In Victorian and Edwardian England a number of African-American singers and performers achieved success and celebrity. Some, like Elizabeth Greenfield, Marie Selika Williams, and Sissieretta Jones performed at prestigious venues for aristocratic audiences (including the Queen), while others including Amy Height performed at music halls and theatres up and down the country for a more mixed audience.
One of these music hall stars was singer Belle Davis. I first encountered her when I was researching the story of dancer Josie Woods, because it was Davis that recruited Josie and her brother as teenagers in Canning Town and trained them as professional dancers, eventually taking them to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre which had previously made Josephine Baker a star.
I tried to find out a little more about her. While details about Davis' life are scant, it's likely that she was born in born in New Orleans between June 1873 and September 1874, and first visited Europe in 1901 aged 27. In June 1904 Belle Davis married saxophonist and band leader Troy Floyd, and at some point later she married comedian Eddie Whaley.
According to drummer Gordon Stretton, Davis "was a mezzo-soprano; tall black girl, native from New Orleans, very beautiful..." Some accounts mention that she had a light complexion, and apparently booking agents would sometimes try and persuade her to "darken down", presumably to fit the stereotype of an 'exotic' African-American singer.
In her act Davis was accompanied by two young black boys who danced and sang, described as 'piccaninnies' in their promotional literature, revealing the appetite for racist caricatures among white audiences at the time. Among the first of these boys were Sneeze Williams, age 9, and Sonny Jones, age 7, both of whom went on to have careers as jazz musicians in 1920s Europe. It was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted for these showbusiness roles and then exploited, but according to trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who met Belle Davis in Europe she was different.
Davis' act was very popular and she became an international star. She toured Europe until at least December 1917, appearing on stage in Britain many times before and during the First World War. She appeared at several East End theatres and music halls including Hackney Empire, Stratford East, East Ham Palace and the Mile End Paragon on numerous occasions.
Less is known about Davis' movements after the War. Between about 1925 and 1929 she became choreographer at the prestigious Casino de Paris, and was responsible for the annual revues. It's at this point in her career that she recruited Josie Wood as a young dancer, so we know that in 1926 she was in Canning Town, looking for star potential among the local youngsters. She found it in Josie.
Belle Davis was last heard of in Paris in 1929 and may have died there. She is one of countless women who was well known in her lifetime, even a celebrity, but have all but vanished from history.
Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914, Jeffrey Green
Black women in Britain 1850-1897, Jeffrey Green
"Belle Davis and Her Piccaninnies: a Preliminary Bio-, Disco-, and
Filmography", Rainer E. Lotz, Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal Vol.25, No. 2, Fall 1994