Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion: Views from the Other Side

By Rosemary Radford Ruether | Go to book overview
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Climbing Jacob’s Ladder
Alma Lillie Hubbard’s Musical Career in
New Orleans, 1900–1932


Alma Lillie Hubbard was born on February 16, 1895, to Miss Lizzie Willis in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. Lizzie Willis was twenty years old and unmarried. Deciding that she could not provide for Alma as a single mother, she wrapped the baby in a blanket, placed her in a wicker basket, carried her to the New Orleans home of her half-sister, Maggie Smith Howard, and left her on the doorstep. From this humble beginning, Alma Lillie Hubbard would carve out a career as a concert artist, creating a path that eventually led to New York City and the Broadway theater. By the age of thirty she had fashioned herself into a black middle-class professional and entertainment entrepreneur and eventually resided at 409 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem’s Sugar Hill district— an apartment building claimed by such American luminaries as Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, and notable musical talent Noble Sissle.1

Hubbard was never a self-made millionaire like black cosmetic entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker or insurance mogul Lena Walker of Richmond, Virginia. But their stories are aberrations rather than norms. Hubbard’s success is part of the more routine, though no less amazing, story of many African American female professionals in the 1920s and 1930s in that she negotiated an economic environment that allowed for modest opportunity and advancement but not for financial stability or independence. As part of the first generation to make it into the middle class, Hubbard had no inherited wealth and few resources to fall back on in times of trouble. Her hold on the middle class was always fragile. For her and for others, gender restrictions and Jim Crow policies constantly undermined their options. Highly valued positions in the dominant economy were often hard to find and even harder to keep. It therefore took more than individual effort for Hubbard to pull herself out of poverty.2


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