Friday, July 24, 2020 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Bee Jackson was a young professional dancer who tried to establish a reputation in the 1920s as the premiere exponent of the “Charleston” steps. Crisscrossing the United States and touring Europe, she boldly promoted herself as the “originator” of the jazzy moves that others had created. To bolster her claims, she needed to publicize herself in the Southern city from which the dance took its name. But the people of Charleston were “Charleston” shy in 1925, and Bee’s request for the keys to the city sparked a debate about the economic value of the popular dance craze.

The precise roots of the “Charleston” dance are obscure, as I mentioned last week, but the consensus of eyewitnesses living in early twentieth century New York agreed that it had first gained attention in Harlem among recent immigrants from the South Carolina Lowcountry. From Harlem street corners and night clubs it rose to the Broadway stage in the October 1923 revue, Runnin’ Wild. Paired with James P. Johnson’s now-famous tune of the same name, the “Charleston” dance spawned a legion of white fans who spread its popularity far and wide. By the middle of 1925, the “Charleston” was a bona fide national phenomenon that embodied the hedonistic spirit of the Jazz Age.

 

One of the many professional dancers active during the heyday of the “Charleston” was a young lady known as Bee Jackson. She might not be a household name any more, if she ever was, but images of Miss Jackson have been reproduced in hundreds—perhaps thousands—of books, magazines, and webpages devoted to various aspects of the effervescent “Roaring Twenties.” Those same pictures of Bee also appear in numerous publications about the history of Charleston, South Carolina, but the story of her relationship to the city has been forgotten. On a mission to become the international queen of the dance that defined her era, Bee Jackson wanted to be photographed doing the “Charleston” in the city that inspired its name. Her well-publicized visit here in April 1926 followed eight months of private negotiations and public discussions. During this brief period of Charleston’s history, city leaders awoke to the realities of modern advertising and embraced the international dance phenomenon as a local asset. The story of this cultural and economic transformation is an important part of the city’s history, and it all revolves around Miss Bee Jackson.

Beatrice Adelaide Jackson, better known as “Bee,” was a native of Brooklyn, New York. Her parents, Grace Evelyn Kendall (born 27 April 1879) and Frederick Emerson Jackson (1877–1959) were also natives of the Brooklyn area, where they wed in April 1901. Fred initially worked as a traveling salesman and apparently lived separately from his family for most of his career. At some point in the 1910s, he traveled to El Paso, Texas, where he settled down as a farmer, and never returned. The couple had two daughters, Beatrice and Doris, early in their marriage, and Grace Jackson was, for all practical purposes, a single mother. According to the Federal Census of 1910, she was regularly employed “on stage” as an “actress”—perhaps as a dancer—and lived with her two young daughters on Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn.

As female performers often did in the chauvinistic Broadway scene of the early twentieth century, Grace and her daughters regularly fibbed about their age. As they grew older, they continued to subtract years from their age whenever they spoke to reporters and filled in official paperwork. I haven’t been able to find a birth certificate for Bee Jackson, but I believe she was born in early 1903. In the U.S. Census of 1910, taken in mid-April of that year, Grace Jackson stated that her daughter Beatrice was seven years old on her last birthday, while Doris was just two (born 1 August 1907). When returning from Europe on several occasions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bee Jackson repeatedly told immigration officials that she was born on January 12th, 1906. That year can’t be correct, but the date is probably accurate. Based on this evidence, I’m concluding that Bee Jackson was born on January 12th, 1903.[1]

Bee Jackson started dancing professionally in 1921—aged eighteen—in a series New York cabaret shows and vaudeville acts. Audiences of that era flocked to Broadway theaters not to see sophisticated dramatic works with complex plots, but rather glittering spectacles filled with jazzy songs and shimmering dance routines based around a loosely-defined theme. Bee’s natural talent and energy caught the attention of local producers who invited her to join the chorus line of the celebrated Ziegfeld Follies of 1922 and 1923. Later that year and into 1924, she appeared in a number of cabaret shows and in the chorus of a several Broadway revues.[2]

Sometime in late 1923 or early 1924, Bee saw other people performing the dance steps we now know as the “Charleston.” Whether those other dancers were black or white is now unclear, but, considering Bee’s employment as a stage dancer, it’s possible that she learned it from the black chorus girls in the original production of Runnin’ Wild. Whatever the details surrounding her introduction to the dance, it’s clear that at some point Bee Jackson decided to focus her professional energies on the “Charleston.” She copied the basic steps of the “Charleston”—whatever those were at the time—and embellished them in a personalized manner. She then gained employment as a solo act in various Manhattan nightclubs, where she contributed—to some unknown degree—in spreading the popularity of the dance among New York’s white population.

