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Retrobituaries: Lincoln Perry, the First African American Movie Star

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Before the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, successful African American actors were hard to find in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) is often credited as the world’s first African American movie star. Using the stage name Stepin Fetchit, he is also said to be the first Black actor to become a millionaire.

Born in Key West, Florida, Perry had a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother. His father, Joseph Perry, was a cigar wrapper and cook who sometimes sang and danced in minstrel shows. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a seamstress for a dentist’s family. As a young teenager, Perry sang and tap danced as a tent-show performer, traveling around the US with carnivals and medicine shows. In his twenties, Perry performed in Black vaudeville shows as one-half of a duo called “Step and Fetch It” (although he also claimed to have taken the name "Stepin Fetchit” from a racehorse). After he came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, a talent scout for Fox Studios offered him a screen test, which proved successful.

During his career, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, such as 1929’s Hearts In Dixie, 1930’s A Tough Winter, and 1934’s Judge Priest. In one of his early roles, 1927’s silent film In Old Kentucky, Perry won audiences over by providing comic relief. He got a contract with Fox to appear in the studio’s films as a featured player. Credited as Stepin Fetchit, Perry pretended to be “The Laziest Man On Earth” (or sometimes “The Laziest Man In The World”) to make audiences laugh, and he played a similar character in multiple films.

Perry’s peak of fame and fortune was in the 1930s, when he became a millionaire. Newspapers, magazines, and tabloids featured articles on Perry and his extravagant lifestyle. He reportedly owned a dozen cars (including a pink Cadillac with his name in neon lights), wore expensive cashmere suits, and had 16 servants and chauffeurs. He also attended Hollywood parties with celebrities such as Will Rogers, John Wayne, Mae West, Shirley Temple and, later, Muhammad Ali.

Beginning in the 1930s, though, Americans (Black and White) and civil rights leaders harshly condemned Perry’s portrayals. Because he frequently played lazy, illiterate characters—often an aloof, slow, confused man with drooping eyes and rambling, incoherent speech—Perry was called out for promoting racist stereotypes. Criticized as a buffoon, an embarrassment, and a degrading caricature, Perry’s characters were seen as perpetuating the contemporary racist ideas of Black people as lazy, dumb, and unsophisticated.

At the time, the NAACP was working to get film studios to give equal pay and billing to Black and White actors, and to stop portraying Black people negatively. Perry tried to get equal pay and billing from Fox, but failed, and quit Hollywood by 1940. In 1947, he was bankrupt. His acting work was sporadic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles, at a hospital for members of the motion picture and television industry. 

Although many members of the Black community have viewed Perry’s contributions to cinema negatively, some of them take a more nuanced view. Jimmie Walker, a black comedian, said that he doesn’t think Stephin Fetchit is all bad. According to Walker, Perry created a funny character that actually functions as a subversive trickster. In films, Perry’s character would often outsmart White characters by pretending to be incompetent so that the White people would get impatient and end up doing the work themselves. Black film critic Mel Watkins has said that African Americans understood that Perry’s character had its origins in slaves resisting work, and found the humor in it.  

Because Perry was billed as Stepin Fetchit rather than as Lincoln Perry, audiences had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. In a 1968 interview, Fetchit said, “Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn't make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn't make drunks out of all Italians … I was only playing a character, and that character did a lot of good.” Far from being lazy or stupid himself, Perry wrote regular columns for The Chicago Defender newspaper to share his experience in Hollywood.

In 1976, Perry got a Special NAACP Image Award for his accomplishments, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit. Despite disagreements about Perry’s legacy, many agree that he opened a door for Black actors in Hollywood.

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Who Helped Build the Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.

The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.

It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.

Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.

Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.

As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.

In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).

Portrait of Washington Roebling
Washington Roebling
Théobald Chartran, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.

Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."

McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."

While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
George Bradford Brainerd, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."

But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.

For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.

After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.

At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.

It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:

1843 - 1903
1837 - 1926
1805 - 1869


Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Leon Ray Livingston, America's Most Famous Hobo
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

With no more troops or supplies to move after the end of the Civil War, the country's railroads became home to another army—that of the hobos. The ever-increasing web of rails nationwide would go from 45,000 miles before 1871 to nearly 200,000 by 1900, making it easier for the poorest of working-class folk, many of whom were veterans, to hitch a ride on a train and travel from state to state looking for employment. These hobos were soon a familiar sight coast to coast.

The journeys of these destitute travelers quickly caught on in the popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating a romanticized view of this unique lifestyle. It was a time when writers like W. H. Davies and Jack London parlayed their hoboing experiences into literary notoriety, while Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" would become one of the most recognizable movie characters of the 20th century. Among these wandering folk figures was a man with a sense of showmanship and a keen eye for branding: Leon Ray Livingston—a writer, lecturer, and transient who would go on to dub himself "King of the Hobos."

What we know about Livingston's early life comes solely from the books he wrote, which often read like tall tales designed to help build his mystique. According to Livingston, he was born in August 1872 into a family from San Francisco that he described as "well-to-do," but at age 11, misbehavior at school led him down a different path in life. On the day after his 11th birthday, his teacher sent him home with a note detailing his bad behavior, which was to be signed by Livingston's father. The boy didn't show his father the note that night, and when he spotted his teacher heading toward his house the next morning, Livingston snuck out of the house and kept moving. He wouldn't fully stop for decades.

