The Tap Dancer Carried a Gun

A very short book excerpt

Joe McKendry

In 1934, a group of New York’s prominent white citizens elected Bill Robinson, the most celebrated black tap dancer in America, the unofficial “mayor of Harlem.” The police of his Harlem precinct had given him a revolver some years earlier, and he carried a diamond-studded case in his upper-right vest pocket containing a gold badge designating him special deputy sheriff of New York County (an honorary position). He also carried documents establishing his friendship with the police chiefs of most major American cities. During a Pittsburgh tryout of Brown Buddies, a musical comedy about blacks serving in the First World War, Robinson heard a scream and saw two black kids mugging an elderly white woman. He yelled, took up the chase, pulled out his revolver, and fired in the air. A white policeman, coming on the scene to find a black man discharging a gun, shot Robinson in the shoulder and let the muggers escape. Collapsed on the ground, Robinson showed the cop a letter of friendship from Pittsburgh’s chief of police. Robinson was famous enough that the incident made headlines across the country, and according to The Chicago Defender, the policeman offered the excuse that “all black men look alike to me.” At the New York opening of Brown Buddies two days later, Robinson was tapping again, his arm in a satin sling, his grin bright.

— Adapted from What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, by Brian Seibert, published by FSG in November