The Entertainer’s Home
The communal roots of talented artists find their homes in the twin cities. Growing up here, I enjoyed the music of my parents, Professor Samuel and Rosie Williamson-Collins, both singers of gospel music and pianists. After performing with the Dunbar High School Marching Band in 1968, I continued my music studies with the late Bob Ingram, former Texarkana Independent School District Supervisor of the Instrumental Music Program. I also enjoyed singing in the choir. So, needless to say, my love of music has a firm foundation, laid by these great cities full of talented musicians.
I learned much about music at home. But while living in Paris, France, I was introduced to Texarkana’s legendary composer Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime.” My friends in Paris inspired me and made me grateful for my newly discovered knowledge of Scott Joplin and his music. They were able to recount the rag timer’s complete music history. When I returned to Texarkana, I fulfilled my aspirations of helping promote Scott Joplin to this area. On previous visits home since the early 80s, it seemed Texarkana residents barely knew his name! He was the nation’s first renowned composer to sell a million copies (accumulatively) of a song. His “Maple Leaf Rag” original is now in the Library of Congress. After it was published in 1899, it soon adorned pianos in the salons of most homes. Joplin was a “rock” star!
Scott Joplin was raised here in Texarkana. The verdict is still unclear as to his birthplace—arguably Linden, Texas, or Texarkana around November 1868. I wrote and released, with other locals, the 2017 documentary, “Scott Joplin–Hometown Hero–Texarkana USA”, which answered many questions through interviews with Joplin family members and local historians. Davis County (now Cass County), Texas U.S. Census of 1870 lists Florence and Giles Givens Joplin and sons Monroe and Scott at the Given’s plantation in Cove Springs, located outside of Linden. Currently, I am writing the script for a sequel that will present information further clarifying this and other historical matters. It will be released later this year or in 2022.
After music training with his parents, young Scott would play pianos at homes where his mother worked as a laundress. He attended Orr School for Coloreds, located at Laurel and East 9th Street, from its construction in 1880 through 1886. The Joplin family lived nearby on Hazel and 4th Street. He would take composition lessons from Professor Johnson, who lived nearby, and Professor Julius Weiss, who was the live-in music teacher for Colonel Robert W. Rodger’s children, where Florence Joplin worked. Joplin also taught and performed at Orr School. He was the music director at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Swampoodle Creek area, and possibly played at many saloons and brothels in the downtown area. The most famous bass instrument line in Boogie Woogie music was created and played in this area and dubbed the Swampoodle Bass Line, which is known worldwide. Boogie Woogie is the rhythmic style music whose roots lie in Marshall, Texas and mimics the click-clacking sound of train wheels, which were everywhere in the East Texas and Southwest Arkansas areas.
The Joplin family arrived in this community in 1873 so father, Giles, could work for the railroad company, laying tracks that would allow the town to be recognized a few months later on December 8, 1873. That is when the first lots were sold by the railroad surveyor, Colonel Gus Knobel, who nailed the first sign with the name “TEXARKANA” to a tree!
After studying and performing on both sides of town, Joplin left to travel by railroad, playing the saloons along the route. He was later joined by his brothers and a fellow musician who collaborated to perform as the Texas Medley Quartette. Joplin sang, played piano, cornet, the mandolin and banjo as did his mother. His father played the violin. It has been recounted that Joplin initially left town because of the commotion stirred from his playing at a fundraiser for a southern general which angered many in town. The performance was followed by harsh letters coming in from as far away as Shreveport, Louisiana.
We all seem to feel a closer connection with Scott Joplin’s song “The Entertainer,” written in 1902, which was included with other Joplin tunes on the soundtrack of the 1970s movie “The Sting.” Through it, ragtime and interest in Joplin were revived. A bit of research showed that he last came home in 1907 when he played his hit song, “The Maple Leaf Rag” on a piano in the window of Beasley’s Music Store to throngs of appreciative downtowners who gathered around. He then travelled to New York City, leaving behind Sedalia, Missouri, where he had lived for over a decade and where he attended George R. Smith College for Coloreds, studying composition. That is where he married and divorced and wrote that famous rag at the Maple Leaf Club where he performed, all while teaching music lessons at his home.
In New York, Joplin lived in an apartment building on Tin Pan Alley, the famous street of composers in Manhattan, where he worked alongside Ed Berlin and other early 1900’s-star composers. Joplin married his third wife, Lottie Stoke, and worked on completing and publishing his opera, “Treemonisha” up to his death on April 1, 1917. His death came only a few weeks after being admitted to a sanatorium, suffering from the effects of late-stage syphilis. He is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, New York. His great niece, 101-year-old Mrs. LaErma White, still lives in Texarkana, Arkansas. Joplin’s great-great niece, noted jazz singer Joyce Grant, returned home from her Bay Area residence in 2018 to give a star performance at Scott Joplin—Ragtime to Rockabilly weekend.
We are grateful that the late local saxophonist and historian, Jerry Atkins, led the way in having a mural dedicated to Scott Joplin painted on the exterior wall of his family’s Ragland Business Supplies building. Atkins was known worldwide as an expert on Joplin, and was inducted into the Arkansas Hall of Fame, and a founding member of the Scott Joplin Support Group. The Scott Joplin Support Group was formed by myself and Atkins with the aid of Michael Mankins and our sisters, Candace Mizell and Doris Price. This group has dedicated countless hours to organizing Joplin-centric events, from the 1997 portrait competition, to summer concerts in Scott Joplin Park, birthday events downtown, radio programs and many educational presentations in area schools. Our 2020 Scott Joplin Birthday Celebration featured the third artwork by H.M. Fort, Jr., “Scott Joplin at Orr School Texarkana” that is being auctioned, with proceeds benefitting the Skyscape “Music in the Air” Project of lighted, musically themed artworks that will be placed on the roofs of downtown buildings. This is a joint endeavor with Main Street Texarkana.
From the mouth of our late, great philanthropist, H. Ross Perot, “The only person more famous than me from Texarkana is Scott Joplin!” (I paraphrase). Our town has always been rich in talent. Texarkana is “The Entertainer’s” home.