Lena Wilson was born in Charlotte sometime in 1898. A mixed-race child, she was adopted by an African-American family and raised with a brother named Danny.
By 1918, when Lena was just 20, the two put together a musical act and took it on the road. They signed with the Theater Owners Booking Association, a vaudeville circuit for African-American performers in the 1920s and 1930s, and performed in Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Richmond and Louisville, among others. It is worth mentioning that this would have been quite unordinary for an African-American woman from the South at this time.
It was in Louisville that her brother Danny met and later married Edith Goodall, who joined their group. They performed as a popular trio until 1922. Goodall became Edith Wilson and would see much greater success than her sister-in-law, though if only due to longevity. Edith would eventually perform with such acclaimed American jazz royalty as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake and appeared with Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not." Additionally, her likeness became a household item: In the 1940s she became the face on the box of Aunt Jemima Pancake mix and would remain there for several years. Though this was undoubtedly a good career move for Edith at the time, it is worth mentioning that Aunt Jemima did not portray her likeness as the celebrated and elegant entertainer that she'd risen to fame as. Rather, the brand, today owned by the Quaker Oats Company... owned by PepsiCo, used imagery that depicts African-Americans (mostly women) as domestic servants. The classic head scarf, symbolic of the servants of the Antebellum South, noticeably missing from the brand's own history page, was not removed from their imagery and logo until 1989.
Edith Wilson as Aunt Jemima in a 1956 appearance at the Seattle Kiwanis Club Pancake Festival
Edith lived to be 84. Lena did not.
In 1922 she reportedly settled in New York City, where she would begin the second phase of her career as a recording artist. Over the next decade, she was prolific, recording upwards of 30 songs, many of which can be found on Apple Music/iTunes.
During the latter half of the 1920s and throughout much of the 1930s, Lena Wilson was a popular vocalist in the New York nightclub scene. She married another performer during this time, legendary jazz violinist Ralph "Shrimp" Jones.
According to the research of David Aaron Moore of Creative Loafing Charlotte, she died of pneumonia in 1939.
By and large, Lena's personal life remains relatively unknown and cloaked in mystery. Did she have children with Jones? Where is she buried? Are her relatives still in Charlotte? Why did she die so young?
More can be found about Lena on Wikipedia and the Apple Music link above.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
Creative Loafing Charlotte, "The mystery of Lena Wilson," by David Aaron Moore. July 26, 2013.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass