MOUNT VERNON -- Whatever the confusions and disconnects that modern technology may cause us, there's no denying that it has made some wonderful things possible for historians.
Today, one can find long-lost information with a few taps of the computer keyboard. Of course, you have to know what keys to tap.
In researching the fascinating story of the Maplehurst murders for a two-part series for History Knox, I was able to discover that the wrongfully accused suspect George Copeland later left Mount Vernon, moved to Los Angeles, got married, and had a child.
And then I lost the trail. (Note: I ended up writing Part One and Part Two of the murder, with a follow-up about the history of George's father, Civil War veteran David Copeland. Click on the highlighted text to go to those stories.)
I'm happy to report that an alert reader with better searching skills than I (but who wishes to remain anonymous) picked up the ball and was able to not only flesh out the picture of Copeland's life in L.A., he even found a photograph of a group of people allowing us to make a reasonable guess about which one is him!
I'd like to share this information, as well as a few more details I shook out along the way.
As described in previous articles, George Copeland worked in various restaurants in Mount Vernon after he was cleared of the murder of Miranda Bricker. But he must have kept busy at something else: singing.
After Copeland's mother Elizabeth died, George left town. Exactly when he left and where he went is not clear, but the July 27, 1915, issue of the Democratic Banner in Mount Vernon tells us this in local social news: “Mr. George Copeland who has been with the Canadian Jubilee Singers through the south and west, is home for a short visit with friends and relatives.”
On April 29, 1916, George marries a woman named Frances Lyons, a musician from Detroit. Perhaps they met while performing in the Canadian Jubilee Singers. But their marriage took place in Pasadena at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Why California?
The paper trail shows us that Elizabeth Copeland's sister, Sarah Ann Wright, moved to California as early as 1888. But that alone may not be why George moved to Los Angeles. Newspaper articles prove that by 1919, George Copeland was a member of Hall's Jubilee Singers. The Oct. 22, 1919 issue of the Santa Cruz Evening News carries an article — with photograph — that describes the group as “a company of talented negro singers experienced in the presentation of jubilee songs.”
“Jubilee songs” is a catch-all term for the vocal repertory popularized in the late 1800s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, first formed at Fisk University in 1871. At that time, white minstrels performing in blackface makeup were the only exposure most whites had to African-American music.
When the Fisk singers started touring the country to raise money for the traditionally black university, audiences were initially startled by the singers' comparatively authentic vocal styles, but they eventually caught on and toured both nationally and overseas.
A number of similar groups singing a mixture of spirituals, plantation work songs, and comical folk songs sprang up. One of the most successful was the Canadian Jubilee Singers. When George Copeland is introduced in the Santa Cruz newspaper article, he is described as being “formerly with the Canadian Jubilees.”
Here, though, Copeland is one of the four men in Hall's Jubilee Singers. Perhaps we can extrapolate from this: The Canadian Jubilee Singers were based in Hamilton, Ontario, just on the other side of Lake Erie, and doubtless toured through central Ohio in the early 1900s. Might it be that George Copeland heard this or a similar group and made it his goal to join them?
Though he is still listed in the Mount Vernon directory through 1915, the Democratic Banner article suggests that he was already extensively touring and just using Mount Vernon as his home base. After his mother passed away, Copeland may have no longer felt that Mount Vernon had much to offer him, and moved to California.
By 1919, he is a member of Hall's Jubilee Singers, a prominent group in the southwestern U.S. at this time. The group was managed by John Hall, who was also the bass singer, and had organized various jubilee groups in the south and Midwest. Perhaps he invited Copeland to move to California after hearing him in the Canadian Jubilee group.
In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Hall is described on Aug. 25, 1918 as offering his group's services to the War Department in Washington, D.C., to perform jubilee songs for “colored” soldiers and improve their lives. The article says that according to Hall, these songs “will have a moral effect upon the soldiers that will discount in a large degree the influence of the 'rag-time' music with which all of the soldiers' camps are said to be flooded.”
An article in 1917 describes him as “Prof. John Hall,” leading his jubilee singers. He seems to have been a very prominent figure.
While it is not known exactly when George Copeland joined the group, by the time of the Santa Cruz article, he is listed as second tenor. William Carr is described as first tenor. Ralph Bilbrew is baritone and also performs dramatic monologues (not surprising since vocal concerts of this period were much more along the lines of what we might today call a variety show, incorporating readings, comedy skits, monologues, and music).
Bilbrew's wife is listed as accompanist to the group and a performer of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the great African-American poet from Dayton, Ohio, whose works were enormously popular with both black and white audiences.
For the next few years, Hall's Jubilee Singers performed widely across southern California and Arizona. And according to surviving newspaper accounts, they were top-notch. The Los Angeles Times (Mar. 2, 1919) said, “There was great applause when they sang.”
