The Pickaninny chorus line

In the days of vaudeville, tap dancing was considered of the highest class in entertainment. The power of tap on audiences was so effective tap routines were used to ensure the success of a show. On the flip side, not every show could book a celebrity tapper. This led to the evolution of the pickaninny (referred to as "picks" in the slang of the time).

To understand the significance of a pick, one must first recognize certain historical attitudes. Simply stated, there was a lot of fear and anger between black and white peoples. Racism, segregation, and “separate but equal” were the rules of law. With this in mind, you can see how it would be hard to live and travel in the US. For rhythmically talented black children, one option was to join a group of other black children in a kind of chorus line in travelling shows.

Pickaninnies would perform with a lead singer. They were usually boys under the age of 12 who could do everything from dance and sing to tell jokes. In essence, they were each entertainers in their own right. Even with racial hostilities, this chorus line was able to help make sure seats were filled performance after performance, night after night.

Kids that were chosen as pickaninnies led hard but adventurous lives. They boarded trains and left home for long periods of time at an impressionable age. By the time they returned home they were seasoned entertainment professionals. Being constantly surrounded by their craft molded some of the biggest performers of the turn of the 20th century. Willie Covan, Florence Mills, and the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson all got their starts as picks.

Nowadays, there is controversy over the word pickaninny. Because it was used to describe first slaves and then African Americans, there is debate as to whether the word is in good taste. In the tap sense of the word, picks will forever refer to the groups of talented, adventurous youngsters, entrusted with the success of vaudeville shows.

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