#52Ancestors – Surprise! Elmer Augustus Dade, My Great Uncle and Vaudeville Star. Who Knew?

In fact, I did know that Elmer Dade was my great aunt, Iva Mae Williams’ husband and that they had a son, Elmer Dade Jr., who was buried with his mother in our family cemetery plot, at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in Maspeth, Queens, New York City.[1] So it stood for many years. I had found everyone in the census of 1930[2] and 1940,[3] but I wasn’t researching my great aunt and uncle, I was trying to push our family line backwards, beyond her parents, my great grandparents, Joshua W. Williams and Ellen Wilson Gainer Williams. I’m not sure what happened first, but at some point, I did read the occupation column and noticed that Elmer Sr. was an actor. Given the time period he lived in, it was not a stretch to imagine he was possibly involved in Vaudeville. Little did I know!

Iva Mae Williams "Babe"
Iva Mae Williams, Aunt Babe, circa 1910

About three or four years ago, I was contacted by Deborah Lowe Wright, Director of the Pickaway County Historical Society, from the Pickaway County, Ohio,[4] asking if I had additional information about Elmer, other than what was in my on-line Ancestry tree and that there was an annual luncheon in Ohio honoring the founding families and others of note, from Pickaway County. I was encouraged to attend the following year’s event. I had a conflict and did not attend.

Subsequently, I set about adding documentation to Elmer’s Ancestry profile. In 2016, I was contacted again by Deborah Lowe Wright. She provided me with additional information about Elmer’s background. She told me that Elmer’s family originated in Orange County, Virginia, moving later to Pickaway County.[5] She asked if I had much information about his career in Vaudeville. She hadn’t found much at that point. I went out to Google to look for information and found for the first time that Elmer was a well-known performer and agent![6] I was wishing my parents and especially my father’s sister, Lute Williams Mann, were still alive. I knew that “Aunt Lutie” knew her “Aunt Babe” well. Surely, she had more information. Alas, I will never know.

In the intervening years, additional newspaper articles mentioning Elmer and his public appearances have become available on-line. Deborah Lowe Wright had created clippings that made my research easier.[7] His appearances around the country were met with great acclaim. He and his dance partner, and then wife (before he was married to my great aunt), Malinda Allen, were called “Royal Entertainers.”[8]  How exciting! However, there were other surprises, not totally unexpected, but nonetheless jarring.

Right now, in Virginia, there is a great upheaval over the discovery of pictures believed to be the governor, when he was in college, attending a party in black-face.[9] So, it is a subject in the forefront of my thought as the governor’s behavior and responses are hotly debated. Thus, it was more startling than it might have been at another time, to find that Elmer was known for some of his “black face” performances.  Before the current controversy, I would have considered it simply an historical reality, not having any immediate relevance to my current world. While certainly a racist image, it was what white audiences wanted to see. Thus, even African American performers sometimes felt obliged to perform in black face (I’m sure begrudgingly) in order to survive financially in a hostile world.

In 1925, the Cincinnati Enquirer noted that,

Malinda and Dade, whose ancestors hailed from Africa, are programmed as royal entertainers, and they are. It is not related to what court they are attached, but yesterday’s audience set up a court of its own and voted Malinda and Dade its prime jesters. Dance? Of course, in typical plantation style …[10]

Malinda and Dave "plantation dance?
Cincinnati Enquirer, 2 November 1925

The Muncie Evening Press wrote,

The Keith-Albee vaudeville will include Malinda and Dade, a clever tea mof [sic] blackface comedians who give negro dialect and song offerings.[11]

The Pittsburgh Press said,

Malinda and Dade, chocolate colored entertainers from the southland, will sing and dance in that whimsical fashion of the real Negro.[12]

The “real Negro?”

On the other hand, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Malinda and Dade were, “a pair of colored singers and comedians who are exceptionally gifted.”[13] Am I just feeling jaded and suspicious? “Exceptionally gifted?” Was that a genuine compliment? Does it mean exceptionally gifted despite being chocolate colored, blackface, royal jesters who sing and dance like real Negroes? I’m feeling sad, uneasy, and angry.

I have a hard time picturing my great aunt or any of my Williams family as “prime jesters,” or “plantation style” dancers, or being sympathetic to such behavior. Did Aunt Babe know exactly what he was doing? Did she just ignore it, content that he brought the money home? Was she more enamored with the fame than bothered by racial indignities? Did it seem removed from her life as homemaker and mother? I’ll never know.

I did find an article that dated from the time period during which Elmer and Aunt Babe were married, a 1939 funeral notice for another vaudeville star, Mae Brown, who performed with her deceased husband, Garland Howard as Howard and Brown. [14]  The funeral services were at historic St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church, in Harlem.[15] Among those mentioned as having sent floral arrangements were, “Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Dade.”[16]

There are some interesting anomalies regarding my great aunt and Elmer. I have yet to find their marriage record. They are listed as married in the 1930 census,[17] the 1940 census,[18] and his World War II registration.[19] According to the Social Security Death Index, he died in 1971 in the Bronx, New York.[20] However, I have not found a death record for him. I suspect that is because the New York City death index records later than 1965 are not public.[21]

Elmer Dade WWII Draft Registration
Elmer Augustus Dade, World War II Draft Registration.

