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Bee Jackson’s 1926 Visit to Charleston: Behind the Scenes
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In mid-April of 1926, a professional dancer from Brooklyn named Bee Jackson paid a brief but memorable visit to the Charleston area. Highlights of that event were captured in professionally staged photos and even silent moving pictures, but the broader context of her visit have been largely forgotten. She didn’t come here for a professional engagement, nor did she receive any compensation for dancing at private parties and outdoor photo shoots. So why did Miss Bee take a detour from her lucrative international career as a stage dancer to do the “Charleston” in Charleston?
A few weeks ago (see Episode No. 167), I introduced Brooklyn-native Bee Jackson and her budding career in the mid-1920s as a professional dancer specializing in the new and wildly popular “Charleston” dance. In the late summer of 1925, Bee’s mother, Grace Jackson, boldly wrote to the Charleston Chamber of Commerce to suggest that the mayor should reward her famous daughter for her efforts to promote the “Charleston” dance by presenting her with the keys to the city at a future, well-publicized meeting. Both the chamber and the city politely dismissed Mrs. Jackson’s request that August, and Bee sailed for London to spend a few months dancing at the prestigious Kit Kat Club and the Piccadilly Club. She returned to New York at the beginning of December 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, they again considered the possibility of visiting the fabled city of Charleston.
By that time, the City of Charleston and the Chamber of Commerce had warmed up to the now-famous dance. Realizing the advertising bonanza that might be reaped from the popularity of the “Charleston,” Mayor Thomas P. Stoney had personally rebuked the governor of South Carolina’s condemnation of the dance while the Chamber of Commerce organized a series of local competitions to select dancers to represent the city at the national dance contest in Chicago. In short, the Lowcountry capital was now Charleston-wise in late March of 1926, when the Chamber of Commerce received another letter from Grace Jackson again inviting herself and her daughter to be received in the Palmetto City. As it done the previous August, the chamber handed the letter to the local media so the community in general could participate in the conversation.
The Charleston Evening Post framed the conversation by repeating the information received months earlier from Grace Jackson, asserting that “Miss [Bee] Jackson had acquired the peculiar steps of the dance while in this city, from observing the performances of colored children on the waterfront, and had refined and embellished them in the form in which they were later introduced to Broadway. Mrs. [Grace] Jackson’s idea was that her daughter could receive effective publicity if the latter should be photographed in the city where the dance originated.” Mother and daughter would be traveling northward by train in early April, so Grace suggested that “perhaps at that date there may be some worthy cause for which Miss Jackson might endow her services. She will be only too happy to dance at any affair which may benefit Charleston financially or otherwise.” Time was the of the essence, however; Miss Bee was booked for an engagement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angles during the month of May, and then off to dance in France in June.
Details of the response sent to Mrs. Jackson are now lacking, but the Chamber of Commerce apparently invited the mother and daughter to stop in Charleston on their way back to New York in mid-April. Mayor Stoney was now an ardent advocate of the “Charleston” dance, but he would not be available to meet with them during the week in question. Preparations for an upcoming foreign trade conference in the city required the mayor’s presence out of town temporarily, so Bee could not receive a ceremonial key to the city as Grace had suggested. Nevertheless, the Brooklyn pair was welcome to stop in the city to take in the sights and perhaps dance a bit for both locals and cameras.
Bee Jackson and her mother arrived at Charleston’s Union Station (at the east end of Columbus Street) on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 14th, and then checked into the Fort Sumter Hotel. Their choice of Charleston’s swankiest tourist hotel, adjacent to White Point Garden and the Ashley River, was probably no accident. Bee had danced at the Fleetwood Hotel in Miami in January, and two months later its owner, Commodore J. Perry Stoltz, purchased Charleston’s Fort Sumter Hotel. Commodore Stoltz tried to hire Bee Jackson to perform at the re-opening of the Fort Sumter Fleetwood Hotel during the first week of April, but she was still under contract in Palm Beach. Despite that conflict, the commodore probably arranged for Bee and Grace Jackson to stay at the Fort Sumter when they finally arrived in Charleston in mid-April.
