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365 Days of Black History

Black History every day of the year!

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26
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory # 22: Oscar Micheaux (Filmmaker)

Via Biography.com

Oscar Micheaux was an African-American filmmaker whose films were a challenge to segregation in both Hollywood and society in general. He wrote, produced and directed more than 45 films from 1919 to 1948.

“Your self image is so powerful, it unwittingly becomes your destiny.”
—Oscar Micheaux

Synopsis

Oscar Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884. He moved to Chicago at age 17, and worked there for five years before moving to South Dakota to farm and write. Micheaux’s experiences as a homesteader served as the subject matter for his novel The Homesteader. In 1919, he produced a film version of the novel, which was the first full-length feature produced by an African American. Micheaux continued to make films for the next three decades, until his death on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Early Life

Oscar Devereaux Micheaux was born on January 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois. The fifth child of former slaves, Micheaux spent the majority of his youth in Great Bend, Kansas, before moving to Chicago at age 17. There, Micheaux found work as a Pullman porter. In 1906, however, the lure of the West overcame him and he purchased land in South Dakota.

For the next eight years, Oscar Micheaux successfully homesteaded among white neighbors and began to write stories. His experiences during this time became the subject of his first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, which he self-published in 1913. Two years later, financial hardships resulting from a regional drought caused Micheaux to lose his land, and he moved to Sioux City, Iowa. There he established his own publishing company, the Western Book and Supply Company. In 1917, he rewrote The Conquest and published it as what is now his best-known novel, The Homesteader. He sold the book door-to-door in small towns, and to the white people with whom he lived and did business.

From Novelist to Filmmaker

Soon after The Homesteader’s publication, Oscar Micheaux was approached by representatives for an African-American film company that wanted to produce a film of the novel. The deal fell through, however, when the company would not agree to let Micheaux direct the film, nor commit to a budget for the film that met his expectations.

On the heels of the failed deal, Micheaux converted his publishing company to the Micheaux Film and Book Company. He sold stock in the company to raise money for his own production of The Homesteader and soon began filming. When he was finished, the film, which filled eight reels, made it the first feature-length film made by an African American. It was released in Chicago in 1919 and was well-received, launching Micheaux’s career as a filmmaker.

A Prolific Career

Micheaux’s films, like other African-American filmmakers’ of the time, were known as “race” films—made by black filmmakers, with an all-black cast, for black audiences. These films were a reaction, and a necessity, to what was then a segregated industry, and a segregated society. However, although Micheaux’s films frequently emulated standard Hollywood genres such as mysteries, gangster films and Westerns, his films not only featured non-stereotyped black characters, they also frequently addressed more controversial issues.

Micheaux’s second film, 1920’s Within Our Gates, was his response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and which was one of the most popular films at the time. Micheaux’s film attempted to challenge that films message by showing that whites were more likely to harm blacks than the other way around.

Over the next three decades of what would prove to be a prolific career, Micheaux would make more than 40 films. He would also accomplish two significant firsts: In 1931, his film The Exile became the first full-length sound feature by an African American, and 1948’s Betrayal, Micheaux’s last film, was the first African American­-produced film to open in white theaters.

Final Years and Legacy

Oscar Micheaux died on March 25, 1951, while on a promotional tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was buried at the Great Bend Cemetery in Great Bend, Kansas, the home of his youth. The inscription on his gravestone reads, “A Man Ahead of His Time.”

For his contributions to film, in 1986, the Directors Guild of America posthumously named Micheaux a recipient of the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award. In 1987, he received a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.

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26
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory # 21: Harlem Hellfighters

Via The Root

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 54: Which regiment of black soldiers returning from Europe after World War I received a hero’s welcome, by blacks and whites alike, in New York City?

Introduction

“Up the wide avenue they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight. In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won. The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.”

So began the three-page spread the New York Tribune ran Feb. 18, 1919, a day after 3,000 veterans of the 369th Infantry (formerly the 15th New York (Colored) Regiment) paraded up from Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street to 145th and Lenox. One of the few black combat regiments in World War I, they’d earned the prestigious Croix de Guerre from the French army under which they’d served for six months of “brave and bitter fighting.” Their nickname they’d received from their German foes: “Hellfighters,” the Harlem Hellfighters.

In their ranks was one of the Great War’s greatest heroes, Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y., who, though riding in a car for the wounded, was so moved by the outpouring he stood up waving the bouquet of flowers he’d been handed. It would take another 77 years for Johnson to receive an official Purple Heart from his own government, but on this day, not even the steel plate in his foot could weigh him down.

