Jules Bledsoe: Waco’s Famous Baritone

by Amanda Neel, Graduate Assistant

Jules leads the program at New York City’s Town Hall on 28 July 1940. You’ll find this item in the Jules Bledsoe Papers #2086, box 4, folder 2, at The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

The shelves here at the Texas Collection hold many collections about the lives and experiences of African American Texans. One of these collections, the Jules Bledsoe Papers, concerns the life and musical career of Jules Bledsoe. Julian (Jules) Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas on December 18, 1898 and went on to travel the world for his career as a baritone singer. His papers include his library of sheet music, recordings of performances, personal correspondence, programs, and much more.

Jules served in the military during World War I and moved to New York City after the end of the war. While in New York, he received an Honorable Discharge. However, his stint in New York only lasted a short while. Jules signed a performance contract with the Young Men’s Christian Association, Colored Branch in Penniman, Virginia. While in Virginia, Jules sat for photographs in dress uniform for, in his own words, “40 years from now I might want to point back to when I was a soldier in the World War and you know nothing is better evidence than a picture.” Though he lived and performed in Virginia, he set his sights on returning to New York City.

Jules returned to New York by 1920 and saw his career take off by 1925. He performed in places like the Manhattan Opera House and critics hailed him as one of the greatest baritones of the day. His letters home mention his work with great New York composers. He even performed his own compositions during recitals, including his most well-known piece, “Old Man River.” Though based in New York City and traveling the world, Jules never forgot about home. He returned to Waco many times throughout his career and performed multiple times at the New Hope Baptist Church.Continue Reading

Over the Generations: Documenting Waco's African-American Community through the Eyes of the Cobb Family

By Paul Fisher, Processing Archivist

Bosqueville School women's basketball, Central Texas champions, 1948
Bosqueville School women’s basketball, Central Texas champions, 1948. Frances Cobb Todd papers #2960, box 5, folder 12.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many members of the African-American community in Waco preserved memories of family, friends, and community by donating collections of letters, photos, financial documents, and more to The Texas Collection. While the collections may have arrived separately, the stories they tell often overlap and provide various perspectives on the same people and events. With items dating from 1861-1991, these collections cover many important events in the life of the African-American community in Waco and the story of Waco.

One family in particular, the Cobb family, has brought three generations of family materials to be preserved and made accessible to researchers at The Texas Collection. These items contribute to many record groups documenting the African-American experience in Waco for 130 years. Learn more about these historic figures in the paragraphs below—every hyperlink represents a collection.

Reverend Stephen Cobb, first pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, Waco, Texas
Reverend Stephen Cobb, first pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, Waco, Texas. Irene Cobb papers #2918, box 6, folder 17.

Stephen Cobb, representing the first generation of Cobb materials in The Texas Collection, helped found one of the oldest African-American churches in Waco, New Hope Baptist Church. He also served as the first pastor of the church. Through two marriages, Cobb had thirteen children, eleven of whom lived to adulthood.

Many of Stephen Cobb’s children and relatives became prominent in the Waco black community—see the Smith-Cobb family collection to learn more. Several became schoolteachers, one daughter taught music, and another daughter married the noted Texas educator Robert Lloyd Smith. A protégé of Booker T. Washington, Smith served two terms in the Texas Legislature and founded a society to help black sharecroppers in the early 1900s. This society, called the Farmers Improvement Society, had 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at its high point in 1911.

Jules Bledsoe, preparing for his role in "Showboat"
Jules Bledsoe, preparing for his role in “Showboat.” Jules Bledsoe collection #2086, box 10, folder 8.

One of Stephen Cobb’s daughters, Jessie, married Henry Bledsoe. Their son, Julius Bledsoe, or Jules Bledsoe as he was popularly known, was an international opera star in the 1920s-1940s. He sang for audiences around the world, wrote music, and performed in plays, radio, and television.  His most famous piece was “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Showboat,” though he also sang many other songs and spirituals. After a career of 22 years, Bledsoe died in Hollywood in 1943.