When Sam Berlin at the Chamber of Commerce heard of the Jacksons’ arrival, he quickly invited them to his office for a small press conference. With reporters present, mother and daughter discussed with Mr. Berlin the possibility of a public performance sometime in the coming days. Bee’s busy touring schedule rendered her stay in Charleston shorter than all had hoped, but perhaps some sort of publicity could be arranged. At the very least, said Sam Berlin, the Jacksons should relax, see the local sights, soak up the atmosphere, and attend a few private events as guests of honor. Grace Jackson responded by stating she and her daughter were looking forward to seeing Charleston for the first time—a statement that instantly nullified her previous assertion that Bee had learned the “Charleston” dance while visiting the city several years earlier. Speaking for herself, Bee Jackson said she “wanted to familiarize herself with the city which bears the name of the dance she started on its road to fame, the dance which is the most popular one that has ever been danced.” Mother and daughter then spent the rest of the day touring Charleston and admiring the scenery. After dinner, they attended a late-night private dance party at the Carolina Yacht Club on East Bay Street, overlooking Charleston harbor.
On Thursday, 15 April, Charlestonians opened their morning newspapers to read all about the arrival of the celebrity mother and daughter. For readers not quite familiar with the meteoric career of the young Bee Jackson, the News and Courier offered a brief review of her achievements. Grace Jackson claimed that her daughter had been “proclaimed as the originator of the ‘Charleston,’” and had “first got the idea herself from seeing negroes in New York dancing it.” The Jacksons’ evolving story about their association with the dance continued to gloss over the complex genesis of the “Charleston,” but at least they stopped pretending that Bee had first learned it while visiting this city. In a phrase more closely aligned with the facts, the newspaper noted that Bee “was the first white person in this country to ever dance it professionally.” She had danced as a solo act in nightclubs and vaudeville shows in New York, followed by engagements at Keith’s Palace Theatre and Keith’s Hippodrome Theatre. After dancing at the Kit Kat Club and Piccadilly Club in London last fall, she had been a featured attraction at clubs in Miami, Havana, and Palm Beach.
If Charlestonians were impressed by Bee Jackson’s show business credentials, the dancer and her mother were likewise pleased with their first visit to the sleepy Southern city. Their brief meeting with Sam Berlin at the Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday afternoon was followed by hours of sightseeing around the peninsula. “Both Miss Jackson and her mother are greatly impressed with Charleston,” reported the News and Courier. “They each say that it is a much nicer and prettier city than they expected to find.” Bee told members of the press on Thursday morning that she “finds Charleston ‘delightful and charming’ and noted with interest the older residences in the lower section of the city.” Mother and daughter had also enjoyed a soirée at the Carolina Yacht Club dance last night, at which Bee had entertained the local blue bloods with a “a brief interpretation of the ‘Charleston’” dance that now defined her career.
On Thursday afternoon, the Jacksons traveled by automobile over the old wooden Ashley River bridge and up the narrow sandy trail called Ashley River Road. Their goal was to visit Magnolia Gardens, “of which they say they have heard a great deal.” The local tourism and convention bureau was at that time marketing various plantation gardens to tourists across the nation, and Mayor Stoney had specifically plugged those at Magnolia in his radio address at the Chicago dance contest in early February. Proving the value of mass-mentions and word-of-mouth advertising, the Jacksons ventured out of their way, braving thirteen miles of rickety bridges and unpaved roads, to see the venerable plantation in its full springtime splendor.
Details of the Jacksons’ movements on Friday, April 16th are lacking, but it’s possible that Bee asked to see Folly Beach. Fans occasionally quizzed her about that scenic spot and other Lowcountry locales, and the young dancer sought to gird her professional reputation with personal experiences in the motherland of the “Charleston” dance. Alternatively, the Brooklyn dancer might have sought opportunities to mingle with members of Charleston’s African-American population. Commentators across the nation generally acknowledged that black folks from the South Carolina Lowcountry had carried the now-famous steps to New York. Grace Jackson even asserted for a while that her daughter had learned the dance directly from them here in the Palmetto City. It’s difficult to imagine, therefore, that Bee did not use part of her time in this cultural epicenter to seek out locals of African descent with whom to dance. Perhaps she ventured to No. 20 Franklin Street to introduce herself to the staff of the Jenkins Orphanage and make arrangements for a future collaboration.
Later on Friday evening, Bee attended a “sponsor’s ball” at Ashley Park. This was the same facility at west end of Heriot Street that had recently hosted the elimination contests to select local representatives for the national “Charleston” dance competition in Chicago. The ball Bee attended there was much more exclusive, however, open only to those invited by a clique of prominent young white girls in the city who coordinated various co-educational activities with male cadets at the Citadel. Dancing to live music provided by John Skuhra and his seven-piece “orchestra,” cadets in uniform mingled with local debutants under the watchful gaze of Citadel faculty members and their wives. Into this gentrified mix swanned the vacationing mother and daughter from Brooklyn. As with the private dance at the Yacht Club on Wednesday evening, spectators cleared the floor to see Bee Jackson give an exhibition of her professional talents. “On both occasions,” reported the local press, “her dancing was brilliant and she offered a great deal of pleasure to those who were fortunate enough to witness it.”
After two and a half days of relative rest and relaxation in and around Charleston, Bee Jackson shifted into professional mode on the morning of Saturday, April 17th. Dancing, smiling, posing, toe-tapping, and hand-clapping were the order of the day. For this memorable work she donned a slim, long-sleeved, boat-neck frock of a dark color accented with contrasting floral panels on the bodice and sleeves. Her skirt flared a bit just above the knees to permit greater movement, while a chic cloche hat kept her short wavy hair in check. Stepping from the front door of the Fort Sumter Hotel, Bee walked into White Point Garden to meet a throng of admirers and collaborators.
The Chamber of Commerce had worked with Mrs. Grace Jackson to secure the services of a noted local photographer, St. Julian Melchers, who worked for the national news bureau of Underwood & Underwood. Standing by was also a gaggle of local debutantes who were eager to share the spotlight with the reputed “queen” of the “Charleston” dance. Newsreel cameramen were en route from Atlanta to take moving pictures of an afternoon hoe-down. To begin the day’s work, however, Bee Jackson posed solo in various locations around the picturesque White Point Garden and in the adjoining battery streets. While demonstrating her signature lightning-fast dance steps al fresco, Bee’s flailing limbs caught the attention of a passing motorcycle policeman, who screeched to a halt and reportedly uttered “What the . . .!”
The two-wheeled cop lingered long enough at White Point to be included in a photograph or two, and to watch the talented Mr. Melchers snap many more still pictures of the dancing queen. She appeared in the raised bandstand, then kicking away next to the Sergeant Jasper statue, and posing with a shy reporter next to an old mortar gun by the water’s edge. Then the camera man summoned willing dancers from among the spectators to join Miss Jackson in front of the lens. The local reporters on the scene noted that eight young ladies, ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen, lined up in the verdant park to learn a few steps from the visiting dancer and have their pictures made. The Charleston Evening Post printed their names later that day, and I’ve done my best to track down their respective married names and dates in case their families are interested. They were Misses Eleanor Fishburne [Pinckney, 1909–2004], Mary Easterling [1907–2002], Clara Milnor [Brown, 1911–1979], Betty Olney [Taplin, 1912–1994], Katherine Lesemann [Rowe, 1909–2005], Margarette de Saussure [Black, 1913–1997], Virginia Prouty [1910–1983] and Karen Melchers [Caldwell, 1910–2000].
Later in the afternoon, Bee Jackson, her posse of teenage fans, and photographer Melchers repaired to the north end of Franklin Street for a change of scenery. Here they were joined by cameramen representing the Pathe and Fox newsreel companies, who had come from Atlanta at the invitation of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. The cameramen had a busy schedule of weekend assignments in the area, filming at Magnolia Garden, Forts Sumter and Moultrie, and a dress parade at the Citadel. It’s not clear whether the timing of their arrival was meant to coincide with Bee Jackson’s brief stay in Charleston or if was merely serendipitous, but the involvement of the Chamber of Commerce suggests a coordinated effort. I suspect Sam Berlin and his colleagues at the Chamber informed the newsreel agencies that Saturday the 17th of April would be a prime day for shooting a variety of curious moving pictures in the Charleston area.
