“I refuse servitude”

Germaine Ingram

Each of these items speaks to the context in which Louise Madison, an extraordinary Philadelphia-born and raised tap dancer, made and executed her choice to work on the popular stage.

Themes include:

  • The community of Black women who chose to work on the popular stage, especially those who used Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revues as a means of getting training, exposure, and access to more lucrative opportunities.
  • The prevalent stereotypes for Black people, and especially Black women, represented in popular entertainment.
  • The irony that Blackbirds—productions replete with racial stereotypes and caricatures—was an important vehicle for Black women to resist the limitations of race and gender.
  • The impact of colorism on standards of beauty, both on and off the popular stage, and on Black women’s opportunities in the entertainment field.

Lobby Photo of Louise Madison, with inscription to Ludie Jones (1934)

Photographer unknown
Courtesy of Germaine Ingram, Private Collection

This is one of only two photographs I’ve found from Louise’s performance days (the other being the photo to the left, a newspaper photo with featured female artists from the London production of Blackbirds). It bears an inscription written by Louise and dated 1934, indicating that it was written in London. Louise encourages Blackbirds chorus dancer Ludie Jones to create a specialty act and wishes her success. What does Louise tell us about herself in this lobby photo? What clues are there in her attire, her makeup, her facial expression, her stance, or in her inscription to dancer Ludie Jones?

Souvenir Program Book, “Hallelujah” (1929)

Frank McGlinn Collection, African American Museum in Philadelphia 

Louise Madison was never a chorus line dancer. She carved out her own distinctive persona as a solo tap dancer. But for many Black women entertainers of Louise’s era and later, the chorus line was not only a way out of domestic work and other low-paying jobs, it was also a launching pad for more visible and lucrative careers. Josephine Baker catapulted herself from dancing in chorus lines to becoming the rage of Paris in a banana skirt and an enduring icon of stage, screen, and resistance to Nazi aggression. Nina Mae McKinney, at age 16, was spotted in the 1928 production of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (Louise appeared in Blackbirds productions of 1933–35), and became the female lead in Hallelujah, the first film with an all-Black cast to be produced by a major film company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Hallelujah, directed by award-winning white director King Vidor, was replete with paternalistic racial stereotypes, and the role of Chick, played by McKinney, presented what Black film scholar Donald Bogle called “the first black whore” in popular media. McKinney became an international star, and her hyper-sexualized portrayal in Hallelujah influenced roles for Black women for decades. I imagine that some of Louise’s career choices—to don male attire and dance with what was considered a masculine prowess—might have been a reaction to portrayals of Black women as either mammies or seductresses.

Nelly Scott (1938-41) and "Goin' North": Tales of the Great Migration, Episode 4, “Domestic Work”

Dox Thrash
Color carborundum etching

This etching and aquatint by Philadelphia artist Dox Thrash depicts a Black woman doing laundry by hand in a wooden tub. For Black women of the 1920s and ’30s, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, domestic work was one of very few ways of making a living. It was one of the few employment alternatives that Louise Madison would have had if she had not chosen a life on the stage. An intriguing aspect of the print is that the figure has bright red lips, which appears to be a way of “signifying” on the ways that Black people often were depicted demeaningly with oversized red lips. (See, for example, the playbill cover and postcard advertisement for London productions of Blackbirds, third floor, Dietrich Gallery.) Thrash’s portrait seems to use this strategic application of color as a code-switcher—a signifier of style and self-possession despite the subject’s laborious, low-paid employment.

Charles Hardy III, Professor Emeritus, West Chester University, 1985

These oral history interviews are of Black women who worked as domestics in Philadelphia during the Great Migration. In the 1920s and ’30s, the overwhelming majority of domestic workers in Philadelphia were Black women, and the overwhelming source of employment for Black women was domestic service. As hard as it was for Black women to make a living before the stock market crash of 1929, the plight of Black domestic workers went from bad to worse as employment opportunities deteriorated during the Depression, when Black women earned an hourly wage of $0.15 per hour for as many as 90 hours per week of scrubbing, washing, child-tending, and cooking. For Louise, a school drop-out, domestic work would likely have been her principal employment alternative had she not made a career for herself in entertainment. “I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it.” These words, from Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W.W. Norton 2019, p. 299), encapsulate what I imagine was the refrain—articulated or silent, conscious or unconscious—of Black American women who, like Louise Madison, took to the popular stage as dancers, singers, musicians, and actors in the early to mid-20th century.

To hear original interviews from the entire oral history collection, Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia, visit https://goinnorth.org 

Programme and Advertising postcard for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1935 production at the Coliseum of London

Courtesy of Germaine Ingram, Private Collection

This “programme” from the production of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds 1934-35 at the London Coliseum identified Louise as a member of the “all-star cast of coloured artists,” and dubs her “the World’s Greatest Female Tap Dancer.” She appeared in the opening number, “Down South: A Futuristic idea of ‘Down South’ introducing Southern Melodies,” with the Blackbirds chorus line.

The playbill cover and postcard bear stereotypical tropes for Black people—a mammy with her arms thrown skyward; a black-faced chef with exaggerated red lips expressing amazement as singing blackbirds emerge from a pie; people in blackface with oversized red lips. The production peddled plenty of racist tropes, including numbers titled “Emperor Bones” and “a few moments of Negro Nonsense,” and program photos that bore such captions as: “A real Negro funny man.” and “Authentic lazy, perplexed comic Negro of tradition.” There’s an irony in that stage production like Blackbirds—with all of their blackface and racial stereotypes—was a refuge for Black women from the limitations that race and gender placed on their lives and career opportunities.

Columns from June 2, 1934 edition of The New York Age, a weekly
“leading Negro newspaper”

Vere E. Johns and V.E.J.
Temple University Libraries

Entertainment writer Vere E. Johns penned two columns in the June 2, 1934 edition of The New York Age, a weekly “leading Negro newspaper” (published from 1887 to 1953). One was a review of a production of Blackbirds appearing at the Lafayette Theater in New York City. Johns applauded Lew Leslie and gave the show a positive review, particularly complimenting there being “No filth! No burnt cork hokum! No suggestive gags. No vulgar contortions!” Louise got specific mention as one of four artists who “all do their bit to hold the show together and make it click.” In the second column, Johns lit into the Apollo Theater for a recent show in which entertainers, “with faces made up to look like monkeys, pulled the best line of comedy they knew … but it spelled ignorance and degradation and, allowing for its stale gags, could convey nothing to the minds of a white audience but that the Negro as a whole is an illiterate child. They are the perfect example of what the white people of yesterday termed a ‘coon.’” The columns highlight the tensions at the time over the continued use of blackface and other extreme racial tropes, particularly in front of Black audiences. Johns urged retirement of blackface entertainment, arguing that “it is not welcome on Broadway and such sketches would not be permitted there. Is Harlem entitled to less consideration?”

Cover Your Stage

Directed & Produced by Germaine Ingram

Cinematographer and editor: Ain Un; Dancer: Brinae Ali 

Memories are cradles of joy. Memories incite our curiosity and imagination. They populate our dreams. This short video captures all those aspects of memory, indeed, it captures memories of memories—my recollections of memories shared with me by my tap dance ancestors and mentors. These are the flickering, resonating images that I seek to keep alive as we dream the future of Black culture and artistic genius.

Resistance rooted in


Interested in more stories about Black artists resisting limitations? Check out the work below:

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