When Britain’s Prince Harry’s engagement to actress Meghan Markle became public, some negative reactions suggested that racism and class snobbery still persist among the British upper crust. According to news reports, Markle, whose mother is African-American and father is white, describes herself as a “strong, confident mixed-race woman.”
Just such a woman caused a stir in England back in 1903, and the ripples reached as far as Cincinnati. Marion Smart visited Cincinnati frequently as an actress and singer with the Smart Set troupe. This all-African American ensemble got top billing at Cincinnati’s hottest theaters: Heuck’s, on Vine between Twelfth and Thirteenth; Robinson Opera House at Ninth and Plum; and The Walnut, on Walnut Street between Sixth and Seventh.
Variously described as “pretty,” “dashing” and possessed of a “most handsome form and face,” Marion Smart was what was then known as an octoroon, meaning that she was one-eighth black. In other words, one of her eight great-grandparents was African American. Under the “one drop” standard in place at the time, Marion was considered “colored.” The Cincinnati Enquirer [25 February 1904] claimed she could easily pass as white:
“Miss Smart is almost white. It would require a second glance to discover any trace of her Ethiopian origin.”
Most news reports claim that she was a Louisiana native, but she consistently told census-takers that her mother was from England and her father from New York, where she was born at Utica in 1884.
In the summer of 1903, Marion sailed to England with an all-African American minstrel show headed by Bert Williams and George Walker, among the most celebrated proponents of this much-derided theatrical genre. The troupe occupied rooms in the very posh Hotel Cecil and performed at the Shaftesbury Theatre in central London. Among her new fans, Marion attracted the attention of the son of an English Lord. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer:
“This young scion of British nobility for a time contented himself with a nightly attendance at the London theater where the Afro-American entertainers were holding the boards. Subsequently he sought an introduction, and through a business attaché of the theater became acquainted with Miss Smart, or Marion Henry, as she was known on the London playbills. From that time on the young Englishman was the most devoted admirer of the colored singer and entertained her lavishly at the swagger Cecil.”
For almost a month, Marion’s devotee followed her everywhere and rained gifts of jewelry upon her. It all ended when Marion was visited backstage by a representative of the British Foreign Office who informed her that she was being deported, immediately, on the next steamer to America.
“She demurred at first, but changed her mind when transportation and a few thousand-pound notes on the Bank of England were thrust into her hand. It developed that the father of the prospective heir to an earldom had learned of his infatuation for the colored actress and had quietly invoked the aid of the Foreign Office.”
Marion returned to the United States and joined the Smart Set troupe, which brought her to Cincinnati, where she told her tale to a Cincinnati reporter. She made sure to add her opinion to the Enquirer story, contrasting life for African Americans here and in Europe:
“She says that prejudice against the colored race in England is nothing like it is in America and that it is more than likely that nearly half of the Williams and Walker company that went over about a year ago are so well established in England it is doubtful they will ever return to this country.”
Marion Smart’s career lasted just a year or so following her 1904 visit to Cincinnati. She retired from the stage at the age of 21 when she married Moses C. Moore, the wealthiest African American in Dayton, Ohio. Moore owned a stable of fine racing horses, a Dayton hotel that served a black clientele, and was an early investor in a Negro League baseball team.
In 1909, Moore opened Dahomey Park, described by the Indianapolis Freeman [6 March 1909] as:
“ . . . a Colored pleasure park for Colored people, owned and operated exclusively by Colored financiers and managers.”
Although the park remained open for only a couple of years, it attracted national news coverage. The name, Dahomey Park, was proposed by Marion Moore as a nod to “In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy” the first full-length musical written and performed by African Americans at a major Broadway house. The stars of “In Dahomey” were Marion Moore’s former employers, Bert Williams and George Walker.
Moses Moore died in 1927 and Marion remarried a building contractor named Carl Anderson. She was active in charitable causes, notably founding a day nursery. Marion died in 1954, aged 69, and is buried in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, next to Moses Moore.
(Greg Hand thanks Bill Stolz, archivist at Wright State University, who provided research assistance for this post.)
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.