It was, the newspapers noted, the first opportunity the City of New York had to greet a full regiment of returning doughboys, black or white. The Chicago Defender put the crowd at 2 million, the New York Tribune at 5 million, with even the New York Times conservatively estimating it at “hundreds of thousands.” “Never have white Americans accorded so heartfelt and hearty a reception to a contingent of their black country-men,” the Tribune continued. And “the ebony warriors” felt it, literally, beneath a hail of chocolate candy, cigarettes and coins raining down on them from open windows up and down the avenues. It would have been hard to miss them, at least according to the New York Times, to whom all the men appeared 7 feet tall.

Yet as rousing as those well-wishers were, the Tribune pointed out, “the greeting the regiment received along Fifth Avenue was to the tumult which greeted it in Harlem as the west wind to a tornado.” After all, 70 percent of the 369th called Harlem home, and their families, friends and neighbors had turned out in full force to thank and welcome those who’d made it back. Eight hundred hadn’t, an absence recalled in the number of handkerchiefs drying wet eyes.

That morning, it had taken four trains and two ferries to transport the black veterans and their white officers from Camp Upton on Long Island to Manhattan, and the parade, kicking off at 11:00 a.m.—an echo of the armistice that had halted the fighting three months before—stretched seven miles long. In his 1845 slave narrative, Frederick Douglass had likened his master to a snake; now a rattlesnake adorned the black veterans’ uniforms—their insignia. On hand to greet them was a host of dignitaries, including the African-American leader Emmett Scott, special adjutant to the secretary of war; William Randolph Hearst; and New York’s popular Irish Catholic governor, Al Smith, who reviewed his Hellfighters from a pair of stands on 60th and 133rd Streets.

In Harlem, the Chicago Defender observed, Feb. 17, 1919, was an unofficial holiday, with black school children granted dismissal by the board of education. A similar greeting—on the same day, in fact—met the returning black veterans of the 370th Infantry (the old Eighth Illinois) in Chicago, Chad L. Williams writes in his 2010 book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. And in the coming months, there would be other celebrations, even in the Jim Crow South, most notably Savannah, Ga., the state that in 1917 and 1918 led the nation in lynchings, according to statistics published by the Tuskegee Institute. It was, to be sure, a singular season, a pause between the end of hostilities abroad and the resumption of hostilities at home in a nation still divided so starkly, so violently, by the color line. Details

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25
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory #20: Bessie Coleman (First Black Female Pilot)

Via PBS

Bessie Coleman, the first African American female pilot, grew up in a cruel world of poverty and discrimination. The year after her birth in Atlanta, Texas, an African American man was tortured and then burned to death in nearby Paris for allegedly raping a five-year-old girl. The incident was not unusual; lynchings were endemic throughout the South. African Americans were essentially barred from voting by literacy tests. They couldn’t ride in railway cars with white people, or use a wide range of public facilities set aside for whites. When young Bessie first went to school at the age of six, it was to a one-room wooden shack, a four-mile walk from her home. Often there wasn’t paper to write on or pencils to write with.

When Coleman turned 23 she headed to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers, hoping to make something of herself. But the Windy City offered little more to an African American woman than did Texas. When Coleman decided she wanted to learn to fly, the double stigma of her race and gender meant that she would have to travel to France to realize her dreams.

It was soldiers returning from World War I with wild tales of flying exploits who first interested Coleman in aviation. She was also spurred on by her brother, who taunted her with claims that French women were superior to African American women because they could fly. In fact, very few American women of any race had pilot’s licenses in 1918. Those who did were predominantly white and wealthy. Every flying school that Coleman approached refused to admit her because she was both black and a woman. On the advice of Robert Abbott, the owner of the “Chicago Defender” and one of the first African American millionaires, Coleman decided to learn to fly in France.

Coleman learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago loop, withdrew the savings she had accumulated from her work as a manicurist and the manager of a chili parlor, and with the additional financial support of Abbott and another African American entrepreneur, she set off for Paris from New York on November 20, 1920. It took Coleman seven months to learn how to fly. The only non-Caucasian student in her class, she was taught in a 27-foot biplane that was known to fail frequently, sometimes in the air. During her training Coleman witnessed a fellow student die in a plane crash, which she described as a “terrible shock” to her nerves. But the accident didn’t deter her: In June 1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot’s license.

When Coleman returned to the U.S. in September 1921, scores of reporters turned out to meet her. The “Air Service News” noted that Coleman had become “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.” She was invited as a guest of honor to attend the all-black musical “Shuffle Along.” The entire audience, including the several hundred whites in the orchestra seats, rose to give the first African American female pilot a standing ovation.

