History July 15, 2021 at 03:00 pm

How Pearl Hobson became the most popular African-American dancer and singer in Imperial Russia in the 1900s

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor July 15, 2021 at 03:00 pm

July 15, 2021 at 03:00 pm | History

Pearl Hobson poster, 1909. Public domain image

Pearl Hobson was among a number of African-American performers who left the United States in the 1900s to somewhat escape racism. At the time, groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers were making waves abroad due to the popularity of African-American culture through performance art. Hobson also wanted to profit from the situation. And so she did as she became the most popular African-American dancer and singer in Imperial Russia.

The “Mulatto Sharpshooter,” as she was known, wowed elite audiences from St. Petersburg to Moscow by 1909 while living much of this period in Odessa, Ukraine in Southern Russia, as stated by one account. Not much is known about Hobson’s background. Born on July 7, 1879 in Lisbon, Bedford County, Virginia — even though some say she was born in Roanoke, Virginia — she worked as a maid before becoming a member of the Fencing Musketeers (also known as the Fencing Octoroons and Les Mousquetaires Noirs) which consisted of 11 Black women.

It is not known exactly when Hobson left the U.S. although official records cited by BlackPast show that she arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark by April 1904 as part of an African-American dance troupe. The troupe would tour St. Petersburg, Russia at a time when scores of African-American professionals were already in Russia, particularly in its western cities. There were Black entertainers such as Black Troubadours, Darktown Entertainers, the Black Diamonds, and Minnie Brown, an actress and singer who “saw herself as a rival” to Hobson between 1915 to 1916.

Hobson did earn wide acclaim thanks to African-American entertainment impresario Frederick Bruce Thomas, who started work as a waiter after arriving in Moscow in 1899. Thomas, by 1904, was the owner of Yar, one of Moscow’s most celebrated restaurants. Acquiring Russian citizenship and changing his name to Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, he noticed the amazing talent of Hobson and started featuring her in his restaurant while managing her career.

Not too long after, Hobson became loved by many including those in high society as she started attending films, symphonies, operas while performing in Russian, French and German to thousands of people. Soon, her posters were almost everywhere, describing her as Russia’s “Mulatto Sharpshooter”.

“Beautiful young Miss Pearl Hobson is the best decoration of the stage. Her success grows every day, and she is beloved by the public…” Russian newspaper Moscow Leaf wrote about Hobson on December 3, 1907.

She did make money from her fame. A report states that by the beginning of 1910, she was living in a luxurious apartment at 20 Kamennoostrovsky Prospect, which had a team of servants. The popular Aquarium Theatre was not far from her home, and “between the nonstop masquerade balls, fireworks and festivals, Pearl sang beautiful Russian Romances and performed her dramatically orchestrated dances nightly at the most fashionable venue in the capital of the Russian Empire,” the report added.

It was during this period that she met Count Alexander Sheremetev, a Russian composer, conductor and entrepreneur. He had a relationship with her and would help her become a “well-received singer and ballet dancer” who headlined nightly at the Aquarium Theatre.

Many Black artists learned Russian and took Russian citizenship but Hobson did not. In July 1916, she filed her last application for the extension of her American passport and left Russia. Historians do not know much about her life after she left Russia although some say she adopted four children in 1918 before her death on June 4, 1919, at age 39.

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