Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor, the best known and most highly paid black American entertainer in America during the first half of the twentieth century.
His long career mirrored changes in American entertainment tastes and technology.
His began in the age of minstrel shows and moved to Vaudeville, Broadway theatre, the recording industry, Hollywood films, radio and television.
According to dance critic Marshall Stearns, "Robinson's contribution to tap dance is exact and specific.
He brought it up on its toes, dancing upright and swinging", giving tap dancing a "hitherto-unknown lightness and presence." His signature routine was the Stair Dance, in which he would tap up and down a set of stairs in a rhythmically complex sequence of steps, a routine that he unsuccessfully attempted to patent.
He is also credited with having coined the word copasetic in popular culture via his repeated use of it in Vaudeville and radio appearances.
Robinson was a popular figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era.
He is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the musical Stormy Weather (1943), loosely based on his own life and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
He used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers, including becoming:
one of the first minstrel and Vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup
one of the earliest black performers to go solo, overcoming vaudeville's two-colored rule
a headliner in Broadway shows
the first black performer to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, 1935)
the first black performer to headline a mixed-race Broadway productionRobinson came under heavy criticism for his tacit acceptance of racial stereotypes of the era, with critics calling him an Uncle Tom.
He resented such criticism, and his biographers suggested that critics were at best incomplete in making such a characterization, especially given his efforts to overcome racial prejudice.
In his public life, Robinson led efforts to:
persuade the Dallas Police Department to hire its first black policeman
lobby President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II for more equitable treatment of black soldiers
stage the first integrated public event in Miami, a fundraiser which was attended by both black and white city residentsDespite being the highest-paid black performer of the time, Robinson died penniless in 1949, and his funeral was paid for by longtime friend Ed Sullivan.
Robinson is remembered for the support that he gave to fellow performers, including Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, Jesse Owens and the Nicholas Brothers.Sammy Davis, Jr.
and Ann Miller credited him as a teacher and mentor, Miller saying that he "changed the course of my life." Gregory Hines produced and starred in a biographical movie about Robinson for which he won the NAACP Best actor Award.
In 1989, Congress designated Robinson's birthday of May 25 as National Tap Dance Day.