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Friday, July 5, 2013

African American Entertainers in Segregated America

Eddie Anderson at the V.F.W. barbecue, Los Angeles Pistol Range, August 29, 1940.  Photograph probably by Clyde Weaver Stauffer, from the Clyde Weaver Stauffer Family Photograph Album, 1935-1940, NMAH Archives Center.
The NMAH Archives Center has an interesting snapshot album, assembled by Clyde Weaver Stauffer, which came to the Museum after his death in 1984. It is a personal album documenting Stauffer’s vacation travels with his wife, although much of this travel was occasioned by his position as commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars police post of Detroit, Michigan, and his need to attend V.F.W. meetings around the country. Mrs. Stauffer was president of the V.F.W. Auxiliary.  When I first viewed this album years ago, I was immediately struck by a surprising photograph of a recognizable African American celebrity, surrounded by white faces. The congenial black face was that of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson  (1905-1977), whom I remembered well from the old Jack Benny television program.  Another photograph of an African American whom I didn’t immediately recognize turned out to be that of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949). It was strange to find these images in an album devoted primarily to tourist sites, national parks, and the 1939 World’s Fair.
Luckily, the photographs were captioned, revealing that they were taken, presumably by Mr. Stauffer, at a V.F.W. barbecue at the Los Angeles Pistol Range on August 29, 1940. Entertainers Anderson and Robinson lived in the Los Angeles area, and apparently served as featured guests at the barbecue.  The photograph of Anderson shows the star with a cigar in his mouth, grinning broadly at the camera, while surrounded by white V.F.W.  members. It is a poignant image, given that the vast majority of V.F.W. posts and most clubs, associations, and other organizations of the period were completely segregated.  It suggests the ways in which the gradual acceptance of African American entertainers by white audiences played a role in desegregating the United States.  
Edmund Lincoln ("Eddie") Anderson was an actor and comedian who started his show business career as a teenager on the vaudeville stage, then found work in films and radio during the 1930s.  His most famous role was that of “Rochester van Jones,” the valet of comedian Jack Benny, beginning with the radio version of The Jack Benny Program in 1937. “Rochester’s” distinctively deep, gravelly voice always delighted audiences when he spoke his first line in each program, and he was the first African American to have a regular role on a nationwide radio program. The program at first treated the Rochester character as a racial stereotype, but as Anderson’s popularity grew—and arguably as Benny’s friendship with him deepened and his personal sensitivity to issues of racial justice and civil rights grew—Benny encouraged his writers to develop “Rochester” into a more positive, less subservient, less stereotyped role. Rochester was still Benny’s employee, but they shared a friendship and familiarity built on humor and mutual regard that was a feature of the program and was echoed in their real lives. By the time the television version of The Jack Benny Program ended in 1965, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was beloved and wealthy, and later became a noted philanthropist. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
National Museum of American History Archives


  1. Could this hat in the link below be the one in the picture?

  2. If you are asking if any of the hats being worn by the men in the picture with Eddie Anderson are NAACP hats, similar to that worn by Roy Wilkins, I would say it's very unlikely. They're all members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at a VFW function, and the hats most likely bear the name of their post, like the one you can read at the left. I suppose there's a slim possibility that one of the hats might be either military or bear the name or insignia of some other organization, but I doubt it.