Richmond’s forgotten actor who chose dignity over fame

Posted at 1:20 AM, Nov 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-02 01:20:28-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Two of Richmond's most famous actors/entertainers were born six months months apart in 1878 within just a few blocks of each other in Jackson Ward.

Both would become huge stars, smashing down barriers for blacks in the entertainment industry in the early to mid- 1900s, each taking Broadway by storm.

Both would die penniless.

One, Luther "Bill Bojangles" Robinson, is lovingly remembered here, with his own monument in Jackson Ward and much talk of late to move him to Richmond's world-famous but besieged Monument Avenue.

The other is remembered with a simple historic marker in the middle of what is perhaps the city's most troubled neighborhood, Gilpin Court.

It's named after that man . . . Charles Sydney Gilpin, who was born on St. Peter Street 45 years before the "slum clearance project" was built in his old neighborhood.

Charles Sydney Gilpin

Grant Martin, a teacher, historian and the author of, recently published a fascinating look at the all-but-forgotten Gilpin.

"I used to drive past Gilpin Court all the time," Martin said, "and never once stopped really think about why it's called Gilpin Court.

His research revealed a fascinating tale of achievement, dignity, defiance and, ultimately, despair.

"For someone who would've grown up around here," Martin said as we walked through Richmond's oldest and largest housing project, "to get that kind of fame, I think, is really remarkable. Couldn't have dreamt about it."

Gilpin was honored at the White House by President Warren Harding. He was celebrated as a  great and influential Broadway actor by New York's Drama League. He was awarded the NAACP's prestigious Springarn Medal.

Gilpin was a darling of the stage with a brilliant future as a key actor in Eugene O'Neil's plays.

One of several children born to a laborer, young Charles started singing and acting at an early age, serving as part of a warm-up act for traveling minstrel shows.

He took off for the big cities up north, trying to find his place in theater. He would work as a barber, elevator operator, a porter, possibly a boxing instructor and a newspaper pressman, something he had done as a boy here for the Richmond Planet newspaper.

He found his fame in New York City starting in 1915, becoming the lead actor for the Lafayette Theatre Players and then catching the eye of upstart playwright Eugene O'Neil, who cast him as the Emperor Jones in that soon-to-be smash hit on Broadway, among others.

A star was born and soared to its greater height in 1920.

But Gilpin bristled at the stereotypical language in "Emperor Jones," particularly the frequent use of the n-word, Martin said.

"He would try to change that word," he said.

Charles Sydney Gilpin

That led to friction and Gilpin's ultimate refusal to play a demeaning and stereotypical role.

"And at the time he refused, he was one of the most famous - if not the most famous, most acclaimed actor on Broadway at the time," Martin said. "And he walked away from that play, he walked away from that profession, and his life took a very different and very sad turn consequently."

Gilpin was replaced by former football player Paul Robeson, who went on "to have an amazing career."

Gilpin would start an independent theatrical troupe for black actors and consider an invitation to come to a new town with a new industry: Hollywood.

"For someone as handsome as he was," Martin said, "as charismatic as he might've been, it's not hard to imagine him becoming one of the very first movie stars."

But Hollywood wanted that minstrel-type stereotypical black actor that Bojangles would embrace, at least in part.

"Because of his dignity . . . he said no to that," Martin said. "And he knew probably very well that that may have been the last chance he may have had to get back to the kind of fame he had enjoyed before."

Gilpin fell prey to alcohol, losing his precious voice in 1929 and dying a year later at age 51, destitute.

At that time, Bojangles' movie career was taking off in a grand way, with his signature dances with Shirley Temple on tap.

Martin finds it somewhat ironic and tragic that Bojangles is remembered and revered for playing - at times - the kinds of stereotypical roles refused by the all-but-forgotten Gilpin.

"For someone who grew up so poor, someone who grew up in a really big family, for someone who lived his entire life being marginalized in so many ways," Martin said, "for him to maintain that kind of dignity his entire life is remarkable. I think it makes it all the more unfortunate that he's so forgotten today."



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