Livingston says he left his house that day armed with a .22-caliber rifle and a pocket full of money—some stolen from his mother, some a birthday gift from his uncle. From there, his life became an odyssey of riding the rails, hopping on steamers, and taking on odd jobs as he traversed a country in the midst of an industrial revolution. Years later, Livingston would famously brag that he traveled 500,000 miles while only spending $7.61 on fares.

In his decades on the road, he took to writing about his experiences, eventually self-publishing around a dozen books about his adventures; the most comprehensive was Life and Adventures of A-No. 1: America's Most Celebrated Tramp. Published in 1910—nearly 30 years after he left home—this book includes tales of his early life as a hobo, including one globe-trotting adventure in his first year that found him working aboard a British trade ship that set off from New Orleans for Belize, where he jumped ship and began working for a mahogany camp.

Book cover for The Trail of the Tramp
The book cover to Livingston's The Trail of the Tramp
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Livingston's Central American exploits include anecdotes about the working conditions in the British mahogany camps, his repeated (but failed) attempts to desert his employers and head home on their dime, feasting on "roasted baboon," and his near-fatal run-in with something he called Black Swamp Fever (which could be a reference to malaria). The writing is colorful and no doubt romanticized, making it hard to separate facts from the legend Livingston aimed to enhance.

It was after his return trip to America that Livingston was christened with the nickname that would help him become something bigger than a lowly transient: A-No. 1. In his book, Livingston said the moniker was given to him by an older companion named Frenchy, who said:

"Every tramp gives his kid a nickname, a name that will distinguish him from all other members of the craft. You have been a good lad while you have been with me, in fact been always 'A-No. 1' in everything you had to do, and, Kid, take my advice, if you have to be anything in life, even if a tramp, try to be 'A-No. 1' all the time and in everything you undertake."

He also told Livingston to carve this new nickname into each mile post he passed on his journey, letting the world know who'd traveled here before them. This piece of advice gave the legend of Livingston more longevity than he could ever imagine: In the 21st century, people are still finding "A-No. 1" scribbled under bridges.

In addition to signing their nickname, the wandering tramps would also draw up symbols to alert others of possible danger or hospitality ahead. In his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, Livingston provides drawings of 32 of these symbols and what they all mean—including signs for "This town has saloons," "The police in this place are 'Strictly Hostile,'" and "Hostile police judge in this town. Look out!" It's not completely clear if Livingston played a role in creating this hobo code, but he is credited with preserving these symbols and bringing them to the attention of a curious American public.

As Livingston became more of a cultural figure, he seemingly took an interest in leading people away from the tramp life. His books would often begin with a warning, telling readers, "Wandering, once it becomes a habit, is almost incurable, so NEVER RUN AWAY, but STAY AT HOME, as a roving lad usually ends in becoming a confirmed tramp." He then finished, saying this "pitiful existence" would likely end with any would-be tramp in a "pauper's grave." These warnings could be a well-meaning public service announcement, although scholars say they can also be read as Livingston's attempt to enhance the danger of the lifestyle to create even more intrigue about his exploits (and sell more books).

Always a showman, Livingston understood publicity as well as any celebrity at the time; in his travels he would often seek out local reporters, becoming the subject of numerous newspaper articles and magazine interviews around the country. Taking pride in his exploits, he carried a scrapbook of his journeys around with him, which included personalized letters and autographs from notable figures such as Thomas Edison, George Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

His influence among the community was far-reaching, even capturing the imagination of a young Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, during his formative years. London had reached out to Livingston about his lifestyle in the late 19th century, and the two adventured together, as chronicled in Livingston's book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, which was published in 1917, a year after London's death.

Despite the freight-hopping and steamer trips and odd jobs, Livingston wasn't hurting for money; for him, hoboing was a spiritual necessity, not a financial one. When he would seek some stability during his travels, he could often be found staying at Mrs. Cunningham's Boarding House in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, where he would write many of his books. In The Ways of the Hobo, he claimed the house became "a veritable Mecca to chronic hoboes," including old friends like "Hobo Mike" and "Denver Johnny," who sought out his counsel and companionship.

In 1914, Livingston married a woman named Mary Trohoske (sometimes spelled Trohoski), and he settled down—as best a tramp could—in a house in Erie, Pennsylvania. His later years were spent working various jobs—including at electric and steel companies around Erie, though one source places him in real estate. While he stayed relatively put in his later years, Livingston did travel the lecture circuit to speak out against the lifestyle that defined him. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, the warnings Livingston wrote about the hobo lifestyle in each of his books had transformed into full-on speeches against tramping. (Sadly, his lectures don't seem to have survived.)

Rumors persist about Livingston's final days. Some claim that he continued his traveling ways toward the end, dying in a train wreck in Houston, Texas, in 1944, but this is likely confusion with a 1912 wreck that killed one of his impersonators. According to most accounts, Livingston passed away due to heart failure in his home on April 5, 1944 around age 71, with his wife by his side. But for a man who lived to mythologize his own story, a little ambiguity about his end is only fitting.

Livingston's fame has waned significantly since the first quarter of the 20th century. He's only re-emerged in the mainstream a few times, most notably when Lee Marvin played A-No. 1 in the 1973 movie Emperor of the North, based on Livingston's travels with Jack London and on London's own book The Road. Though little-remembered now, Livingston was part of a fleeting moment in American history—a time when the country was getting the first real glimpse of itself as an interconnected nation, and when someone who lived by wandering could be the stuff of folklore.


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