Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

On a late November day in 1949, the man known universally by his childhood nickname, Bojangles, was carried through Manhattan and Brooklyn – from his funeral in Harlem to a brief stop in Times Square, and then on to the Evergreens – along miles of streets lined by a throng of mourners that the police estimated at more than 500,000. Once the flag-draped hearse passed, the men put their hats back on and began to talk about the Bill Robinson they knew.

“Some would say how they remembered him showing a child how to dance down the steps of a tenement,” a hovering journalist would report. “Others marveled at his slight regard for money, recalling how with indifference he would lose $10,000 on a roll of dice. In church, when the pastor remarked that Mr. Robinson had two vices, ‘ice cream and gambling,’ the audience laughed over the recollection of his carefree manner.” They all assumed one more thing about Bojangles Robinson. As unlucky as he had been at the dice table, with cards, and betting that Joe DiMaggio would hit a home run – so unlucky, in fact, that he blew several fortunes and died flat broke – Bojangles Robinson was a genius at entertaining. Four years after his death, in the classic MGM musical The Band Wagon the character played by Jack Buchanan declared, “There is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.”

In the 1930s Robinson became the first African American stage and film star to succeed equally well with both black and white audiences. Only a couple of years after making an all-black film titled Harlem is Heaven and being named the unofficial “Mayor of Harlem,” Robinson appeared with the white child star Shirley Temple in three extremely popular films. Robinson was buried in the eastern part of The Evergreens Cemetery, in a prominent corner of the Redemption section. Six months later, a choir, a color guard, a rabbi, a priest, and Ed Sullivan were on hand to dedicate his monument, with its bas relief of Robinson’s face, the statement, “Danced his way into the hearts of millions,” and Abraham Lincoln’s advisory to express malice toward none and charity for all. When the stone was vandalized, a replacement was provided by one of Bojangles Robinson’s best black dancer successors, Sammy Davis, Jr. Standing high behind a thick field of flowers, it the appearance of a small but cherished lighthouse marking the channel into a busy harbor.

Information taken from the book Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery by John Rousmaniere. Learn more here.