Despite my discoveries about my great uncle’s blackface performances, I still take pride in his career. He was part of theater history, the good and the bad. As usual, I wish I had known more about this earlier, before everyone who had first hand knowledge was dead. That’s the eternal lament of a genealogist and family historian.

References

[1]  Burial plots of Iva Mae Williams Johnson Dade and Elmer Dade Jr. Section R, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Maspeth, Queens, New York. Certificate in possession of the author.

[2] 1930 US Federal Census; Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; Christina Hill, head; Elmer Dade, brother-in-law; Iver Dade, sister. NARA Roll: 1574; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0930; Image: 275.0; FHL microfilm: 2341309. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[3] 1940 US Federal Census; Census Place: New York, New York, New York; Elmer Dade, head; Iva Dade, wife. NARA  Roll: T627-2650; Page: 9B; Enumeration District: 31-1108. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[4] Collins, S. (18 Jan 2018). Author presents research on Circleville’s African American History. Circleville Herald (Circleville, Ohio). Retrieved from: circlevilleherald.com

[5] 1900 US Federal Census; Census Place: Circleville Ward 3, Pickaway, Ohio; Elmer Dade, “father’s birthplace: Virginia.” NARA Roll: 1313; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 0102; FHL microfilm: 1241313. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] Uno. (19 Jan 1952). Burlesque Bits. The Billboard (Nielson Business Media, Inc.), p. 46. Retrieved from: Google Books

[7] Dlowewright.  Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[8] Elmira Star-Gazette. (5 Jan 1924). At the Elmira Theaters, Majestic (Elmira, New York), p. 7. Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[9] Kelly, C. (7 Feb 2019). Virginia governor apologizes for ‘racist and offensive’ costume in photo showing people in blackface and KKK garb. CNN. Retrieved from: cnn.com

[10] The Enquirer. (2 Nov 1925). B. F. Keith’s–Vaudeville (Cincinnati, Ohio), p. 5. Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[11] Muncie Evening Press. (25 Oct 1925). Theaters: Wysor Grand (Muncie, Indiana), p. 12. Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[12] The Pittsburgh Press. (18 Nov 1923). Joe Brown at Davis Theater in New Act (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), p. 45. Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[13] The Philadelphia Inquirer. (9 Oct 1923). ‘Miss Philadelphia’ and ‘King Neptune’ (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), p. 15. Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[14] Snelson. F. B. (25 Nov 1939). Mae Brown, Well Known Actress Dead. The New York Age (New York, New York). Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[15] St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church. (n.d.). Our History. Retrieved from: stmark138.com

[16] Snelson. F. B. (25 Nov 1939). Mae Brown, Well Known Actress Dead. The New York Age (New York, New York). Retrieved from: newspapers.com

[17] 1930 US Federal Census; Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; Christina Hill, head; Elmer Dade, brother-in-law; Iver Dade, sister. NARA Roll: 1574; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0930; Image: 275.0; FHL microfilm: 2341309. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[18] 1940 US Federal Census; Census Place: New York, New York, New York; Elmer Dade, head; Iva Dade, wife. NARA  Roll: T627-2650; Page: 9B; Enumeration District: 31-1108. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[19] U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 [Database online]. Elmer Augustus Dade. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[20] U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 [Database on-line]. Elmer Dade, Date of Death: Aug 1971. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[21] New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. (12 Jul 2017). New NYC death indexes available, 1949 – 1965. Retrieved from: newyorkfamilyhistory.org

 

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12 thoughts on “#52Ancestors – Surprise! Elmer Augustus Dade, My Great Uncle and Vaudeville Star. Who Knew?”

  1. I enjoyed your post about your vaudevillian great-uncle. My grandfather, who died before I was born, was in vaudeville briefly but left to enlist when the US entered WWI. I haven’t been able to find anything about his career except for a tiny ad he placed in a midwest newspaper seeking work as a comedian. I suspect he was too small-time even for the Small-Time. The newspaper article about Elmer reminded me that when my family moved to Vermont in 1966, the Opera House was still putting on an annual minstrel show, if you can imagine that. My dad was so appalled (not to mention nonplussed), he waged a successful letter-writing campaign in the local newspaper to put an end to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I suppose finding out your family performed in these demeaning shows is a dit disconcerting. Worse than my reading how my ancestors were slave owners. But they were what they were and did what they did and we just have to accept that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true. Like most people, I was certainly aware of African American black face actors, I just hadn’t thought about a family member being one. But even then, as I said, in general I’m not usually bothered by negative history. It is what it is. It gave me added pause because of the current controversy in Virginia which is a local story for me, therefore very much in my current consciousness.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting! It’s always great to find pieces to our genealogical puzzles that tell us more than just names and dates. This piece gives you a peek into your family’s past – and there always seems to be a bit of good and bad in most of those puzzle pieces!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Really interesting post. I’ll keep an eye out for a photo of Malinda and Dade. Vaudeville images are popular among collectors. I’d be proud of Elmer’s career, too. He earned a living and supported his family at a time when that wasn’t easy. The alternatives available to him might have seemed more degrading to him.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. EBay is the best place I know of. I have a bunch of email alerts set up there for family members. I set up an alert for “Malinda and Dade” in the Collectibles category, which covers most photos, so I’ll get an email if a photo is listed with those words in the title. I also checked sold items, which covers the past three months. Etsy and Amazon also sell vintage collectibles, so I checked them for “Malinda and Dade,” but didn’t see anything.

        Liked by 1 person

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