Over the next five years Coleman performed at countless air shows. The first took place on September 3, 1922, in Garden City, Long Island. The “Chicago Defender” publicized the event saying the “wonderful little woman” Bessie Coleman would do “heart thrilling stunts.” According to a reporter from Kansas, as many as 3,000 people, including local dignitaries, attended the event. Over the following years, Coleman used her position of prominence to encourage other African Americans to fly. She also made a point of refusing to perform at locations that wouldn’t admit members of her race.

Coleman took her tragic last flight on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida. Together with a young Texan mechanic called William Wills, Coleman was preparing for an air show that was to have taken place the following day. At 3,500 feet with Wills at the controls, an unsecured wrench somehow got caught in the control gears and the plane unexpectedly plummeted toward earth. Coleman, who wasn’t wearing a seat-belt, fell to her death.

About 10,000 mourners paid their last respects to the first African American woman aviator, filing past her coffin in Chicago South’s Side. Her funeral was attended by several prominent African Americans and it was presided over by Ida B. Wells, an outspoken advocate of equal rights. But despite the massive turnout and the tributes paid to Coleman during the service, several black reporters believed that the scope of Coleman’s accomplishments had never truly been recognized during her lifetime. An editorial in the “Dallas Express” stated, “There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such.”

Coleman has not been forgotten in the decades since her death. For a number of years starting in 1931, black pilots from Chicago instituted an annual fly over of her grave. In 1977 a group of African American women pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. And in 1992 a Chicago City council resolution requested that the U.S. Postal Service issue a Bessie Coleman stamp. The resolution noted that “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude, and her determination to succeed.”

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20
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory #19: Jack Johnson (First Black Heavyweight Champ)

Via Black Past

Jack Johnson, the first African American and first Texan to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, was born the second of six children to Henry and Tiny Johnson in Galveston on March 31, 1878. His parents were former slaves. To help support his family, Jack Johnson left school in the fifth grade to work on the dock in his port city hometown. In the 1890s Johnson began boxing as a teenager in “battles royal” matches where white spectators watched black men fight and at the end of the contest tossed money at the winner.

Johnson turned professional in 1897 but four years later he was arrested and jailed because boxing was at that time a criminal sport in Texas. After his release from jail he left Texas to pursue the title of “Negro” heavyweight boxing champion. Although he made a good living as a boxer, Johnson for six years sought a title fight with the white heavyweight champion, James J. Jeffries. Jeffries denied Johnson and other African American boxers a shot at his title and he retired undefeated in 1904.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s reputation as a skilled ring tactician continued to grow as he defeated both black and white boxers. Finally, in 1908, Johnson fought a white champion Tommy Burns in Australia for $30,000, then the highest purse in boxing history. Johnson knocked out Burns in the 14th round to become the first African American heavyweight champion of the world.

Johnson’s capture of the title initiated a search among white promoters for a “great white hope” to defeat the black champion and reclaim the title for white America. They eventually lured Jim Jeffries out of retirement to face Johnson. On July 4, 1910, in what would be billed as the “Battle of the Century,” Johnson finally fought and beat Jeffries in Reno, Nevada to retain his title. Newspapers warned Johnson and his supporters against gloating over the victory. Nonetheless, scores of African Americans and some whites died as a result of the race rioting that broke out in cities across the nation in response to Johnson’s victory. In fear of more race riots, the Texas legislature banned all films showing the black fighter’s wins over any of his white opponents.

Johnson also attracted considerable condemnation because of his unabashed sexual relationships with numerous white women. In 1913, Johnson fled the United States because federal officials charged him with violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for prostitution, debauchery, or immoral acts.

While in exile in Cuba, Johnson lost his title in 1914 to little known white boxer Jess Willard. Failing to get other matches abroad, Johnson returned to the U.S. in 1920 to surrender to Federal authorities. He was tried and convicted for violation of the Mann Act and sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Ironically, Johnson was appointed athletic director of the prison while still an inmate. Upon his release from prison in 1921, he returned to the ring, participating only in exhibition fights. Promoters never again gave Johnson another title shot.

Jack Johnson married three white women in succession, Etta Duryea, Lucille Cameron, and Irene Pineau, but those unions failed to produce children. On October 6, 1946, after a North Carolina diner denied him service, he stormed out of the business and soon afterwards crashed his car. Johnson died from the impact. He was 68. The Boxing Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Johnson in 1954 and he received the same honor from the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Sources:
Jack Johnson, Jack Johnson is a Dandy (New York: Chelsea House, 1969); Al-Tony Gilmore, “Bad Nigger!” The National Impact of Jack Johnson (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1975); Thomas R. Hietala, The Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002); http://www.pbs.org/unforgivableblackness/about/.

