Preserving the Legacy of Black Performing Artists From Lancaster County

This Black History Month, LancasterHistory dives deeper into the Black Lancastrians in the Arts: A Lasting Legacy photo exhibit on display at Stoudt Gallery. This exhibit explores the enduring work of African American artists in Lancaster County who have contributed to the film, art, music, and literary community on a local, national, and international level. The exhibit takes a multimedia and multidisciplinary look at how these individuals navigated through life and the streets of Lancaster. From Fulton Opera House in the 1880s to J.P. McCaskey High School in the 1960s, these artists have left their mark on various institutions throughout the decades. LancasterHistory continues to interpret and preserve the work of each artist featured in the Black Lancastrians in the Arts display.

Jake Parks: The Traveling Banjo Player of North Duke Street 

A black and white historic photo of a Black man sitting on a chair with a banjo in his hands.
Photo of Jake Parks taken in 1910. This image is also featured in William Riddle’s book, “Folklore in the library: Cherished Memories of Old Lancaster.”

Jacob “Jake” Parks was a beloved banjoist and businessman in Lancaster City. Born c. 1847, Jake was the son of George and Mary Parks, house cleaners who worked for some of the wealthiest families in the county. Parks was born with a clubfoot, which didn’t hinder his abilities as an athlete and would later be called a “leader in sport” by the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal in 1915. Parks also played football, hockey, and boxed. This athleticism translated into his knack for pushing a heavy wheelbarrow throughout the city, picking up odds and ends for his business. Parks was considered a traveler by nature and a music lover at heart. He moved around Lancaster City throughout his long life, whether staying with charitable friends on North Christian Street or in a cellar on North Duke. Parks never really knew where he’d rest his head at night, but the one consistent thing in his life was his banjo. 

During the late 1880s, Parks traveled throughout southern Pennsylvania for work and to tour with his banjo. He played his banjo to anyone who would listen. Author William Riddle stated in his book Folklore in the library: Cherished Memories of Old Lancaster that “He [Jake] had a way of manipulating the strings of his banjo for a few stray nickels to charm the hearts of his hearers of both high and low degree.” Considered a modest businessman, Parks also sold candy and paper in front of the Fulton Opera House to help pay for his instrument. In an article from 1884’s Lancaster Weekly Examiner, Parks discussed his beloved banjo and its form:

A marble-looking tombstone inscribed for Jacob Parks.
Jacob “Jake” Parks’ tombstone at Stevens Greenland Cemetery. Credit:

“The banjo is made of three pieces; 1. part came from Atlantic City, 2. From a theater in Philadelphia, and the 3. from an older instrument that belonged to him, and he himself made the instrument from those parts.”

Parks spoke to the Lancaster Weekly Examiner & Express in 1884, stating: 

“Maybe one of these mornings they’ll find me dead. Nobody will care about it, and I don’t care if they do. I’d have only a penny or two in my pockets, and Jake Parks would get only a line or two in the paper and maybe nothing at all.”

These words did not ring true. Following his death in 1924, multiple Lancaster newspapers wrote sizable obituaries about the banjo player. His colorful life was immortalized in ink for thousands of readers across the county. A fundraiser was created to give Jake a proper burial in Stevens Greenland Cemetery, the historical African American burial ground on South Duke Street.  According to The News Journal, $209, $3,586 in today’s money, was deposited to the “Jake Parks” fund in the Fulton National Bank. 

Vi Burnside: Lancaster County’s Renowned Saxophonist 

A black and white historic photograph of five women holding various saxophones.
International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History (Burnside in the top, right corner).

Violet Burnside, known professionally as Vi Burnside, was a renowned jazz saxophonist born in Lancaster on April 19, 1915. She got started in music by performing in orchestras at Edward Hand Middle School and Stevens High School in Lancaster City. After graduating high school, Burnside attended a music conservatory in New York. She would later play tenor saxophone in various all-girl bands, like the African American group the Harlem Play-Girls. She would spend most of her career touring with different groups from the 1930s through the 1960s. During World War II, the saxophonist gained national recognition after joining the first racially integrated women’s band in America, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, in 1943. The band performed at United Services Organization (USO) concerts and venues in Europe.

