Washington’s message was reflected in Joplin’s opera: set in the aftermath of the Civil War in Arkansas, Treemonisha told the tale of a wondrous infant girl found under a tree by a newly freed, childless couple named Ned and Monisha. Educated by a white woman, the girl, Treemonisha, rises to lead her people, defeating evil conjurers who would keep them enslaved by superstition, advocating education and bringing her followers triumphantly into the light of Reason to the strains of one of Joplin’s greatest numbers, “A Real Slow Drag.”
Joplin had long dreamed of a grand synthesis of Western and African musical traditions, a work that would announce to white America that black music had come of age. With Treemonisha, he felt that goal was in his grasp.
The first decade of the 20th century followed a period of disillusion and disenfranchisement for African-Americans. Starting in 1877 with the end of Reconstruction—when Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from former Confederate states under an agreement that had secured him the disputed presidential election of the preceding year—the promises of emancipation proved hollow as newly elected Southern Democrats passed Jim Crow laws that codified segregation. In the 1890s alone, 1,111 African-Americans were lynched nationwide.
When President Theodore Roosevelt received Booker T. Washington for dinner at the White House in 1901, black America was electrified; Joplin memorialized the event in his first opera, A Guest of Honor, now lost, and he based his rag “The Strenuous Life” on TR’s landmark 1899 speech extolling the “life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.” But the White House visit was ridiculed across the South. (Back in Sedalia, the Sentinel published a derisive poem titled “N-----s in the White House” on its front page.)
In his 1954 study The Negro in American Life and Thought, Rayford Logan characterized the decades before the turn of the century as “the nadir” for African-Americans. The historian David Levering Lewis agrees. “It was a time of especially brutal relations between the races,” says the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his two-volume biography of Du Bois. “By 1905, segregation has been poured in concrete, as it were. Blacks can’t ride buses, go to vaudeville shows or the cinema unless they sat in the crow’s nest. [Blacks and whites] begin to live parallel lives, although not on an even plane.”
By the end of the decade, black Americans had begun the Great Migration northward, leaving the old Confederacy for the industrial cities of the North. Between 1910 and 1940, an estimated 1.75 million black Southerners would uproot themselves and settle not only in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, but also in such smaller cities as Dayton, Toledo and Newark. “A new type of Negro is evolving—a city Negro,” the sociologist Charles S. Johnson would write in 1925. “In ten years, Negroes have been actually transplanted from one culture to another.” That same year, the intellectual Alain Locke said the “New Negro” had “renewed self-respect and self-dependence” and was slipping “from under the tyranny of social intimidation and...shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority.”
That tide of hope was just starting to rise in 1910, as early-arriving black migrants discovered opportunities previously denied them. Sports and entertainment long existed on the margins of polite society, where they provided immigrants—often marginalized and despised—a means of clawing their way toward the American dream. Now, it seemed, African-Americans might tread the same path.
The first all-black musical on Broadway, Clorindy; or, the Origin of the Cakewalk, had been a sensation in 1898, and its composer, Will Marion Cook, would have another triumph five years later with In Dahomey. Although largely forgotten today, Cook, an African-American from Washington, D.C., was a pioneer: he had been educated at Oberlin College and in Berlin, where he studied violin at the Hochschule für Musik; he then worked with Antonin Dvorak at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.
After Clorindy’s opening-night triumph at the Casino Theatre at West 39th Street and Broadway, Cook recalled: “I was so delirious that I drank a glass of water, thought it wine and got glorious drunk. Negroes at last were on Broadway, and there to stay....We were artists and we were going a long way. We had the world on a string tied to a runnin’ red-geared wagon on a down-hill pull.”
True, the ride would be rough—at the height of a Manhattan race riot on August 15, 1900, whites had singled out black entertainers—but by 1910 it at least seemed underway. “For a moment it indeed looked like African-Americans were arriving on Broadway in numbers as large as Jews, and that’s very important,” says historian Lewis. “It led to some aspiration, in terms of poetry and music, that could indeed soften the relations between the races.”