The group rendezvous on Franklin Street was motivated not by picturesque scenery but by the opportunity to experience a bit of authentic musical culture. Near the northeast end of the street stood an old building constructed as a Marine Hospital in the early 1830s. Since 1895, municipal authorities had let Reverend Daniel Jenkins use the building for his Orphan Aid Society. Better known as the Jenkins Orphanage, the facility housed an African-American day school, orphanage, and brass band that bore his name. On the afternoon of Saturday, April 17th 1926, Bee Jackson and her white entourage came to No. 20 Franklin Street to collaborate with the famous Jenkins Orphanage Band—early exponents of local jazz and the “Charleston” dance moves—for an impromptu performance in front of the cameras.
The local newspapers of the day mentioned the presence of the movie cameras at this location, but provided no further details. Fortunately for us, the raw footage recorded by Fox News on April 17th survives in a large motion-picture archive held at the University of South Carolina, and has been digitized. You can view it online from the website of the university’s Moving Image Research Collections. An unofficial, truncated version of this same footage currently appears on the popular YouTube website, with added music that doesn’t quite match the rhythm performed by the band.
The youthful members of the Jenkins brass ensemble, all wearing military-style uniforms and caps, lined up against the iron fence in front of the Marine Hospital building that formed the backdrop of the day’s film. The movie camera rolled and paused intermittently over the next half hour or so, capturing a series of brief, distinct scenes that totaled just over three and a half minutes of footage.
In the first scene, Bee Jackson danced alone on the sidewalk in front of the band, the percussionists behind her and flanked by horns to the left and right. While Bee swiveled, gyrated, and shimmied with maximum gusto, a young man acting as “conductor” to her right (camera left) displayed his own fancy steps. In the far-right background, an adult chaperone—perhaps the boys’ music teacher—waved his arms and shouted encouraging words to the band.
Following a brief scene showing Bee panting to catch her breath, five young ladies from Bee’s entourage joined her in front of the camera for a bit of staged dance instruction. Bee demonstrated a few basic steps, and then clapped her hands and tapped her foot as the local girls did their best rendition of the “Charleston.” Another brief display of Bee’s fancier foot work was followed by a rather awkward imitation by the amateurs, and the scene fizzled into a bit of chaotic kicking.
The camera then cut to a new view of the same scene. Instead of teenage white girls dancing in front of the youthful African-American band, we now see seven very young black girls dancing freely on the sidewalk to the unheard music with amazing style and creativity for just over one minute. None of their names were recorded by the local newspaper, unfortunately, so the world may never know the identity of these darling children.
Finally, the camera pulled back to a wider and higher shot that provides a broader view of Franklin Street. Here we see about thirty people, mostly young folks, dancing in the street in the foreground with the Jenkins Orphanage Band still playing in the background. In contrast to Bee Jackson’s rapid, high-energy steps, their local version of the “Charleston” was far more relaxed and varied. This brief final scene—just over twenty seconds long—gives us a glimpse of what the “Charleston” might have originally looked like when it migrated from the Carolina Lowcountry to Harlem in the early twentieth century.
The moving-picture technology of 1926 did not include audio recording, so we have no idea what tune the young members of the Jenkins Orphanage Band played while Bee Jackson and friends danced on April 17th. If you watch the footage closely, however, you can discern movements that clearly indicate both the rhythm and the tempo. In the early part of the film clip, watch the boy holding the cymbals, and the two drummers. In the second half of the clip, watch Bee Jackson clapping her hands. Throughout these scenes, you can see repeated movements that indicate the syncopated rhythmic pattern of a Gullah-Geechee ring shout, which is the same rhythm heard in both James P. Johnson’s famous 1923 “Charleston” tune and in and Maceo Pinkard’s “(Sweet) Georgia Brown” of 1925.
Following the high-energy film session on Franklin Street, it was time for Bee Jackson to bid adieu to her new-found Charleston collaborators and pack her bags for home. She and her mother had hoped to stay longer in Charleston to perform a public exhibition of some sort, but there simply wasn’t time to linger. A high-profile engagement in Los Angeles was just around the corner, so mother and daughter checked out of the Fort Sumter Hotel and motored to Union Station to catch the Saturday evening train headed to New York.
