Readers Respond

Al Jolson was no racist

Contained in the article regarding the fundraiser for the police officers involved in the Freddie Gray case is a description of Al Jolson by the Fraternal Order of Police as an "iconic racist figure." Nothing could be further from the truth and such an egregious slander should not have been allowed to appear in a major daily newspaper ("Venue cancels fundraiser for officers in Gray case," July 23).

It is true that Jolson, as did many of his contemporaries, performed in blackface which was originally a racist form of entertainment growing out of the minstrel shows of the 19th century. However, by the 20th century, it had mostly lost its racist connotations and was simply seen as an accompaniment to a popular style of music of the day.


To tar one of the seminal figures in American entertainment with that brush is a display of gross ignorance. Jolson was the premier figure on Broadway, on records and eventually pioneered the era of sound movies with "The Jazz Singer." Far from being a racist, he befriended black entertainers and promoted their careers. No one considered him a racist.

There was an incident when Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake were previewing their revue, "Shuffling Along," in Connecticut and were refused entrance to a popular restaurant. Jolson was performing in Connecticut at the time and heard about it. Although he did not know them personally, he knew of them, contacted them and invited them as his guests the following night at that restaurant. They weren't about to turn away "The World's Greatest Entertainer," as he was known in his day with little argument.


It takes a certain amount of perception to be able to distinguish the changing values and mores as we look back to other times. What seems so clear now was not then. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders, but that is not how they are known. In today's world, they would surely not be. It's easy to take a cursory glance and say, "He appeared in black face, he must have been racist."

There aren't many around today who saw Al Jolson at the height of his career on Broadway. There are those who witnessed his amazing resurgence in the late 1940s with the release of the Hollywood bio-pic, "The Jolson Story." Not only was the movie a huge success, but he regained his place at the top of the record charts that year ahead of such popular figures as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

It is the way of the world that even the most famous figures fade with the passing of time. I understand why any black person would resent the depiction that black face represents. But when it comes to vilifying someone, lets not make snap judgments. If there were more of us Jolson fans around today, I could warn you, "You ain't heard nothin' yet," but this may be the only protest you receive. Nevertheless, you owe him a correction.

Sig Seidenman, Owings Mills