Every blog I do is different when it comes to the research. Some time back I had done an exploratory search on James to see if he would be a good candidate for my next blog but I didn’t have much luck at the time. This time was better, not ideal mind you, but better. I had much bouncing around of people and records, which would have been very confusing if I had written the blog as I went so I waited until I’d pretty much exhausted the research to write this blog. Here are other good photos of him I found online: James 1 James 2 James 3. I had also read online that actor Bill Cobbs is supposedly a second cousin to James Baskett. Bill was raised in Cleveland so I’m not sure how they are tied in, if they actually do.
James is best remembered for his starring role in the old Disney movie Song of the South and the song from that movie, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. Actually though, he’d already been racking up a notable career on stage, screen and radio before this. We’ll get more into that later. For now we need to start back at his grandparents, John Baskett and Rebecca Dorsey.
The first thing I could find on them was their marriage in Indianapolis on 13 July 1869. Apparently Rebecca was already very pregnant because two months later, on 23 September 1869, their first son was born. His name was John and he would later be the father of the subject of this blog.
Now comes an odd thing. For the 1870 Census taken the following year, I found them both separately. The first one was in February, where I found Rebecca and baby John living with a white family. She is a servant for the family of one Charlton Eden. He was the proprietor of a lumber mill and a former Union soldier. He’s 41 and his new wife Sarah is 26, only 8 years older than his oldest daughter. Here’s the census in two parts. In the first you’ll find Charlton Eden’s family near the bottom and Rebecca at the top of the second. 1870 Census (1) 1870 Census (2)
For Rebecca’s husband, John, I found him in the 1870 Census taken in a different part of town in August. In this one, John and his brother James are both living with a black family headed by a 52 year old widow named Hannah Moss. Both John and his brother are listed as barbers for their occupation. You’ll find them near the bottom of the page. 1870 Census
John and Rebecca must have still been together though because on 28 December 1872 they had another son, Frank. This brings us up to the 1880 Census, taken on 18 June. In this one it’s now revealed that John and Rebecca have divorced. She even says it on the census. It was very rare until modern times for people, especially women, to admit that. They would usually say they were widowed. Bravo to her for this. They must also have been divorced for a few years since no other children were born after Frank. In the census she is living at 226 Saint Clair Street and has reverted to her maiden name of Dorsey. She’s also apparently renting a room to a white railroad clerk named John Glover. Both of her sons are also there. You’ll find her in the bottom half of the page: 1880 Census
At some point our barbering Baskett brothers disappear. I found James in the 1871 city directory but John wasn’t listed. James was gone the following year. I could never find either of them. There were possible suspects out there but none I could confirm so I suspect they both moved on and are now lost to history. Rebecca, however, hung around. In Indianapolis, on 12 January 1882, she married a George W Potter. During the Civil War he had enlisted in Company A, U.S. Colored Troops 28th Infantry Regiment on 24 December 1863, eventually making the rank of Sergeant. After mustering out on 22 June 1865 he returned home to Indianapolis. By 1867 he’d opened his own photo studio but by the 1870 census he had married (Lucy) and was now listed as a laborer, so apparently his photo business didn’t pan out. By the 1880 census he’d gotten divorced from Lucy, was living with his father and was now a white-washer. By the turn of the century he had become a paper-hanger/decorator, the profession he had for the rest of his life.
Rebecca and George lived the rest of their lives out quietly. In the census records they lived alone in Indianapolis. George remained a paper hanger at least into his 80s, dying at age 91 on 26 December 1928. So much for retirement programs back then, right? He is buried in the Crown Hill National Cemetery there. This cemetery was originally bought as 1.4 acres to rebury 707 Union troops that were already buried in the City Cemetery. Currently there are over 2100 burials there from every war. Here’s his tombstone: George’s Tombstone
I was unable to find Rebecca in the 1930 Census (her last) but I suspect she was in Chicago. Her son Frank had moved there sometime between 1905 and 1910, however she was not actually living with him during that census. She died in Chicago on 13 September 1931. I don’t know where she was buried but I’d imagine that she is either at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis or Lincoln Cemetery in Cook County, Illinois.