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18
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory # 18: Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Via PBS

Rebecca Crumpler devoted her life to improving health in the black community through research and clinical work. After a full career of helping patients, she published a book designed to help a broader audience of women and children.

Crumpler was born in 1833 and raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania. That aunt, who attended to the health needs of the people near her, was her niece’s first inspiration. In the 1850s, Crumpler worked as a nurse in Massachusetts, where her dedication gained her notice from her supervisors. With their recommendations, she entered the New England Female Medical College in Boston (which later merged with Boston University’s medical school). On graduation day in 1864, Crumpler received a Doctress of Medicine degree.

Dr. Crumpler started a practice as a general practitioner serving many Boston families. When the Civil War ended the following year, she understood the urgent need for medical care among newly freed slaves in the South, and relocated her medical practice to Richmond, Virginia. There her reputation for excellent care and hard work spread quickly. She worked in Richmond’s black community for many years before returning to Boston with her husband, Dr. Arthur Crumpler.

Back in Boston, Crumpler established a practice at 67 Joy Street dedicated to serving women and children, especially through nutrition and preventative medicine. At that time she also began reviewing her journals and research. Hoping to educate the public about health, she wrote a book about her experience. In 1883 a Boston publisher, Cushman, Keating & Company, published her two-volume work, A Book of Medical Discourses. It offered women a reference on how to provide medical care for themselves and their children.

Dr. Crumpler inspired many as a model for breaking barriers, and for dedicating oneself to improving the lives of others.

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17
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory # 17: Lewis Latimer

Via Black Invetor

Lewis Latimer is considered one of the 10 most important Black inventors of all time, not only for the sheer number of inventions created and patents secured but also for the magnitude of importance for his most famous discovery. Latimer was born on September 4, 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His parents were George and Rebecca Latimer, both runaway slaves who migrated to Massachusetts in 1842 from Virginia. George Latimer was captured by his slave owner, who was determined to take him back to Virginia. His situation gained great notoriety, even reaching the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Eventually George was purchased by abolition supporters who set him free.

Lewis served in the United States Navy for the Union during the Civil War, assigned to the U.S.S. Massasoit gunboat and received an honorable discharge on July 3, 1865. After his discharge he sought employment throughout Boston, Massachusetts and eventually gained a position as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby and Gould earning $3.00 each week. After observing Latimer’s ability to sketch patent drawings, he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week. In addition to his newfound success, Latimer found additional happiness when he married Mary Wilson in November of 1873.

In 1874, along with W.C. Brown, Latimer co-invented an improved of a train water closet, a bathroom compartment for railroad trains. Two years later, Latimer would play a part in one of the world’s most important inventions.

In 1876, Latimer was sought out as a draftsman by a teacher for deaf children. The teacher had created a device and wanted Lewis to draft the drawing necessary for a patent application. The teacher was Alexander Graham Bell and the device was the telephone. Working late into the night, Latimer worked hard to finish the patent application, which was submitted on February 14, 1876, just hours before another application was submitted by Elisha Gray for a similar device.

In 1880, after moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut, Latimer was hired as the assistant manager and draftsman for U.S. Electric Lighting Company owned by Hiram Maxim. Maxim was the chief rival to Thomas Edison, the man who invented the electric light bulb. The light was composed of a glass bulb which surrounded a carbon wire filament, generally made of bamboo, paper or thread. When the filament was burned inside of the bulb (which contained almost no air), it became so hot that it actually glowed.

Thus by passing electricity into the bulb, Edison had been able to cause the glowing bright light to emanate within a room. Before this time most lighting was delivered either through candles or through gas lamps or kerosene lanterns. Maxim greatly desired to improve on Edison’s light bulb and focused on the main weakness of Edison’s bulb – their short life span (generally only a few days.) Latimer set out to make a longer lasting bulb.

Latimer devised a way of encasing the filament within an cardboard envelope which prevented the carbon from breaking and thereby provided a much longer life to the bulb and hence made the bulbs less expensive and more efficient. This enabled electric lighting to be installed within homes and throughout streets.

Latimer’s abilities in electric lighting became well known and soon he was sought after to continue to improve on incandescent lighting as well as arc lighting. Eventually, as more major cities began wiring their streets for electric lighting, Latimer was dispatched to lead the planning team. He helped to install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, New York City and Montreal and oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government building and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England and London.