At least one generation later, Irene Cobb was also active in the Waco area. A schoolteacher for 31 years at various schools around Waco, Cobb was also active at New Hope Baptist Church. By this time, she was at least the third generation of Cobb family members to attend New Hope.

Prom night for A.J. Moore High School at the Blue Triangle YWCA, 1948.
Prom night for A.J. Moore High School at the Blue Triangle YWCA, 1948. Frances Cobb Todd papers #2960, box 6, folder 15.

Irene Cobb’s daughter, Frances Cobb Todd, continued the family tradition of activity at New Hope, and followed her mother’s career path and became a teacher in the Waco Independent School District. Frances Todd was one of several New Hope members to take an interest in preserving historical documents important to the Waco African-American community, and she helped bring several New Hope-related collections to The Texas Collection.

Other African-American record groups at The Texas Collection include the papers of Vivienne Malone-Mayes, the first African-American professor to teach at Baylor University, and of Oscar “Doc” Norbert and Mary “Kitty” Jacques Du Congé—Oscar was the first African-American mayor of Waco. Several of the people in these collections also were interviewed for oral histories that can be found in the digital collections of the Baylor Institute for Oral History.

Resources such as historic photographs, music, letters, financial documents, programs, and many other materials are available for research in our African-American collections. If you are interested in donating materials documenting the African-American experience in Waco or Texas, we would love to talk with you!

Love the photos above? Check out our Flickr set below to view a few more from these collections (click on the crosshairs in the bottom right corner to make it full-screen). And then set up a visit to The Texas Collection to see even more great documentation of the African-American community in Waco.

 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Musical Heritage of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church

The Texas Collection is proud to present our newest exhibit, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot:  The Musical Heritage of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church.” In honor of African American History Month, this exhibit traces the interweaving stories of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.

Jules Bledsoe and his 1929 Packard Dual Cowl Phaeton, New York City
Jules Bledsoe standing outside what appears to be the Ziegfield Broadway Theatre, where he appeared in the original stage production of “Show Boat.”

Jules Bledsoe, one of the first major African-American opera stars in the United States, was born in Waco in approximately 1899 and sang his first concert at New Hope Baptist Church at age five. He sang for audiences around the world, wrote music, and performed on stage, radio, and television. His most famous piece was “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Show Boat.” After a career of just twenty-two years, Bledsoe died in Hollywood in 1943.

New Hope Baptist Church Choir and Orchestra, Waco, Texas, by Fred Gildersleeve.
The New Hope Baptist Church Choir and Orchestra, in an undated photo by Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve (who worked in Waco from around 1905-1958). New Hope is one of the oldest African-American churches in Waco.

New Hope Baptist Church, a historically African-American church in Waco, has been in operation since 1866. Stephen Cobb, grandfather of Jules Bledsoe, served as the first pastor of the church. Through the years the church has been known for having a vibrant musical tradition, with many choirs, an orchestra, and various musical performances.

“This exhibit represents some of Waco’s best musical traditions,” co-curator Paul Fisher explains. “Bledsoe’s international fame as an opera star was fantastic for the African-American community and Waco, as was New Hope’s national reputation as a musically gifted, vibrant church.” Visitors to this exhibit can see Bledsoe’s music, photographs of New Hope Baptist Church, and information about both Bledsoe and New Hope.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot:  The Musical Heritage of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church” was curated by Texas Collection staff Paul Fisher, Geoff Hunt, and Amie Oliver, and graduate students Amanda Dietz, Adina Johnson, and Mary Ellen Stanley. Archival manuscripts donated by New Hope Baptist Church and ancestors of Jules Bledsoe made the exhibit possible, and these materials are open for research. New Hope Baptist Church continues to worship every Sunday at their church on 915 North 6th Street, Waco, Texas. You can see the exhibit through May at The Texas Collection in Carroll Library.