14 December 2021 | Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music

Abigail Davis, Raina Rosemary,

Dayo Ogunmodede, Meggie Synder, Taylor Wesseln

Mapping Black Women in Vaudeville:

The Theater Owners Booking Association


Project Abstract

Our project maps the performances of Black women who performed on the Theatre Owners Booking Association circuit in the 1920s. The Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A) was a circuit of theaters that booked African American vaudeville performers in the 1920s and 30s. We chose to focus on women performers both to narrow the scope of our project and to highlight the contributions of a group that faced unique barriers due to the intersection of their race and gender. 

The points on our maps represent performances documented in African American newspaper advertisements, news stories, and reviews. We compiled the performance dates, locations and performers into a spreadsheet and then imported them into our maps. Overall, we identified more than 100 performances. Using Henry T. Sampson’s Blacks in Blackface : A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows, we also mapped 32 theaters that became the original T.O.B.A. circuit members and over 150 theaters owned or operated by Black people between 1910-1930 across the United States.

To add to our data collection, we created a bibliography of scholarly work regarding the T.O.B.A. circuit, vaudeville, and African American performers. We were interested in understanding the work that had already been done and sought to build on this work through the stories that our maps could tell. We were particularly interested in highlighting the accomplishments and popularity of these performers, many of whom we encountered frequently in our research. 

The data in our maps was compiled over the course of a single semester, and are not a complete collection of T.O.B.A. performances by women, nor a complete collection of T.O.B.A. theaters. However, we do think our research is an important first step in inspiring further questions and research about the lives and legacies of these artists and the theaters in which they performed. 

This project represents the work of 5 undergraduate students who collected this data over the course of a single semester. It should also be noted that African American vaudeville is an underrepresented genre in musicological discussion, especially at the undergraduate level. We went into our research process knowing very little about the topic. The work of researchers who have dedicated far more time and expertise to this topic is highlighted in our bibliography, which we encourage you to consult.

Our hope is that each team project that our class has created can provide more access and a fresh format to learn about music histories that are underrepresented in scholarship. 

From left to right:

Abigail Davis, Taylor Wesseln, Raina Rosemary, Meggie Synder, and Dayo Ogunmodede


Origins of T.O.B.A

Image Credits:

T.O.B.A. BOOKINGS. The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); April 5, 1924; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender. pg. 7.

Historical Background

Discover how the Theater Owners Booking Association began and how it transformed over time.

Race, Gender, and Sexuality

The Women

Being a Women Artist on the T.O.B.A Circuit

Understand the unique challenges these performers encountered throughout their Vaudevillian careers.

Image Credits: Unknown author. “Whitman Sisters.” published c.1920. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Whitman_Sisters.jpg | Used under Fair Use for educational purposes.


Map Gallery

Discover T.O.B.A. venues and Black owned theaters, performances of frequently encountered artists, and the frequency of these performances by venue.



and Other Resources


View an organized list of the research necessary to create this project.

Spotify Playlist

View multiple playlists of performance repertoire produced by these selected T.O.B.A. artists.