I suspect that Bee’s mother, Grace Jackson, a former actress, acted as her manager and influenced her decision to focus on the exciting new steps. The popularity of the “Charleston” dance was taking off like a skyrocket in 1924. At that moment, Bee was at, or at least very near, the epicenter of the phenomenon and was equipped with the right skills to capitalize on its success. She was just one average dancer among a herd of competitors, however, and she needed a clever angle to carve out a path to fame and fortune. Their solution was to strike out as touring act and show the dance to audiences far beyond the Big Apple. To increase Bee’s marketing appeal, she began presenting herself in 1925 as the originator of the “Charleston” dance, or at least the person responsible for transferring it from South Carolina migrants in New York to the white community.

Within the orbit of New York City, I suspect that few of Bee Jackson’s contemporaries regarded her claim to have invented the “Charleston” with any degree of seriousness. There were probably many professional dancers active at that moment who could have, and might have, made similar boasts. Outside the Big Apple, however, audiences unfamiliar with the dynamics of show business might not have any reason to question her sincerity. She had bona fide credentials as a professional Broadway dancer, to be sure, and there was no high-speed Internet at the time to provide alternative facts that might undermine her assertions. As long as she delivered her biographical spiel with sufficient Brooklyn confidence, she was likely to succeed.

To bolster Bee’s solo career as a “Charleston” specialist even further, the Jacksons hatched another idea to separate her from the legion of other dancers. If the dance was named for the sleepy Southern town where children of African descent had once invented the steps, then Bee needed to establish a personal and professional connection with that point of origin. American were hungry for details about the landscape and the culture that gave birth to the “Charleston” dance, as South Carolina Governor Thomas McLeod and Charleston Mayor Thomas Stoney discovered in early 1926, but no one in the professional dance community at that moment had any such first-hand knowledge. By traveling to the purported source and absorbing a bit of local color, Bee Jackson might be able to claim an unrivalled degree of “authenticity.”

From a marketing perspective, the Jacksons’ plan was brilliant. Their goal wasn’t simply to see the Palmetto City for themselves, or even for Bee to become the first professional dancer to perform the “Charleston” in Charleston for Charlestonians. They wanted to visit the city to gain local validation of Bee’s important role in the worldwide diffusion of the dance sensation. That is to say, she needed photographs of her dancing next to Charleston landmarks, of her teaching the famous dance to white Charlestonians, and images of her dancing with or at least in proximity to African-Americans who represented the authentic roots of the dance she claimed to have invented. She needed the mayor or the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Charleston to acknowledge that she was the queen of the “Charleston” dance. Any sort of official recognition, combined with a bit of first-hand knowledge about the landscape and the people, would enhance her professional reputation immeasurably. In short, Bee Jackson needed Charleston far more than Charleston needed her.

In the late summer of 1925, Grace Jackson wrote a letter to the Charleston Chamber of Commerce inviting herself to make an official visit to the city. This bold communication, which inaugurated an odd relationship that continued into the following year, appears to have inspired some head scratching on Broad Street. Officials in the city’s Chamber of Commerce deemed Mrs. Jackson’s letter was sufficiently odd and brazen to warrant a broader discussion in the local media. So they handed her letter to the local newspapers, who reprinted the entire text for public review.

Mrs. Jackson introduced her subject with admirably direct language: “About two years ago my daughter, Miss Beatrice Jackson, while visiting friends in Charleston, saw a group of negroes doing a peculiar, rapid dance to the accompaniment of a lead pipe beaten on a soap box. She immediately saw possibilities in the lightning steps of the negroes and haunted the waterfront studying and analyzing the dance. Finally, upon her return to New York, she set to work developing steps from the basic foundation the negroes gave her. This dance she named the ‘Charleston’ and introduced it to Broadway.”