The Arizona Republic (Sep. 26, 1919) lists them as sharing a bill of “high-grade entertainments” with the Zoellner String Quartet, the Montague Light Opera Singers, Edward Amherst Ott (lecturer), Adrian M. Newens (monologist), and Brust, The Great Magician.
The Ukiah Dispatch Democrat (Oct. 31, 1919) opines that the only criticism of the Hall Jubilee Singers' show was that it was too short. The San Bernadino County Sun (Jun. 1, 1921) reports a small mishap:
The Hall Jubilee Singers of Los Angeles gave a splendid entertainment at Cypress hall Friday evening. They came out from the city by auto and missed their way and were forced to go back a number of miles, so did not arrive at the hall until 9 o'clock. The hall was filled and it was thought they were not going to put in an appearance and the Senior and Intermediate C.E. societies under whose auspices the concert was given staged an impromptu program until the arrival of the colored troupe.
This tells us that not only were they able to charm an audience even after showing up an hour late, they were also performing to white audiences as well as black ones. One article mentions the songs “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “The Golden Gates,” and “Little David” as being their most popular numbers.
The Santa Ana Register (Dec. 27, 1923) describes the group as having sold “eight solid weeks at Grauman's theater, Los Angeles.” While this venue is not to be confused with Grauman's Chinese Theater (not built until 1926), this slightly earlier movie palace is not to be sneezed at.
Also known as Grauman's Egyptian Theater, it was the site of Hollywood's first gala film premiere: Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood in 1922. The theater sat, at that time, over 1600 people. If Hall's Jubilee Singers could fill that for eight weeks, then they were a hit.
True enough, the accompanist and reciter A.C. Bilbrew went on to a substantial career in the arts of southern California, taking over management of the group, renamed Bilbrew's Jubilee Singers. She also produced pageants and stage dramas, hosted a radio show, and even served as a deputy to the Los Angeles County Supervisor, Kenneth Hahn, at one point.
In 1929 she produced and cast an all-black film, Hearts of Dixie, and also arranged the black singers for Show Boat. A library in southern California is named after her, and her daughter Kitty White also had a successful career, duetting with Elvis Presley in King Creole. Mrs. Bilbrew died in 1992, at the age of 104!
If things had gone differently, perhaps she would have taken the talented George H. Copeland with her into Hollywood history. But, alas, it seems that George's involvement with the singing group ended in 1923.
He turned to performing in live theater, participating in what was probably the West Coast (if not the American) premiere of the cantata A Tale of Old Japan, by the British mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Incidentally, the published preview for this production contains an even more incensed denouncement of ragtime music.
It should be clear by this point that George Copeland was no pop musician. He was moving in sophisticated artistic circles. In another theatrical production, Copeland was described as having a “clear, true tenor,” and was cast in a major role.
So why did he give up touring?
The answer comes retrospectively: George's wife Frances will die young in 1928, but that's still five years off. What her death certificate reveals, however, is that she was stricken with tuberculosis in 1923, and she must have slowly declined until it took her life five years later.
Perhaps George initially stopped touring and tried to perform locally in order to be near his ailing wife. Whatever the case, he does appear to have started getting out and about again within a couple of years, but that is as part of his new job, as a railroad porter. Perhaps he undertook this steady work to support Frances in her illness.
In early November, 1925, Copeland contracted double pneumonia while on the train from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles. George was taken from the train to the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital (yes, our healthcare system was so bad in those days, the railroads maintained their own hospitals) on South Saint Louis Street in L.A.
On Nov. 8, 1925, George H. Copeland died there at the age of 38.
A formal thank you notice was published in a black newspaper, the California Eagle, on Nov. 20: We wish to thank the many friends and especially the members of the AME Church Choir and the Bilbrew Jubilee Singers who so kindly gave talent, time and beautiful floral offerings for their sympathy in our hour of bereavement, in the loss of our dearly beloved George Henry Copeland.
Harry Copeland, brother
Mrs. SA Wright, aunt
Miss AM Muse, cousin
It appears that Frances (who, interestingly, isn't even mentioned in the bereavement notice) returned to Detroit and remarried, but succumbed to tuberculosis in 1928. One wonders if George had an undiagnosed case of TB contracted from his wife.
Their son, George E. Copeland, is listed as living with his uncle Harry in San Francisco in 1930. He disappears in later records and may be the George Copeland who died in 1934 in Sonoma County. If so, he was only 17.
And so we come to the end of George H. Copeland's strange and adventurous but far too brief life. Mistakenly accused of murder at age 18, George rebuilt his life and pursued — with some impressive success — his dreams, becoming part of the African-American cultural explosion that was happening in the United States in general, and in southern California specifically, in the 1920s.
Unfortunately for us, he was just before the wild proliferation of technologies such as motion picture film and records which may well have captured George had he lived just a little longer.
All we are left with are a couple vague, grainy newspaper photographs ... and an amazing story.