Historical Marker #2282, located in Bowling Green, KY (Warren County) honors the adventurous spirit and talented charisma of Black musician and comedian Ernest Hogan.
Ernest Reuben Crowdus Jr. was born on April 17, 1865 in Bowling Green to Reuben and Louisa Crowdus. Reuben Sr. had fought in the Civil War with the 115th US Colored Infantry, and he served as Kentucky’s first Black sheriff throughout the postwar years. The family resided in the Shake Rag neighborhood, a Black community founded in 1802, where Ernest, from a very young age, performed in a local circus with several other boys his age. He earned the title of “The Boneless Man,” as his displays of abnormal flexibility delighted crowds. He never attended school, but these early years of experience would serve as a foundational learning opportunity for a future star.
Ernest took the next step in his career at the age of twelve, joining a traveling actors’ troupe alongside prominent white performers Stuart Robson and William Henry Crane. He played the role of a Black child in performances of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin," a highly popular show at the time, and one that had been transformed by a producer in 1876 with his casting of Black actors. These Black actors quickly and almost universally replaced "Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s" white actors in blackface, marking a turning point that would allow Black performers a space in the entertainment industry.
Ernest remained highly transient as a performer throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, traveling to England as a minstrel with the Frohman brothers, returning to America to once again act in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (this time as Topsy), then performing with a wide array of Black minstrel groups before joining a vaudeville quartet. Sometime during this period of his life, he began going by the last name of Hogan. Across several interviews, he propagated alternating stories to explain his decision—he would claim that Hogan was the name of a judge who had employed his mother, or more simply that “Irish performers were in vogue.”
Already a successful musician, comedian, and actor, Hogan’s career exploded in 1895 and 1896 when he published two songs that would alternatively establish and plague his legacy. First, he wrote “La Pas Ma La,” a piano tune with vocals that was meant to go with a popular couples’ dance he had invented, the “pasmala.” In the sheet music for the song, he dubbed the tune a “rag,” and the rhythm became known as “ragtime,” solidifying Hogan’s reputation as the “Father of Ragtime.”
The next year, he took a tune and some lyrics from an anonymous pianist in Chicago, and published the song “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” While Hogan was no stranger to implementing Black stereotypes in his minstrel shows, this latest song would achieve immense and unexpected popularity, especially among racist whites who devised a slew of other racially offensive songs throughout later years. Hogan would later express dismay at the societal effect that his song had.
Nonetheless, his contributions to Black representation in entertainment were both numerous and profound. Later in his career, he spurned the use of blackface (as even Black performers would further darken their faces and apply red paint to their lips) and popularized a “natural” look for Black performers, helping them reclaim their image from derogatory stereotypes. He shattered longstanding ceilings in the industry by earning $300-$400 a week by the peak of his career in the early 1900s. In 1898, he acted in "Clorindy," or the "Origin of the Cake Walk," the first all-Black created show to hit Broadway, and later wrote and starred in two more wildly successful all-Black musical shows, "Rufus Rastus" and "The Oyster Man" in 1905 and 1907, respectively.
In 1908, Hogan’s health began to fail, resulting in his collapse during two onstage performances of "The Oyster Man." He continued to decline until dying of tuberculosis in 1909, at the young age of forty-four.