None of this brief narrative was true, of course, but the local press repeated Grace Jackson’s bogus origin story multiple times in the ensuing months. After all, checking the validity of her claims from the distance of nearly a thousand miles was difficult in that era. The Jacksons were show business people, of course, so slight exaggerations were to be expected. Mrs. Jackson was just beyond forty-six years of age at that moment, for example, but subtracted more than a decade from her age when speaking to the media, and she presented her daughter, Bee, then aged twenty-two, as a young teenager.

Grace Jackson proudly described her daughter as “the acknowledged originator of the ‘Charleston’” who was at that moment “appearing constantly in vaudeville, moving pictures and musical reviews.” At least some parts of that claim were true. “Through the medium of her dance,” said the proud stage mother, “Charleston, S.C., has become a byword all over the country and in our opinion the city of Charleston has received more publicity of a beneficial sort than any combined previous attempts to sell the city to the people of the country.”

The Chamber of Commerce and local press took exception to Mrs. Jackson’s use of the phrase “byword,” noting that widespread publicity or notoriety was not a desirable object in the traditions of Southern culture (before the Internet, at least). Nevertheless, they seemed to understand her meaning and saw the goal she had in mind. Grace Jackson was asking for a bit of quid pro quo for her daughter’s unsolicited work to raise the international profile of the Palmetto City: “Because of this publicity it seems to me that it would be to the advantage of Charleston from a standpoint of publicity as well as to my daughter if she might be photographed by the newspapers and moving picture companies in the act of being presented with a key to the city of Charleston or any other such act as would be of interest to the general public.”[3]

Mrs. Jackson’s bold proposal received a cool reception in Charleston during the August heat of 1925. City leaders were certainly aware of the dance craze then sweeping the nation, but the local population trailed far behind the vanguard of popular culture. The people of Charleston had been slow to embrace the jazzy steps named for their sleepy old town, and civic leaders hadn’t yet considered the scope of the advertising potential it represented. A light-hearted editorial in the Charleston Evening Post in mid-August correctly observed that Miss Bee Jackson was merely “the alleged preeminent exponent of the famous jazz dance,” and rightly interpreted her mother’s proposal as “a sort of mutual advertising scheme.” Nevertheless, said the editors, “there is something to be said for the idea, undoubtedly.”

“The presentation of the key to the city would be a tame sort of ceremony and hardly in keeping with the spirit and movement of the dance. It would be better to have the Mayor [Thomas P. Stoney], who is probably a skilled dancer, or, at least, the Mayor pro tem [Sidney Rittenberg], who is known to be, paired with Miss Jackson and filmed in the intricacies of ‘The Charleston’ in the City Council Chamber, with the celebrated picture of George Washington as a background, illustrating the old and the new order with a sub-title of something like ‘O tempora, O mores,’ if anyone should happen to know what we mean.” (This is a quotation from Cicero’s first oration against Catiline: “Oh the times! Oh the customs!”)

Despite Mrs. Jackson’s generous offer to bring her daughter to Charleston to receive the city’s praise, municipal leaders did not immediately jump at the opportunity to engage Bee’s services. “As a matter of fact,” said the Evening Post, “before anything is done along the lines either of Mrs. Jackson’s suggestion or our proposed modification of it, the City Council should appoint a commission to determine whether or not the claim set up as to the origin of the dance is authentic. ‘The Charleston’ has been known for more than two years and it is generally supposed to have come into the dance halls of Broadway from the negro cafes of Harlem and to have been brought to those resorts by Charleston negroes who had migrated to the colored section of New York.”[4]

Whether or not the city launched any sort of official local investigation is unclear, but Grace Jackson’s proposal did produce a sort of ripple effect through the community in the autumn of 1925. The famous “Charleston” dance was at that moment just beginning to gain popularity with white dancers in the Palmetto City, and some members of the community felt the need to get up to speed with the rest of the country. Another editorial published in late August suggested that the local tourist and convention bureau ought to embrace the “Charleston” dance wholeheartedly and turn a profit from its fame. They should try luring white dancers to visit the city to watch black Charlestonians do the steps, and “get some capers from the original source that would make the ‘Charleston’ as they dance it look like standing still.”[5]

