Mom's Mabley, comic pioneer
Jackie Moms Mabley
*This date marks the birthday of Moms Mabley, born in 1897. She was an African American vaudeville performer and comedian, the first Black woman to establish herself as a single act in standup comedy in America.
Jackie "Moms" Mabley was from Brevard, North Carolina. She rose to national recognition as a standup comedian in the early 1960s. A pioneer of social satire, she has strongly influenced such contemporary Black comedians as Richard Pryor and Whoopi Goldberg. Mabley was also known for her compassion and kindness; these qualities earned her the endearing sobriquet "Moms". Born Loretta Mary Aiken, Mabley grew up in a large family in the south. Her father ran several businesses while her mother presided over a large household that included boarders.
When Loretta was 11 her father died when his fire truck overturned and exploded. Encouraged by her grandmother to make a life for herself, she departed for Cleveland, Ohio. After singing and dancing in local shows, she began performing throughout the country. Traveling the vaudeville circuit, she experienced overt racism and demeaning working conditions and deflected her pain through satirical wit that drew heavily from black folk traditions. Mabley’s career took off when, in 1921, the husband-wife vaudeville team, Butterbeans and Susie, invited her to perform with them in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In her comedy routines, Mabley adopted a stage persona based loosely on her own grandmother but with a distinctly cantankerous and sassy edge. She was known for her folksy humor and ribald jokes and affectionately referred to her audience as her "children." Onstage Mabley became famous for her gaudy housedresses, floppy hats, and oversized clodhoppers. During the 1960s, she recorded more than 20 albums of her comedy routines and appeared on television shows hosted by Harry Belafonte, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Bill Cosby.
A year after starring in the feature film Amazing Grace (1974), Mabley died of natural causes at the age of 78.
The Book of African-American Women
150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters
by Tonya Bolden
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
Today in American History