Before she departed, Bee told a reporter that her love for the “Charleston” dance and her visit to the Lowcountry had instilled in her “much affection for America’s most historic city.” While prior engagements required them to leave for New York, she hoped to return again someday. Expressing a bit of delight with the whole experience of the dancer’s visit, an editorial in the Evening Post offered a drole suggestion: “If all the Charlestoners of the United States will follow the example of Miss Bee Jackson and come here to get inspiration at the source, the city’s tourist trade problem will be completely solved for some time to come.”
Throughout the remainder of 1926 and in into 1927, Bee Jackson continued to tour and market herself as the queen of the “Charleston” dance. As other exotic dances like the rhumba and the conga entered the popular mainstream, Bee developed new dance routines and modified her hair and costume to capitalize on the latest trends. From time to time, the Charleston press included anecdotes about Bee’s adventures in show business and seemed to regard her as a sort of honorary local celebrity. When she developed appendicitis and died at a Chicago hospital in the summer of 1933, aged around thirty years, the Charleston newspaper announced her passing with earnest regret.
Over the past ninety-odd years, various photographs of Bee Jackson and friends dancing the “Charleston” in Charleston in April 1926 have been reproduced in countless books, magazines, and websites. As her mother and manager, Grace Jackson, plainly stated in her letters to the local Chamber of Commerce, the purpose of their visit the Palmetto City was to promote Bee’s career by capturing images of her dancing in the purported home of the famous “Charleston” steps. Local officials coordinated with the Jacksons’ when they finally realized that such a celebrity visit offered “a sort of mutual advertising scheme” that would benefit the City of Charleston. The enduring presence of St. Julian Melchers’ photographs and the Fox newsreel footage testify to the success of that brief collaboration. Nearly a century after their creation those images are still promoting Bee Jackson and the culture of Charleston.
Beyond the raw publicity, it appears that Bee had another motive for visiting Charleston in 1926. During her brief sojourn that April, Grace Jackson said she and her daughter often encountered dance aficionados who were curious about the South Carolina roots of the famous dance. “Wherever they visited,” said Mrs. Jackson, “everybody wanted to know something about Charleston, the gardens or Folly Beach,” and “she considered it time that she and her daughter come to see the places so that they will be able to answer questions hereafter.”
Bee’s motivations went beyond simply gathering anecdotes for future conversations, however. She told local reporters “that a publisher has contracted with her for a book on Charleston and the ‘Charleston,’ therefore it was very necessary for her to visit the city to know much about it.” Although she kept a scrapbook of her own professional activities and articles about the “Charleston” dance in general, Bee need to experience the city personally and expand her knowledge of its cultural roots. “Miss Jackson confesses that she contemplates writing a book about the dance,” reported the Evening Post, “and it was to obtain some local color, as it were, that she stopped here for a few days.”
Bee’s proposed book never came to fruition, unfortunately, but she proposed another idea in 1926 that might become a reality in Charleston one day. Speaking to the local press that April, she revealed that her “pet project” was actually “to erect a monument to the dance in this city.” Details of this goal, if Bee ever articulated any, did not appear during her lifetime, so we are left to ponder her vision. How would one depict, in three dimensions, the cultural roots of the “Charleston” dance? Might such a dance monument include playful Lowcountry children of African descent, as seen in the Fox newsreel filmed on April 17th 1926, or rather white adults representing the urbane, carefree spirit of the Jazz Age?
That question brings us to one important conclusion about Bee Jackson’s brief visit to Charleston, and of this city’s efforts to embrace the dance phenomenon that bore its name. Contrary to her various claims, Bee Jackson did not invent the “Charleston,” nor was she the first person to dance it professionally on the New York stage. To her enduring credit, however, she made an effort to reach across the color line in segregated Charleston and, for a brief moment of film history, to share the national spotlight with members of the community from which the “Charleston” dance steps arose. Local efforts to embrace the dance at that time often mentioned its African-American roots, but made no effort to include the black community in their civic promotions. Bee Jackson’s career was fueled by the economics of what we now call “cultural appropriation,” of course, but her brief performance with the Jenkins Orphanage Band represents a rare and valuable moment of inclusion in that divisive era.
