Performance, entrepreneurship, and scholarship make these Black West Virginians stand out.
Cafe society of the mid-20th century wouldn’t have had quite the spunk it had without Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Tenor jazz saxophone croonings might never have achieved the luster they did without Leon “Chu” Berry. And we wouldn’t understand Black American history to the depth we do today without the challenging scholarship of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Our third Black History Month post appreciates these extraordinary West Virginians’ contributions.
Ada “Bricktop” Smith
1894 Alderson–1984 New York City
Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith has to be the most colorful of the Black West Virginians Morgantown magazine honors this month. Known as Bricktop because of the red hair she inherited from her slave-owning Irish-American maternal grandfather, Smith spent her early years in Alderson and her later childhood in Chicago. She was a dancer, singer, and vaudeville performer and became a darling of Paris society by the mid-1920s. Her Paris cafe, Chez Bricktop, which she ran from the 1920s through the ’50s, hosted celebrated guests including her friends Cole Porter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She also ran nightclubs in Mexico City and Rome.
Smith continued to perform from time to time long after she closed Chez Bricktop in 1961. She made a brief cameo appearance as herself in Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary film Zelig. Her 1983 autobiography is titled Bricktop by Bricktop.
Leon Brown “Chu” Berry
1908 Wheeling–1941 Conneaut, Ohio
Wheeling native Leon Brown Berry played the alto saxophone early in life and later took up the tenor saxophone. He played with swing bands in the 1930s, eventually making his way to jazz legend Cab Calloway’s big band. He also played as a sideman on recordings by many of the jazz luminaries of his time, including Count Basie, Lionel Hamption, and Billie Holliday. In 1937 and 1938, Metronome magazine named him to its All-Star Band alongside performers who are still household names today: Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Gene Krupa.
When Berry died from injuries he suffered in a car accident in Ohio at just 33, having recorded for only eight years, he was already regarded as one of the top jazz saxophonists of the time. He is credited with helping transform Calloway’s band to a true jazz orchestra, and his mastery of harmony and smooth solos are said to have influenced Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker—who named his first son Leon in Berry’s honor. You can hear Berry’s flawless style on this recording of Calloway’s “Ghost of a Chance.”
Berry’s nickname, “Chu,” is said to refer to his resemblance to a character in the stage musical comedy Chu Chin Chow. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. grew up in Piedmont and attended Potomac State College of West Virginia University. He transferred to Yale University to earn a history degree, and later studied English literature and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. His academic career took him to Cornell and Duke universities and then to Harvard, where he sits on the faculty today.
As a scholar, Gates has been an outspoken critic of the Eurocentricity of the study of Western literature, and he has worked throughout his career for greater recognition of Black works and their integration into literary tradition. Similarly, as a media figure, he has contributed to a richer understanding of Black family lineages and the interconnectedness of all American family histories. He was the host and co-producer of PBS’s African American Lives (2006) and African American Lives 2 (2008), where he used genealogical, historical, and DNA evidence to trace the lineage of more than a dozen notable African Americans, himself included. The seventh season of his highly regarded PBS series Finding Your Roots is currently in production. He received Emmy, Peabody, and other prestigious awards for his 2013 documentary The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and has authored or co-authored 25 books and created 23 documentary films.
Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and, in 1998, he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. He is the recipient of 58 honorary degrees and remains director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Gates published a memoir, Colored People, in 1994.