A poster advertising Vi Burnside's performance at an upcoming Big Dance at the Maple Grove Ballroom in 1949.
In 1949, Burnside returned to Lancaster to perform at the Maple Grove Ballroom with her band the All-Stars.

The quintet played jazz and swing music at establishments like the Apollo Theater in New York City and the Regal Theatre in Chicago. The Chicago Defender described Burnside as “the nation’s finest tenor sax artist.” Burnside was popular for her strong swing style, which rivaled many of her male counterparts. The saxophonist would even battle male musicians in what were called “jam sessions” at local clubs. One of her most heated jam sessions was documented by Al Monroe of The Chicago Defender in 1948. 

“Of all the jam sessions we’ve witnessed the first real one brought together Gene Ammons of combo fame and Vi Burnside of the Sweethearts of Rhythm at Savoy Sunday night. They stood toe to toe, horn to horn and battled it out to the approval of more than 2000 raving jitterbugs.”

In that same year, she would leave the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to become a bandleader of her own group, the All-Stars. Burnside returned to Lancaster County in 1951 with her band to perform at Maple Grove Ballroom. An advertisement in the Intelligencer Journal promoting the event billed her as “One of the World’s Greatest Saxophonists.” Burnside and the All-Stars went on to tour throughout the country in the 1950s, even sharing the stage with famed saxophonist Charlie Parker.  

A black and white historic photograph of five women and their various instruments. Vi Burnside is in the center of the photo.
Vi “Violet” Burnside (middle center) photographed in 1951 with her band the All Stars. Photo credit: Paul Ressler.

The renowned saxophonist would continue to perform through the decade, with much of her activities documented by The Pittsburgh Courier, which was considered the most widely circulated African American newspaper in the United States. Later in her life, Burnside would write, arrange music, and continue her work with the musicians union in Washington, DC. Burnside died in 1964 at the age of 49. Her final resting place is at Stevens Greenland Cemetery. Vi Burnside’s legacy continues to be persevered and remembered at LancasterHistory’s research center through the Vi Burnside Information File.  Additionally, you can find many recordings and video clips of her time with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm on YouTube.

Romayne Bridgett: Teacher, Mentor, Actor, and Opera Singer 

A black and white historic photograph of Romayne Bridgett standing at a lectern in front of a blackboard.
Romayne Bridgett in the Lancaster Catholic High School yearbook in 1970. Photo credit: Lancaster Catholic High School Yearbook Archive

Romayne F. Bridgett was born on November 26, 1927 in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. She was a well-known and respected teacher, singer, actor, and performer. Bridgett sang a wide range of music, including opera, spirituals, oratorio, musical comedy, and more. She was quoted to have said “about the only thing I haven’t sung is country and rock and roll.” In the late 1940s, she attended Millersville University (Millersville State College at the time). In the 1960s Bridgett worked as a music teacher at Lancaster Catholic High School. She also taught private voice lessons to hundreds of students from her studios in Mount Joy and Lancaster. 

“My mother’s biggest contribution to the arts in Lancaster County was her 40 years of teaching.” – Romana Bridgett 

A photo of a newspaper excerpt about a recent theater performance.
Intelligencer Journal article about Bridgett’s performance as the Wife of Bath in “The Canterbury Tales,” c. 1973.

According to the Lancaster New Era in 1966, Bridgett was a soloist for the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra and Fulton Opera House, performing opera numbers like “Heart Thy Sweet Voice.” Bridgett had a lasting relationship with Fulton. In the 1970s, she performed in a number of plays for the company, which included The Canterbury Tales, The Pilgrims, and The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

According to The Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society’s article “State of the Arts in Lancaster County–1989”, she continued her teaching career into the 1980s directed the choir at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Lancaster. Bridgett passed away in 2011 at the age of 82. Romayne Bridgett has had a lasting impact on Lancaster County’s performing arts community, and will continue to be honored at LancasterHistory with the Romayne Bridgett Information File, which houses many the newspapers that documented her performances, photos of her teaching, and excerpts from her own scrapbooks. 