This takes us to her sons, John S and Frank. I’ll cover Frank first. After the 1880 Census I found both Frank and John in the city directories doing various menial labor type of jobs beginning in 1889 up to the 1900 Census. Frank happened to get caught up in two of the censuses that year. The first one for him was taken on 4 June at the Marion County jail, where Frank was an inmate. 1900 Jail Census. It must have been for something very minor as there was no mention in the newspaper and he was caught in another census on 13 June, just 9 days later. In this one he and John are both living at 825 Superior with an aunt named Dollie Stephenson, who is a childless 35 year old widow and a cook for a private residence. Considering that the Baskett brothers had vanished and Dollie’s younger age, my gut told me that she was probably Rebecca’s younger sister. Some cursory searching didn’t yield anything at all. You’ll find them near the bottom of the census: 2nd 1900 Census
Frank and John both show up in the Indianapolis City Directory for 1905. They are both porters and both living at 722 Douglass. 1905 Directory This directory also revealed more about their aunt, Dollie. I got curious about her and checked it for her. She was in the directory at the same address as the 1900 Census. After more digging up on FamilySearch.Org, I found her marriage to a Thomas Stephenson in Marion County on 9 June 1891 and her maiden name was Dorsey. The record says Stevenson but that’s not a real issue, especially with transcriptions. Dollie’s Marriage
With this new information I started checking out Dollie. I found her again in the 1910 Census at the same address and with one male boarder living with her. 1910 Census. I had also found her in the 1908 and 1909 city directories. The big blow came when I found her death certificate. She passed away from heart and kidney issues at home on 6 August 1913. Fortunately for us it gave her father’s full name, George Washington Dorsey. Her birth was listed as 15 May 1870 but I suspected she was actually older. Dollie’s Death
This revelation opened up a whole new can of worms because I was then able to find them all in the 1880 Census in Indianapolis. The father, listed as Washington G, and the mother Margaret, though I felt she might be their step mother. Then comes Rebecca, Mary, Dolly and William. If you look at Dollie’s death certificate again you’ll notice that it was her sister, Mary (who had married a Summers) that was the informant. Then we get to Samuel and Ottie. Notice that they are listed as Mulatto, not black. At this point I had to stop writing the blog entirely and try to straighten this out. Here’s the census. They are near the top. 1880 Census
Well, after diving into the Dorsey family for a few days this is what I came up with. The first I could place them was in the 1870 Census in Indianapolis. George, Margaret, and Samuel are living with and working for that same white family we talked about earlier, Charlton Eden. You’ll find all of them except Samuel near the bottom of the first page. Samuel is at the top of the second page. 1870 Census (1) 1870 Census (2)
So where are the girls? If you’ll remember, Rebecca had just gotten married the year before and was working for the Charlton Eden family on the 1870 Census. Her census was taken in February. The one above with the rest of her family was done in July. So sometime between the two she had moved out and her family moved in.
Found her sister, Mary, working as a domestic servant for a white family named Russell that appears to be running a small boarding house. She is 14 at this time. 1870 Census. I found her sister, Dollie, working as a domestic servant for a white family named Jones. So much for her 1870 birth year mentioned earlier. 1870 Census. For some reason I was unable to find William at this time.
As far as George W Dorsey, I found him in numerous Indianapolis city directories up through 1889. I thought at first he had died but he didn’t. He must have been living with family because he didn’t die until 28 July 1896 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. I could never find anything else out about his wife, Margaret, except that her maiden name was Jackson. We’ve already covered Rebecca, so next is Mary. She married Samuel Summers in Chicago on 30 April 1906 and died there on 2 December 1924. Her daughter, Ottie, married James F Duke on 30 December 1903 in Chicago. She was listed in the marriage record as Ollie D Summers. When Ottie was born, Sam Summers was married to his first wife (Fannie) and already had children. I suspect that Sam was her father, though. I also think her middle initial D stood for Dorsey.
Another thing to think about is that Samuel Summer’s first wife’s maiden name was Jackson, just like Mary’s mother, Margaret. Anyway, Ottie went on to pass away on 12 September 1922 in Chicago. She is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. It was stated in the death record that she was only 38 years old, but that isn’t correct because she was a baby in the 1880 census.
I was never able to find enough on William that I could confirm anything about him so he ended up a dead end for me. Samuel was a different story. I found him in numerous city directories and news stories. Many of the stories about him were about trouble he would get into. The first story about him though is a positive one about his being hired as a city firefighter in January 1895. Sam’s Appointment. On 3 April of the same year he married a Mary Steller. Marriage. October 1899 brings our first interesting story that I could confirm was him. It’s about a throat-slashing: Sam1899. Next up is the 1900 Census for him, his wife Mary and their daughter. You’ll find them at the top at the same address from the previous news story. 1900 Census. Next for him are three stories dealing with some trouble in 1903 that he got into that threatened his employment with the fire department. Sam1 Sam2 Sam3
Sometime between the 1900 Census and 1907 Sam and Mary divorced because he remarried 3 June 1907 to an Agnes Seibert. By the 1910 Census they had divorced. She went on to pass away in Philadelphia in 1931 from tuberculosis. Sam ended up in two censuses for 1910. The first was done on 15 April and we find Sam in jail. Sam Jail Census. The next was taken on 23 April and he’s staying at a boarding house. Sam Free Census. Two years later, on 15 February 1912, Sam died from tuberculosis. He’s buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.
