May Irwin’s BULLY SONG

May Irwin's Bully Song

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “May Irwin’s Bully Song”

Composer:  Charles E. Trevathan

Illustrator:  Davenport

Lithographer:  Forbes

Publisher:  The New York Journal

Year & Place:  1896, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music #572 no. 8

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  n0572.8

Basic Description

Full color lithograph of a grotesque man, who is outrageously dressed, carries a razor in one hand, and appears as if walking.  His beady eyes, sagging jowls, and red, everted lips are more simian-like than human.  All of his clothes are ill-fitting: his tiny hat seems almost too petite for his ugly, little head; his broad-striped shirt and polka dot tie literally dwarf his bulging torso; his buttoned up, blue plaid jacket is tightly wrapped around his protruding buttocks; and his pin-striped trousers, dirty white spats, and shoes are baggy, loose-fitting, and rundown, respectively.

Personal Description

One can only imagine what black people in 1896 thought when, after purchasing The New York Journal that April 12 (was it Easter Sunday?), they saw this illustrated supplement.   Although probably accustomed to all sorts of social indignities, many would have found this image especially hurtful, in that it suggested that African Americans were not just socially inept in the ways of fashion and decorum, but constituitively and genetically defective.  The nature of caricature is almost always distortion and ridicule but, in this instance, the picture goes way beyond a light-hearted critique and, instead, proposes, through anatomical and sartorial signs, a physically and mentally unfit race of people.

Reality Check


Philip A. Payton Jr. (1876-1917)

Philip A. Payton Jr. was born February 27, 1876, in Westfield, Massachusetts, the eldest of four children of Philip A. Payton, a barber, and Annie Ryans Payton, a hairdresser.  He attended public schools in Westfield but, in a profile in Booker T. Washington’s 1907 The Negro in Business, Payton admitted to dropping out of high school during his senior year (due to a football injury) and, shortly thereafter, working as a barber.

In 1899 Payton moved to New York City where he had a series of jobs and soon found work as a porter in a real estate office.  In less than a year he decided to start his own real estate business with a partner.  The real estate partnership of Brown & Payton struggled and Brown left during the first year but Payton eventually began to get contracts to manage houses.  In 1903 Payton formed the Afro-American Realty Company, taking advantage of the real estate boom that was occurring in the northern Manhattan community of Harlem.  In 1900 construction began on the subway line extending from New York’s City Hall in lower Manhattan north to 145th Street in Harlem.  Real estate developers like Payton responded by building apartment houses in close proximity to the line.

Philip A. Payton Jr. recognized an opportunity for African Americans in these developments and, in a career that spanned less than twenty years, became known for providing African Americans in New York City with an opportunity to live in quality housing.  As a real estate broker, property manager, and owner, Payton gained a national reputation among African American business leaders during the first decade of the twentieth century.  He died in Allenhurst, New Jersey on August 29, 1917.


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