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The birth of Clayton Bates, a Black tap dancer, is marked on this date in 1907.
He was born in rural Fountain Inn, S.C., where his mother, Emma, raised him alone after his father abandoned them. He loved to dance and started dancing at the age of five. When he was 12, he lost his left leg after it was mangled in the conveyor belt of a cotton separator at a mill where he was working. With no hospital nearby for Blacks, his leg was amputated on the table in his mother's kitchen. After the mill accident, people said he would never dance again.
Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates started to dance again, using two broomsticks under his arm until his uncle, Whitt Stewart, made his peg leg. Within a short time, his peg leg matched the dancing ability of his other leg. Bates and his mother moved to Greenville, where he danced at carnivals and county fairs until a New York producer discovered him at Greenville Black Liberty Theater in 1927. By this time, he could leap five feet in the air and perform almost every known tap dance step. He performed at the Lafayette Theater in New York with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
In a short time, Bates was a show stopper, dancing at the Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, and resorts and clubs throughout the United States. He gave two command performances before the King and Queen of England. He appeared on many television shows, including 21 times on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he toured Europe, South America, and Australia.
For many years of his professional life, he had been denied the opportunity to sleep in hotels at resorts where he performed. He never considered himself handicapped and once said, "God showed me what to do with one leg. God blesses us differently."
He also wanted a better life for Black people. An extraordinary human being, "Peg Leg" Bates never boasted or sought self-pity. In 1951, Bates and his wife, Alice, transformed their 60-acre turkey farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York into a resort for Blacks.
He retired from the stage in 1989 and passed away at Fountain Inn on December 6, 1998. Clayton Bates was buried in Palentown Cemetery, Ulster County, New York.
African Americans and South Carolina:
History, Politics, and Culture
Dr. Phebe Davidson
University of South Carolina-Aiken