Mapping the Dudley Circuit

In a February 9, 1907 profile of the famous comedian, Sherman H. Dudley, The Indianapolis Freeman wrote: “He sees with the eyes of a prophet a chain of negro theaters controlled by a syndicate of negro managers, duplicating in every city in the country where there is considerable colored population” [1]. In a segregated theatrical climate where black vaudeville performers were shut out of white theaters or charged exorbitant prices, Dudley’s dream of a syndicated vaudeville performance network for African American performers seemed like both a pipe dream and a salvation. In 1912, Dudley began organizing a consolidated network of theaters colloquially known as the “Dudley Circuit.” While the exact number of theaters on the Dudley Circuit is unclear, during its heyday from 1912-15, Dudley managed at least several dozen theaters. 

  1. Indianapolis Freeman, Indianapolis, IN, February 9, 1907, Readex Allsearch.


Using digitized historical newspapers, I collected data from Dudley’s weekly syndicated newspaper column “What’s What on the Dudley Circuit” from July 1912 until August 1913. I chose to collect data from the first season of the Dudley circuit in order to answer the following questions: How many theaters did Dudley manage? How fast did the Dudley Circuit grow? Which theaters were the most active?

Newspaper data reveals, Dudley amassed a network of thirty-five theaters during his first season as a theatrical proprietor. I’ve chosen to overlay my data onto a percentage map of the African American population by U.S. County from the 1910 census. Notably all of Dudley’s theaters are located in counties with African American populations above 5%, with the majority located in counties with African American populations above 25%.

In addition to my data on Dudley Circuit theatres from 1912-13, I also found a list entitled “A Partial List of The Colored Theaters in the United States” printed on January 3, 1914 in the Indianapolis Freeman. I’ve added these theaters to the map below in navy.

This map juxtaposes theater data from “What’s What on the Dudley Circuit” (represented in turquoise), with data from The Freeman’s 1914 listing of black theaters (represented in navy). Without further context, I am unsure how many theaters on The Freeman’s 1914 lists were also part of the Dudley Circuit. While Dudley’s circuit is primarily concentrated on the DC and greater Virginia area, The Freeman’s theater directory contains more locations in the deep south and Texas. Were all the Theaters listed on The Freeman’s Dudley Circuit theaters? Most likely, the theaters on this list represent a mix of Dudley Circuit and independently operated houses.