The Tranells: “Central Pennsylvania’s Version of a Motown Act” 

A black and white historic photograph of five men and one woman.
The Tranells c. 1960s. The photo is featured in LancasterHistory’s Lancaster 250 Collection.

The Tranells were a Lancaster vocal group that formed in the early 1960s. The members included Howard Washington, Chet Stewart, Dave MacPhail, Joan Stewart, Ernie Jamison, and Jim Jackson. Six out of the seven members attended J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster City. According to a Lancaster New Era interview with the band’s founder, Chet Stewart in 1964, the Tranells formed because they wanted something to do after school. Originally named The Phoenicians, the group modeled their sound after the popular crooning and clean-cut style of Motown.

B. Derek Shaw, writer for Lancaster County’s B Magazine stated:

“The group was Central Pennsylvania’s version of a Motown act, with a  spit-and-polish, clean-cut image: well dressed, no smoking or drinking, always polite and never late.”

The group’s twist on the Motown sound came from the combined singles like “Come on Tell Me/The Music Swayed,” which were recorded at the Rainbow Products Studio in Philadelphia. “Come on and Tell Me” found radio success on Lancaster’s WLAN-AM and was an instant hit with the young people of Lancaster. Chet Stewart, speaking with Lancaster News Era in 1964 about the ballad’s potential to succeed, said…

“If we get as much support away from home as we have here in Lancaster, we can’t help but connect with this record. The kids here have been great ever since we started.” 

Photo of a bright red vinyl record with an off-white colored label.
The Tranells’s “Blessed With A Love”/“Take This Heart,” Reissued version. 

“Come and Tell Me” continued to find success throughout the year. According to B. Derek Shaw, writer for B Magazine, the ballad pushed Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” from the top radio spot. The melodic tune, which features lead vocals from Joan Stewart and her brother Chet, propelled the group to local and national fame in Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey. The Tranells even gained a significant following in the United Kingdom. Three years after recording “Come and Tell Me,” the young musicians released their second record “Blessed With A Love” backed with “Take This Heart.” The ballad is considered a rare recording with as few as 100 vinyl copies pressed. In 2005, Lancaster’s X-Bat Record Label reissued the release. LancasterHistory now holds a copy of “Blessed With A Love/Take This Heart” in our Audio-Visual Collection.  

The Hamboners: The Winning Knee-Slapping Quartet 

A black and white historic photograph of four young African American boys with their hands on their knees. They wear identical outfits.
Lancaster’s own “Hamboners” perform on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. 

The Hamboners, sometimes written as “The Ham Boners,” were a quartet that included Joseph Jackson, Warren Hyson, Louis Wilson, and Charles Simms. According to a 1954 article in the Intelligencer Journal, each of the young men had different roles in the group: “Joseph created the lyrics, Lewis and Charlies are the rhythm men who make up the beat, and Warren adds it all together.” Though considered a a rhythm and vocal act by the Sunday News, the group specialized in “Hamboning,” also known as Juba dance, which is the act of slapping, stomping, or patting of the knee, chest, and arms. Hamboning was created by enslaved Black people with roots central Africa and the Caribbean. 

The group grew up in southeast Lancaster’s 7th Ward and attended Edward Hand Middle School. They got their start rehearsing and preforming their hamboning skills for local residents at Crispus Attucks Recreation Center in the 1950s. The quartet would later find success while competing in the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1954. The young men attended the show in New York, winning the talent competition three weeks in a row. Their winning performance was recorded and can be found on YouTube.  

The Importance of the Black Lancastrians in the Arts Display

Each talent featured in this display has a remarkable story to tell. The impact Black performing artists had and continue to have in Lancaster County has yet to be fully explored and honored. Romare Bearden, a 20th century Black collagist and writer, states that “Black art has always existed. It just hasn’t been looked for in the right places.” We hope to continue searching in all the right places, and to work closely with the Lancaster community to discover more about these amazing Lancastrians and their legacies. Stay tuned for what’s next!

Sources Consulted 

From Notes From The Library