Although it might be impossible today to determine who was responsible for conceiving and arranging Bee’s performance with the Jenkins Orphanage Band on Franklin Street, I believe the young dancer deserves some credit. Whatever you think of her dancing or her motivations, Bee Jackson made an effort to come to Charleston in the spring of 1926, at a time when few popular entertainers did. She stepped outside the showbiz bubble to make a physical connection with the city that once hosted the men, women, and children who developed those world-famous steps. As for Bee’s dream of creating a monument to the “Charleston” dance in Charleston, I’ll leave you with these prescient words from a 1926 commentary on the subject: “If there are any public-spirited citizens who believe that such a testimonial is to be desired and who wish to contribute the site, why maybe the proposed slab will become a reality.”
 Charleston Evening Post, 30 March 1926, page 10, “Would Like to Visit City.”
 Evening Post, 14 April 1926, page 1, “Local Group Begins Tour.”
 Charleston News and Courier, 21 March 1926, page 1, “Commodore Stoltz Buys Hotel Here”; News and Courier, 15 April 1926 (Thursday), page 10, “Originator of the ‘Charleston’ Visiting Here.”
 News and Courier, 14 April 1926, page 5, “Society: Clubs”; News and Courier, 15 April 1926, page 10, “Originator of the ‘Charleston’ Visiting Here”; News and Courier, 18 April 1926, page 19, “Bee Jackson off to New York City.
 News and Courier, 15 April 1926, page 10, “Originator of the ‘Charleston’ Visiting Here”; Evening Post, 15 April 1926 (Thursday), page 12, “‘Charleston’ Dancer Here”; News and Courier, 18 April 1926, page 19, “Bee Jackson off to New York City.”
 News and Courier, 15 April 1926, page 10, “Originator of the ‘Charleston’ Visiting Here.”
 News and Courier, 14 April 1926, page 5, “Sponsors’ Ball Friday Evening”; News and Courier, 18 April 1926, page 19, “Bee Jackson off to New York City.”
 Evening Post, 17 April 1926 (Saturday), page 14, “Pictures of Dancer Made.”
 Evening Post, 17 April 1926, page 14, “Charleston Movies Taken.”
 Evening Post, 17 April 1926, page 14, “Charleston Movies Taken.” In News and Courier, 20 April 1926, page 12, “Big Celebration Will Be Filmed,” the press reported that the cameramen had expended “about 300 feet of film” with Bee Jackson on April 17th. At the rate of twenty-four frames per second (the standard adopted in 1927), in which one minute of 35mm film uses ninety feet of film, the cameras thus recorded more than three minutes of “footage.”
 In a syndicated full-page article that appeared in multiple regional newspapers simultaneously, including The Buffalo Times, 16 August 1925, page 14, “All about the Deadly New Dance Mania—'The Charleston,’” Bee Jackson stated that she regularly used James P. Johnson’s “Charleston” tune and Maceo Pinkard’s “[Sweet] Georgia Brown” for her dance shows.
 News and Courier, 18 April 1926, page 19, “Bee Jackson off to New York City.”
 Evening Post, 17 April 1926, page 14, “Pictures of Dancer Made”; Evening Post, 20 April 1926, page 4 (no title).
 See, for example, News and Courier, 29 July 1926, page 10, “‘Paris is Charleston Mad,’ Declares Miss Bee Jackson”; News and Courier, 11 August 1926, page 2, “Bee Jackson Says She Is Glad To Get Out Of Paris”; News and Courier, 3 December 1927, page 3, “Hey! Charleston! Says Bee Jackson”; Evening Post, 23 December 1927, page 8, “She’s Still Shaking It!”; News and Courier, 19 July 1933, page 1, “Bee Jackson Succumbs.”
 News and Courier, 15 April 1926, page 10, “Originator of the ‘Charleston’ Visiting Here.”
 Evening Post, 17 April 1926, page 14, “Pictures of Dancer Made.”
 Evening Post, 17 April 1926, page 14, “Pictures of Dancer Made.” Some people have suggested that the phrase “bee’s knees” is a reference to Bee Jackson’s famous “Charleston” moves, but in fact “Bees Knees” was a popular song in the United States in late 1922 and early 1923, a year before Miss Jackson first heard and saw the “Charleston.”