Civil Rights Trail-Ma Rainey's Home and Liberty Theater

 


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    After Hours painting in Liberty Theater Columbus GA

    The singers of today who gain attention for their outrageous behaviors have nothing on Ma Rainey. Her career spanned the last few years of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett used the name Ma Rainey after her marriage to Will Rainey in 1904. She performed for a time in the Rabbit Foot Minstrals and then branched out. She was one of the first women African American Blues singers and became known as "Mother of the Blues." I recently visited Ma Rainey's home in Columbus, Georgia now a free museum. It's a two-story clapboard house in a not -fancy section of Columbus.

     Deb Wise, the curator, met us and led us through museum. (When you visit, be sure to knock very loudly as Deb may not hear you if she is upstairs. So pound hard) Ma Rainey built the house for her mother in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia. It was where Ma Rainey retired to after her stage career slacked during the Depression. Each room is filled with memorabilia about Rainey, the Blues, and contemporary musicians influenced by Rainey. It's a good mix between Ma Rainey the person and her musical image with many of her original records and posters from her career. Her piano was recovered in an unprotected niche and painted a bright green. It is now restored to a more natural hue.

    Curator shows off Ma  Rainey's piano

    The most notable feature in the home is her bedroom set, a hand-carved tiger wood set. Deb told us that, "Ma Rainey's niece, who was her heir, had sold the set to a local antique dealer for $200. When he learned the city was restoring the house he charged them $15k for the set" Free enterprise of highway robbery, you decide?

    a Rainey's bed in her bedroom

    That the museum exists at all is a stroke of luck. The house was in such a terrible state the city was able to buy it for $5,000 but the restoration cost over $90,000. It only was approved when the mayor cast the tie breaking vote. Ma Rainey was not well known in her hometown. Deb jokingly said that had Ma Rainey been better known, shocked citizens might have objected to restoring the home. Deb told of the time when police raided a house in Chicago where Ma was staying. The police claimed Ma was engaging in an orgy with some of her woman band members and charged her with holding an "indecent party."  One of her contemporary singers and often mentioned as her lover, Bessie Smith, bailed her out the next morning.

    Bisexual rumors were fueled by Rainey's song, Prove it on me, where the poster advertising it had Rainey decked out in a man's hat, suit jacket, vest, and tie talking to two feminine looking women while a policeman looks on in the back ground.

    Living room in Ma rainey's house museum

    Another time she was arrested onstage for possession of stolen jewelry. Her lyrics ran the range from being beaten by "her man" to taking a gun to multiple persons. Her onstage persona usually involved a floor-length dress, her trademark twenty dollar gold pieces necklace and sometimes an outrageous wig. She often held an ostrich plume in one hand and a gun in the other. Her gold teeth would flash as the audience fell captive under her powerful voice that changed from tender to ribald to gutsy from one number to the next.

    posters in Ma Rainey;s house mainly one for Rabbits Foot Minstrals

    She recorded over 100 records for Paramount Records and after they dropped her contract she continued to perform but as Blues popularity declined, she retired to Columbus. She managed at two theaters in the area but performed at many others. One such theater was Liberty Theater in Columbus.

    Ma rainey's star in the sidewalk in front of Liberty Theater in Columbus, GA

    Now that I had "visited" Ma Rainey, I found the Liberty Theater even more exciting. It is just a short distance from Ma Rainey's house. One of the first things I spotted was Liberty Theater's own Walk of Fame. Naturally Ma Rainey has a star there as do many others who once performed at the Liberty Theater.

    Liberty Theater in Columbus GA

    The Liberty is a simple two-story, red brick building.  Its small windows, twin sets of double doors in its recessed entry way accessing the lobby, ticket booth, and the overhanging roof outside proclaim its use as clearly as the large block lettered embossed name near the roofline. It was built in April 1925 specifically as Columbus' first black theater by Roy E. Martin, a white businessman and owner of the Martin Theater chain. It was the local hotspot for black entertainers, showing live performances, silent movies and then talkies. Until 1955, it was the regional chain's only black theater. It was Columbus' largest theater seating 600 people until April, 1928 when the Martin Chain opened the Royal Theater there seating 2,800. After integration, the theater declined and remained vacant until it was put to its current use as The Liberty Theatre and Cultural Center. It's open for events and tours and offer about four live performances annually. Liberty Theater is on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Stepping into the lobby felt like moving back in time. First thing that grabs your eye is a large oil painting of some of Liberty Theater's legends called  After Hours by Najee Dorsey depicting Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, and Ma Rainey, all of whom appeared at the Liberty.  Other greats included Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and Jackie Robinson.

    Director shows the lobby of Liberty Theater

    Dr. Shae Anderson, theater director, gave us a tour.  There was a lot of artwork hanging in the lobby, as they had recently hosted a Black Art Show. The theater has a cozy feel with varnished wood walls and Dr. Anderson is working with local people who have pictures from the era to create an archive. It now seats 295 people.

    Stage and seating at Liberty theater

    The first floor contains a lobby, ticket booth, restrooms, office, seating, and stage. The second floor consists of a balcony and projection area. It contains a concession stand now but when it first opened concessions were purchased from an adjourning shop. There is a balcony over one-third of the auditorium.

    A visit to Ma Rainey's home and the Liberty Theater offers a look back into our not too distant past when white and Black folks lived totally different lives yet were still connected by music and the stories it told..

     

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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