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Things that Matter: Lillian Davenport

While traveling from city to city, vaudeville shows often commissioned posters to advertise their acts. This red vaudeville poster, from 1907, was printed in La Crosse. The poster gives the names of the performers, and, in small print, lists the printer, “Life’ogravure, La Crosse Wisconsin.”

Vaudeville shows were a popular form of entertainment from the late 1800s until the mid-1900s. The shows — which featured comedy, music and sometimes even animals — represented a variety of racial and ethnic groups.

La Crosse had a number of vaudeville performers, and one of the most widely known was Lillian Davenport. While she does not appear on this poster, it represents her career, and she would have appeared on her own posters after she joined the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s.

Lillian was born Dec. 8, 1894, in La Crosse. Her grandmother, Clara Virginia Johnson, was born a slave in 1842 in Georgia. Clara was freed in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. After being freed, Lillian’s grandparents moved to the La Crosse area, where she became a renowned chef.

Continuing in Clara’s tradition, Lillian’s mother had a successful catering business, which she ran out of her Vine Street house. In August 1887, both Lillian’s mother and grandmother helped plan La Crosse’s Emancipation Day celebrations.

Lillian grew up in La Crosse with her mother, and she graduated from La Crosse High School in 1913.

Lillian began her vaudeville career in the 1920s. She was the musical director of “Bowman’s Cotton Blossoms,” and it was said she played nearly every instrument in the orchestra. Later, she began performing comedy routines, and she had a many friends at a newspaper, The Chicago Defender, who helped give her career a boost.

Not only was she a performer, she also was an activist. While visiting her mother in 1941, she noticed a large number of La Crosse businesses — including bars and restaurants — had Jim Crow signs posted. She notified Wisconsin’s NAACP, which led to the removal of the signs.

Later in her life, Lillian taught music at a public school in Chicago. She died in Chicago on Sept. 28 1964, and she was buried in La Crosse alongside her family.


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