This finally gets us back to the original story, with brothers John and Frank Baskett. According to the 1910 Census, sometime about 1906 Frank married a lady named Susie and they had moved to Chicago. This is also confirmed by the 1906 city directory for Indianapolis. John is still there at the same address they had shared the year before but Frank is gone. 1906 Directory Frank 1910 Census. I believe I may have found the marriage record for Frank and Susie, but if so, they actually got married in Chicago in April of 1911. I just haven’t been able to confirm it.
On 13 May 1918, his wife Susie died, so in September of 1918 Frank lists his mother in Indianapolis as next-of-kin on his WW1 draft card. Frank WW1. The following year, on 6 October 1919, Frank married again to a Lillian Randolph, a twenty year old girl from Tennessee. Here they are the following year in the 1920 Census. 1920 Census. By the 1930 Census, Lillian has either died or divorced him and he has married a Maranda Russell. 1930 Census. I was able to find Maranda in the 1940 Census in Chicago but Frank is not there. She is still listed as married though. 1940 Census. Maranda died a few months later and is buried there in Lincoln Cemetery.
Frank died on 8 March 1946 in Manteno, Illinois. Considering that there was a huge mental hospital there he could have been a patient or even an employee. At some point he had gotten married to a Carrie Newby Martin before he died.
Now we get into Frank’s brother, John. I found him in numerous city directories up until about 1919. Most of the time he was a porter or a laborer but he ended up a barber, like his father.
We had left off earlier with the 1900 census where he and Frank were living with their aunt, Dollie. According to his 1910 Census, he had married a woman named Lizzie in about 1902. They are living at 722 Douglass, which is also backed up by the city directories prior to the census. In the census it shows that they had both been married before. Lizzie is 30 years old and from Kentucky, as are her parents. She claims she’s borne 3 children, only one of which is alive. This living child is James, the subject of this blog. 1910 Census
With this information about their marriages I went back to searching. I was never able to find Lizzie’s first marriage for certain but found three possibles. I did later discover her maiden name was Brown, though. Fortunately, John’s first marriage turned up. He had married an Anna L Alexander on 3 November 1892 in Indianapolis. They then divorced on 4 November 1898. Divorce. I later found Anna in the 1900 Census but she then disappears.
It was during the marriage searches that I found one of the two deceased children that Lizzie mentioned in the 1910 Census. Bertha Baskett had been born 5 August 1902 and died from meningitis on 14 February 1903. She is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. This death certificate is also where I discovered Lizzie’s maiden name. Bertha’s Death. I also added her grave to Find-A-Grave.
For the 1920 Census John, Lizzie and James have moved to 936 N. West Street and John is now a barber. The census is hard to read but I’ll post it anyway. 1920 Census. On 20 May of the following year, John died from chronic bronchitis. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. John’s Death
On 7 September 1921, four months after John died, Lizzie remarried to a John A Woolridge. A few years after they married they moved to 3025 Martindale Avenue in Indianapolis. This where they are living in both the 1930 and 1940 censuses. 1930 Census 1940 Census (1) 1940 Census (2)
John Woolridge passed away from heart disease on 23 February 1946 and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville, Indiana. John’s Death. Lizzie stayed on at the Martindale address and on 9 February 1950 she married Joshua Foree Roney and he moved in. Here they are five years later in the 1955 directory. 1955 Directory
At some point Lizzie was put in a nursing home and passed away there on 23 September 1961 and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. Lizzie’s Death Lizzie’s Obit. Joshua went on to pass away in Indianapolis in January of 1971.
And now we finally get to James. According to various online sources, most of which cited no sources, he attended Tech High School. I have to assume they meant Arsenal Technical High School. This school had numerous notable alumni, including several future NBA players and, coincidentally, two well-known Disney animators: Bill Peet and Bill Justice. Oddly enough though, James isn’t listed as one of the notables. I suppose because he didn’t graduate.
Although I never saw it, supposedly James had said in a 1946 interview that he had wanted to pursue pharmacology but didn’t have the money so he ended up pursuing stage work. After his father died in 1921 James visited Chicago (he had relatives there) and was lured to acting. He began performing with the Tutt Brothers Troupe.
During his time in Chicago in the early 1920s he met a young lady by the name of Beulah Ewing, who was born 2 April 1907. They ran off to Garland County, Arkansas and got married on 22 February 1924. Notice they lied about their ages, each actually being two years younger. James’ Marriage.
