Whitman Sisters By George-Graves, Nadine
Mabel (1880–1942), Essie (1882–1963), Alberta (1888–1964) and Alice (1900–1969) were the daughters of Albery Allson Whitman, a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church (and a notable poet), and his wife Caddie Whitman. They began performing by singing and dancing in their father’s church and on evangelical tours. Later, they formed a touring company and took on other acts, most notably child performers. In the later years of the company, The Whitman Sisters were the highest paid act on the black vaudeville circuit, called the Theater Owners Booking Association (or Toby), and one of the longest surviving touring companies (1899–1942). The performance group was considered the greatest incubator of dancing talent for black shows on or off Toby, and significantly contributed to American theatre and dance modernism particularly as they challenged race and gender discrimination and stereotypes. While keeping their audiences entertained, they managed to push new ideas about aesthetics, race, class, gender and show business practices. The sisters succeeded in breaking many of the barriers for black women in show business and helped pave the way in the entertainment industry for subsequent black performers by launching the careers of many stars including Count Basie, Bunny Briggs, Jeni Legon, Willie Robinson, Butterbeans and Susie, Billy Kersands, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters.