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26 May 2024

Phil Black (1903 - 1975) female impersonator, ball organizer.

Original version December 2008.

Pittsburgh’s Hill District had been settled in the 1820s when those who could afford it moved out from Pittsburgh’s industrial core.   It became the city’s primary neighborhood for immigrants and other newcomers.  During the Great War, many black migrants came from Alabama and other parts of the South to fill Pittsburgh’s wartime labor shortage. By the 1930s African-Americans constituted a small majority in the area alongside various immigrant communities. Unlike the segregated theatres and nightclubs downtown, those in the Hill District, particularly the jazz clubs, were racially mixed.   The ethnic mix was open to sex/gender diversity in a way not found downtown.  Some female impersonators like Gilda lived as female off-stage as well as on, and as such visited hairdressers and attended church - Purcell and Coco sang as such in church choirs.  Grantmyer writes 

“female impersonators carved out a space for themselves in the Hill by performing in local nightclubs; by being themselves as they meandered down the neighborhood’s streets, shopped in its stores and drank in its bars; and by forging personal relationships that helped transcend stereotypes”.

Phil Black was born in Sharpsburg, 5 miles/8 km northeast of Pittsburgh. In 1924, 21 years-old and dressed as female, he went to Cake Walks with a buddy and they won first prize as the best couple. Friends told him that he was as good as the professional female impersonators. As such he started with bookings in the Pittsburgh area. He performed for two years at Pittsburgh's Little Paris nightclub, and the at various clubs around the city, and then joined a touring group, the highly popular Shufflin Sam from Alabam, again as a female illusionist.   

For six years from 1927 he played in and around Atlantic City, often as the only colored member of the troupe.

From the mid-1930s he was based in New York City, appearing in Greenwich Village and Harlem. 

Thomas H. Robinson on October 10, 1934, kidnapped Alice Stoll in Louisville, Kentucky and released her unharmed in exchange for $50,000 ransom.  He then went on the run.  A customer at the Harlem nightclub where Phil Black was appearing gave a $10 tip to dance with Black, who immediately realised that the customer was not a cis woman.  She gave the name ‘Jerry’ but when questioned further quickly departed.   Afterwards Black saw a photograph of Robinson in a newspaper and recognised the mysterious customer.

The first drag ball organized by Black was on Thanksgiving Day, 1941.

Performance Card

In 1944 Black played Montréal for four months, and in 1948 was promoting boat rides on the Hudson River. Black made seasonal appearances at the Harlem Club in upstate New York, and in the early 1950s appeared in Washington DC.

Black put on the Funmaker drag balls at the Rockland Palace ballroom located on 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Avenue, where the Hamilton Lodge balls had previously been held.  Anyone who cared to could be in drag, or express their inner self.

Phil Black was interviewed in 1953 in the black community magazine Our World, which emphasized his normality: 

"I don’t join the many parties that take place after some clubs close and I have very little use for alcohol. I have never been married chiefly because of my mother. She has no other means of support and has been living with me for 18 years”

The article also wondered if ‘Phil Black’ was a stage name signifying lover (philia) of black persons.

Black was included in E Carlston Winford’s pioneering 1954 book, Femme Mimics, the first ever collection of photographs of female impersonators.  Perhaps in reply to Our World, Winford wrote of Black: 

“He prefers to use his real name, contrary to the practice of many in this profession who choose a ‘feminine’ stage name”.

In 1956, Leslie Matthews wrote in The New York Age

“There were ladies exhibitionistic belles, unmindful of the night’s chill doffed their minks, beavers and rabbits and gave the hungry sidewalk onlookers a little of what was in store for them if they entered Rockland Palace, Thanksgiving night, where the ‘Funmakers’ were staging their 15th annual extravaganza. The ‘girls’ came from all over (there were two from Mississippi and one from San Diego, Calif.) ‘played’ within the confines of the auditorium…. Everyone was a celebrity. Attired in expensive frocks and gowns the ‘girls’ who disliked being called ‘fags,’ had their faces reshaped to photogenic proportions by new cosmetological techniques.” 

Black had a second job in that a Harlem private detective agency needing a woman to follow husbands in divorce cases, hired Black for the task.

The stage show was both a song and dance routine. Black made his own gowns, but such was his reputation that Josephine Baker in Paris also sent some of hers.  Black's transformation took only 20 minutes, and his reputation was such that tourists to New York, even from Europe made efforts to catch his act.  He was a member of the Negro Actors Guild.

In 1963 a reform group called the Committee for Racial Pride protested the event, citing that drag and homosexuality were blights on the black community, the latter wrought by white people. Black nationalists also picketed the event, their signs posted with the slogan “Rear Admirals Stay downtown” and some of those who came to the ball were harassed. This lead Black to cancel the 1964 event. However that year Black appeared as himself, a stage performer, in an uncredited role in the film The Pawnbroker.

The 1965 event was also cancelled in that Black’s diabetes led to gangrene in his left leg and amputation.  However a prosthetic was fitted and the balls continued. While previously Black had done a song and dance act, now it was simply a song and joke act – in particular the high kicks he had been famous for were now not on.

The balls had lasted from the mid-1940s and, with only the two cancellations, continued until after Stonewall, until his death, and became the standard for the later voguing balls.

*Not the auctioneer, nor the fitness consultant.

·         “Robinson Disguised as Woman: At Least So New York Newspaper Declares in a Copyright Article, Hammond Times, October 15, 1935 (based on article in The Evening Journal, October 14, 1935).  Online.

·         Black, Phil. “I Live in Two Worlds.” Our World, October 1953: 19.

·         “Phil Black” in E Carlton Winford.  Femme Mimics.  Winford Company, 1954.  Online.

·         “Leslie Matthews Unlimited,” The New York Age, December 1, 1956, 4. 

·         ‘Luscious Limpwrist’. “ ‘Les Girls’ had a Ball at Rockland, Honey!” The New York Age, December 7, 1957, 4. 

·         “Phil Black Loses Leg.” New Pittsburgh Courier, 16 Oct, 1965, p. 1

·         “Phil Black’s Annual Valentine Ball!”  Female Impersonators, 2,1969 :12-7.  Online.

·         Tony Gild.  “Tripping the Light Fantastic at the Gay Funmakers Ball”.  National Insider. April 20, 1969.  Online.

·         Avery Willard. “In Memoriam Phil Black 1903-1975”.  Drag, 5, 20, 1975:22.  Online

·         “The Last of the Balls”. Drag, 6, 24, 1975 :10-18. Online.

·         Stephen P Knadler.  “White Dissolution: Homosexualization and Racial Masculinity in White Life Novels” in The Fugitive Race: Minority Writers Resisting Whiteness.  University Press of Mississippi, 2002: 161-3.

·         Jeffrey Callen.  “Gender Crossings: A Neglected History in African American Music” in Sheila Whiteley & Jennifer Rycenga (eds).  Queering the Popular Pitch.  Routledge, 2006: 191-3

·         Laura Grantmyre.  “’They lived their life and they didn't bother anybody’: African American Female Impersonators and Pittsburgh's Hill District, 1920-1960”.  American Quarterly, 63, 4, 2011.

·         Rebekkah Mulholland. Historical Erasure is Violence: The Lives and Experiences of Black Transgender Women and Gender Nonconforming Women of Color in the 19th and 20th Century.  PhD Thesis, University of Memphis, May 2020: 190-205.

·         Elyssa Maxx Goodman,  Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City. Hanover Square Press, 2023: 62–64, 119, 122, 145.

Queer Music Heritage     


Phil Black is not listed as a notable person in the Wikipedia Sharpsburg page.

Gilda in the Hill District is not the same as Guilda in Montréal.  However both took their name from the 1946 film Gilda with Rita Hayworth. 

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