Master Juba – One of the First Black Performers
Master Juba (ca. 1825 – ca. 1852 or 1853) was an African American dancer active in the 1840s. He was one of the first black performers in the United States to play onstage for white audiences and the only one of the era to tour with a white minstrel group. His real name was believed to be William Henry Lane, and he was also known as “Boz’s Juba” following Dickens‘s graphic description of him in American Notes.
An anonymous letter from 1841 or early 1842 in the tabloid newspaper the Sunday Flash states that Juba was working for showman P. T. Barnum. The writer stated that Barnum had managed the dancer since 1840, when he had disguised the boy as a white minstrel performer—by making him up in blackface—and put him on at the New York Vauxhall Gardens. In 1841, the letter alleges, Barnum went so far as to present his charge as the Irish-American performer John Diamond, the most celebrated dancer of the day. The letter further accuses Barnum of entering Juba-as-Diamond in rigged dance competitions against other performers:
The boy is fifteen or sixteen years of age; his name is “Juba;” and to do him justice, he is a very fair dancer. He is of harmless and inoffensive disposition, and is not, I sincerely believe, aware of the meanness and audacity of the swindler to which he is presently a party. As to the wagers which the bills daily blazon forth, they are like the rest of his business—all a cheat. Not one dollar is ever bet or staked, and the pretended judges who aid in the farce, are mere blowers.
As a teenager, he began his career in the rough saloons and dance halls of Manhattan‘s Five Points neighborhood, moving on to minstrel shows in the mid-1840s. “Master Juba” frequently challenged and defeated the best white dancers, including the period favorite, John Diamond. At the height of his American career, Juba’s act featured a sequence in which he imitated a series of famous dancers of the day and closed by performing in his own style.
In 1848 “Boz’s Juba” traveled to London with the Ethiopian Serenaders, an otherwise white minstrel troupe. Boz’s Juba became a sensation in Britain for his dance style. He was a critical favorite and the most written about performer of the 1848 season. Nevertheless, an element of exploitation followed him through the British Isles, with writers treating him as an exhibit on display. Records next place Juba in both Britain and America in the early 1850s. His American critics were less kind, and Juba faded from the limelight. He died in 1852 or 1853, likely from overwork and malnutrition. He was largely forgotten by historians until a 1947 article by Marian Hannah Winter resurrected his story.
Existing documents offer confused accounts of Juba’s dancing style, but certain themes emerge: it was percussive, varied in tempo, lightning-fast at times, expressive, and unlike anything seen before. The dance likely incorporated both European folk steps, such as the Irish jig, and African-derived steps used by plantation slaves, such as the walkaround. Prior to Juba’s career, the dance of blackface performance was more faithful to black culture than its other aspects, but as blackfaced clowns and minstrels adopted elements of his style, Juba further enhanced this authenticity. By having an effect upon blackface performance, Juba was highly influential on the development of such American dance styles as tap, jazz, and step dancing.
A recent show portraying the type of dancing that Juba was famous for:
Beginning in the early 1840s, Juba began a series of dance competitions known as challenge dances. He faced white rival John Diamond, who advertised that he “delineate[d] the Ethiopian character superior to any other white person”. Sources disagree about the date of their first contest; it may have occurred while Diamond was still working for Barnum or a year or two later. This advertisement from the July 8, 1844, New York Herald is typical of the publicity the matches generated:
Great Public Contest
Between the two most renowned dancers in the world, the Original JOHN DIAMOND and the colored boy JUBA, for a Wager of $200, on monday evening July 8th at the bowery amphitheatre, which building has been expressly hired from the Proprietor, Mr. Smith, for this night only, as its accommodations will afford all a fair view of each step of these wonderful Dancers. The fame of these two Celebrated Breakdown Dancers has already spread over the Union, and the numerous friends of each claim the Championship for their favorite, and who have anxiously wished for a Public Trial between them and thus known which is to bear the Title of the Champion Dancer of the World. The time to decide that has come, as the friends of Juba have challenged the world to produce his superior in the art for $100. That Challenge has been accepted by the friends of Diamond, and on Monday Evening they meet and Dance three Jigs, Two Reels, and the Camptown Hornpipe. Five Judges have been selected for their ability and knowledge of the Art, so that a fair decision will be made.
Rule—Each Dancer will select his own Violin and the victory will be decided by the best time and the greatest number of steps.
Typical Juba show advertisement from that era