Buffalo Courier, Apr. 14, 1921, 4. Shorter notices also appeared the Buffalo News, Apr. 12, 1921, pp. 15 and 17.
26 Buffalo American, Sep. 15, 1921, 1. Similar articles appear in the same issue on p. 4, and in the same paper on Sep. 22, 1921, 1. A picture of the McAvoy Theatre, as the building appeared in 2016, can be seen at http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/55081. It is the smaller building on the left.
27 “M’Avoy Theatre Grand opening,” Buffalo American, Sep. 29, 1921, 1; “Two More Houses,” Billboard, Oct. 1, 1921, 59.
28 “City Briefs,” Buffalo News, Sep. 27, 1921; “Negro stole $200, charge,” Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Sep. 28, 1921, 4; “$198 Missing from Trunk,” Buffalo Courier, Sep. 28, 1921, 14; Buffalo Courier, Sep. 27, 1921, 4.
29 Buffalo American, Dec. 1, 1921, 1.
30 Respectively: “Chattel Mortgages,” Buffalo Courier, Mar. 12, 1922, 87; “Chattel Mortgages,” Buffalo News, Mar. 13, 1922, 22; Buffalo Courier, Sep. 4, 1922, 3; Buffalo Times, Oct. 5, 1922, 27.
31 Bob Hayes, “The Monogram,” Chicago Defender, Jan. 26, 1924, 6.
32 “Robert Joplin Ill,” Chicago Defender, Apr. 12, 1924, 4.
33 “A Note or Two,” Chicago Defender, May 24, 1924, 7.
34 Buffalo Courier, Mar. 19 1904, 15. The address was for a music store.
35 Unpublished notes of Harriet Janis.
36 Addison W. Reed, “The Life and Works of Scott Joplin” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 1973), 39, 41.
Copyright (c) 2021 by Edward A. Berlin