By October of 1928 James has gone on to New York City and is performing under the name of Jimmy Baskette in a play at the Alhambra Theater called Kidnapped. The following month he is performing another one there called A Wife’s Sacrifice. This takes us to the 1930 Census. I found Beulah back in Chicago at 5729 Prairie Avenue. She says she married at age 16, was born in Illinois and both parents are from Missouri. She also lists her occupation as an orchestra musician. Beulah 1930. For James, when I found him on the census he had been staying at some hotel but he and numerous others were lined through and something written to the left that looks similar to the words abandoned or abnormal and then a code 1. I never could quite understand that but I assume he was still in New York City somewhere due to the many performance articles I later found. James 1930
The 1930s seemed James’ busiest decade. I know he was in New York for some performances in September and November and then again in May 1931. From 4 June 1932 I came across this story about the movie he made called Harlem is Heaven. The next one I was able to find was from January 1934 for the musical Goin’ To Town. Both of these last two were with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The next thing was a not-so-kind review for James from 21 July 1934. He’s about halfway down the article. Review
The following month James was performing at the Apollo. 4 Aug 1934. On the 25th of August he gets a mediocre review for his performance in the play Stevedore. He was still at the Apollo on 15 September. Here’s an ad for it. Sep 1934 Ad. In October he was in a play called Oriental Fantasy. From 10 November comes another somewhat negative review. The next thing I found wasn’t until 29 Jun 1935 and it was an ad. June Ad. In August he gets yet another tepid review. 1935 Review.
The news stories pretty much dried up after this except for this gossip thing from 21 August 1937. Gossip. I thought that maybe it was around this time that he went to California but when I found him in the 1940 Census he was living in Manhattan at 208 Edgecombe Avenue. He’s a lodger at some apartment building, says he’s single and had been unemployed for 5 weeks during the 1 January to 30 March time-frame. Also notice something else. He shows that he had two years of high school. Maybe that’s why he didn’t pursue pharmacology after all. Of course, it could be he quit school because he knew he wouldn’t have the money to pursue that dream. James 1940
So what about Beulah? Well, she was still in Chicago in a small apartment at 5400 South Parkway. This place is now a good-sized shopping center. In the census she has gone back to her maiden name but claims that she is married. She is still a musician but now does it in nightclubs. Beulah 1940
James must have gone to California around this time. We know he made the low-budget movie Revenge of the Zombies with John Carradine in the 1942 to 1943 time-frame. We also know he attended an event with some friends in May 1943. Gala. I also found him in a California 1944 voting record living in Los Angeles. Vote. Meanwhile, on 30 March 1944, Beulah died in Chicago. She was buried in the Mt. Glenwood Cemetery in Cook County. The was no listing for her on Find-A-Grave there so I added her and her mother. Her death info also says she was divorced at the time but I am not convinced. I find it awful coincidental that she dies in 1944 and then in 1945 James married his next wife, Margaret Elizabeth Bonvill. No, her last name is not a typo. I don’t know the exact date but in the 1946 voting record they are together. 1946 Vote
Around this time James answered an ad looking for people to do a butterfly’s voice for Disney’s Song of the South. When Walt heard his voice he asked to meet him and ended up hiring him over hundreds of others for the part of Uncle Remus. He was also given the voice work for Brer Fox and the Butterfly. He and Walt remained good friends until James’ death.
I found many articles about the movie, both for and against, from both sides of the race issue. I’m not going to get into it here. I’ll leave it up to you. Here are a couple of informative sites about it: ScreenCrush.Com Snopes.Com
There are also stories about his not attending the Atlanta premier. You’ll hear that he wasn’t allowed to attend or you’ll hear he couldn’t get a hotel in Atlanta. I found many references to both but never saw any concrete proof either way. I have a hard time with the hotel story because there would still have been black hotels or lodging places. Knowing Georgia in the 1940s though, I could defintely see his not being allowed to attend the premier. Supposedly Walt Disney made the opening remarks and then departed because he wasn’t staying if James wasn’t allowed. I never saw proof of this either.
The ONLY story I could find mentioning James not being allowed to attend comes from a newspaper in Ottawa, Canada the following month. Ottawa Story. So where did they come up with the information? Must be true though because the media never lies to us, do they? If anyone out there has something about it please email me.
Although many people had called for James to be given an Academy Award, including noted columnist Hedda Hopper, it was not to be. So a movement began and on 20 March 1948 he was given an honorary Academy Award for his performance, making him the first black man to receive one. Unfortunately he had been ill since back in 1946 from diabetes and heart problems and four months after getting the award he passed away. This was on 9 July 1948 in Los Angeles but he was buried back home in Indianapolis in Crown Hill Cemetery with his father. Here is his Find-A-Grave site. James’ Grave. His widow, Margaret didn’t pass away until 1992 in Los Angeles. She is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park there.
All in all, I really enjoyed researching James and his family and I feel he was definitely worthy of my time. I also feel he should NOT become some forgotten actor.
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Thanks for stopping by! -Ray
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