In 1890, Latimer, having been hired by Thomas Edison, began working in the legal department of Edison Electric Light Company, serving as the chief draftsman and patent expert. In this capacity he drafted drawings and documents related to Edison patents, inspected plants in search of infringers of Edison’s patents, conducted patent searches and testified in court proceeding on Edison’s behalf. Later that year wrote the worlds most thorough book on electric lighting, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.” Lewis was named one of the charter members of the Edison pioneer, a distinguished group of people deemed responsible for creating the electrical industry. The Edison Electric Lighting would eventually evolve into what is now known as the General Electric Company.
Lewis Latimer – blackinventor.com

Latimer continued to display his creative talents over then next several years. In 1894 he created a safety elevator, a vast improvement on existing elevators. He next received a patent for Locking Racks for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas. The device was used in restaurants, hotels and office buildings, holding items securely and allowing owners of items to keep the from getting misplaced or accidentally taken by others. He next created a improved version of a Book Supporter, used to keep books neatly arranged on shelves.

Latimer next devised a method of making rooms more sanitary and climate controlled. He termed his device an Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting. The device worked wonders in hospitals, preventing dust and particles from circulating within patient rooms and public areas.
Throughout the rest of his life, Latimer continued to try to devise ways of improving everyday living for the public, eventually working in efforts to improve the civil rights of Black citizens within the United States. He also painted portraits and wrote poetry and music for friends and family. Lewis Latimer died on December 11, 1928 and left behind a legacy of achievement and leadership that much of the world owes thanks.

16
Aug

#365DaysofBlackHistory #16: The Black WallStreet of Durham, North Carolina

Via WRAL

Around the turn of the century, the Bull City was a thriving center for African-American business activity.

In the late 1800s, three young visionaries started the first black-owned insurance company. North Carolina Mutual Life set up shop on West Parrish Street.

Charles Blackmon has worked for NC Mutual for nearly 40 years. He’s an expert on the company’s history, a history that goes back to a time when Durham’s West Parrish Street was known nationwide as the “Black Wall Street.”

“There was nowhere else to turn to,” Blackmon says. “We had to develop methods to help ourselves, but that was just part of the bitter struggles that we’ve had to overcome. And it’s not something we’re proud to have overcome, but we’re glad we were able to do so.”

Mechanics and Farmers Bank followed N.C. Mutual’s lead. Before long, a core of businesses owned by African Americans thrived and prospered on Parrish Street.

Despite the segregation and discrimination faced by so many in the early 1900s, blacks in Durham enjoyed the highest per capita income, and the highest rate of home ownership, in the country.

For the first half of the 20th century, the area earned Durham the nickname “the Capital of the Black Middle Class.”

Even though the street is no longer a nationally recognized financial center for the African-American community, many who work here today are well aware of its history and heritage.

Attorney Butch Williams runs a thriving law practice on Parrish Street. He says the founding fathers of the “Black Wall Street,” who came here so many years before him, weren’t bullish on just the Bull City.

“It didn’t just stop in Durham,” Williams says, “it spread its influence all across the United States and it inspired numerous generations of young folk, black and white, as to what you could do pooling your resources.”

The first home of North Carolina Mutual still stands on Parrish Street. The bank houses an exhibit on “The Black Wall Street of America,” which is open to the public.

Location:Heritage Room, 12th floorN.C. Mutual Life411 W. Chapel Hill St.Durham
Hours:Monday – Thursday8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.Friday8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Walk-insare accepted, but scheduled tours are preferred.
For information,call (919) 682-9201.
Mechanics and Farmers Bank is still in its original location, but not for much longer. The bank has just announced it will move to a new building outside the downtown area.

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16
Aug

#365DaysOfBlackHistory #15: Esher Jones was the real Betty Boop

Via PBS

The iconic cartoon character Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer in Harlem. Introduced by cartoonist Max Fleischer in 1930, the caricature of the jazz age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation. Betty Boop is best known for her revealing dress, curvaceous figure, and signature vocals “Boop Oop A Doop!” While there has been controversy over the years, the inspiration has been traced back to Esther Jones who was known as “Baby Esther” and performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s.

Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style of using “boops” and other childlike scat sounds attracted the attention of actress Helen Kane during a performance in the late 1920s. After seeing Baby Esther, Helen Kane adopted her style and began using “boops” in her songs as well. Finding fame early on, Helen Kane often included this “baby style” into her music. When Betty Boop was introduced, Kane promptly sued Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation stating they were using her image and style. However video evidence came to light of Baby Esther performing in a nightclub and the courts ruled against Helen Kane stating she did not have exclusive rights to the “booping” style or image, and that the style, in fact, pre-dated her.

Baby Esther’s “baby style” did little to bring her mainstream fame and she died in relative obscurity but a piece of her lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop.