Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 120 / Number 2
Polk Miller's Old South Quartette: Interracial Stage Performance at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
- Jacques Vest, pp. 144–76
James "Polk" Miller of Richmond was a Confederate veteran who, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, achieved middle-class respectability as a successful pharmacist. Sometime in the early 1890s he turned the business over to his son and pursued a career as a performer, playing banjo, singing "old plantation melodies," and lecturing on the glories of the "Old South." Around the turn of the century, he added an African American singing quartet to his act in an attempt to more vividly portray for audiences the virtues of this lost world. For Miller, these integrated performances with "The Old South Quartette" demonstrated not only the buoyant dynamism of African American music but also his own vision of a social ideal rooted in racial hierarchy. But as he traveled across the United States, Miller found his performances subject to audience interpretations that subverted his intentions. These audience reactions shed light on the geographically uneven and evolving nature of race relations in early twentieth-century America.