Because the people of Charleston did not immediately jump at the opportunity to roll out the red carpet for the self-proclaimed “originator” of the “Charleston,” Grace and Bee Jackson sailed from New York to England in September 1925. In the ensuing months, Bee was employed as a featured artist at two high-profile establishments in London, first the Kit-Kat Club and then the Piccadilly Club. She returned to New York at the end of November and, after a bit of holiday rest, traveled south for a series of winter engagements at swanky nightclubs in Miami, Havana, and Palm Beach. While Bee gyrated through the early months of 1926, Grace was busy making arrangements for future gigs in Los Angeles and Paris in the late spring and summer. As mother and daughter planned their train route from Palm Beach back to New York that March, they again considered the possibility of visiting the fabled city of Charleston.

In the seven months between August 1925, when Grace Jackson first proposed an official visit to Charleston, and March of 1926, when she renewed the proposition, local attitudes towards the now-international dance sensation had changed dramatically. Civic leaders initially scoffed at the proposal, but the Brooklyn stage mother’s self-invitation sparked a much-needed local conversation about the potential merits of her suggestion. City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce gradually began to see the “Charleston” phenomenon as a potentially powerful vehicle for attracting visitors and investors to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. When news arrived of a planned competition in Chicago to select the best Charleston-dancing couple in the United States, city leaders were forced to confront this cultural dilemma head-on. As the Evening Post declared with theatrical gravitas in December 1925, “to Charleston, or not to Charleston, that is the question.”[6]

To the benefit of everyone involved, the City of Charleston resolved to jump on the literal bandwagon and ride the “Charleston” sensation for all it was worth. Next week, we’ll dive into the frenetic energy of early 1926, when dozens of young dancers stomped and shimmied through a series of local competitions to select the best “Charlestoners” in Charleston to represent the city at the national dance-off in Chicago. Although the governor condemned it, the mayor reveled in the national spotlight that put Charleston on the map of jazz-age cool.

 

 

[1] The Kendall-Jackson marriage was announced in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1 May 1901, page 5. In the 1910 U.S. Census, enumerated in mid-April, Grace Jackson, an “actress,” and her daughters Beatrice, age 7, and Doris, aged 2, were living at 518 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn, while Fred E. Jackson, traveling salesman, resided at a boarding house in Queens. According to Doris Jackson’s birth certificate, she was born on 1 August 1907 and her family resided in Jamaica, Queens County, New York. That county’s records are now missing from the 1905 State Census of New York, rendering it impossible to confirm Bee’s age in 1905. In the 1920 U.S. Census, Fred E. Jackson was living in a boarding house in El Paso, Texas. He died in that vicinity on 27 July 1959, after more than forty years residence in the county. His death certificate described him as Frederick Emerson Jackson, born in New York on 4 July 1877. In her 1939 registration for U.S. Social Security, Bee’s mother, Grace Kendall Jackson, said she was born on 27 April 1879 in Brooklyn, and named parents as John E. Kendall and Eveline Terbush [Turbush]. All of this information, including ship passenger data that provides Bee’s birthdate and middle name, was found in the research database Ancestry.com on 14–15 July 2020.

[2] The website Jazzageclub.com includes a good summary of Bee Jackson’s career, although it does not mention her visit to Charleston.

[3] Charleston Evening Post, 17 August 1925, page 11, “Charlestoner To Visit City.” The fictional story of Bee observing black children in Charleston was repeated in Evening Post, 18 August 1925, page 4, “‘The Charleston’”; Evening Post, 28 August 1925, page 10, “‘Charleston’ Has ‘Em Going”; and Evening Post, 30 March 1926, page 10, “Would Like to Visit City.” The South Carolina Historical Society holds a collection of records of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, but the closure of that archive during the current Covid-19 crisis has prevented me from searching to see if Grace Jackson’s letter survives therein.

[4] Evening Post, 18 August 1925, page 4, “‘The Charleston.’”

[5] Evening Post, 28 August 1925, page 10, “‘Charleston’ Has ‘Em Going”; Evening Post, 29 August 1925, page 4: “Make it Pay.”