What followed was nearly a decade of prosperity and popularity for Aida, George, and Bert. The three of them staged musicals and vaudeville shows, always highlighting black actors, singers, and dancers, as well as authentic and heartfelt black stories and music. Praised by critics, they were financially successful at a time when demeaning blackface minstrel shows otherwise ruled the scene.
In a 1905 article in The Colored American Magazine, Aida is quoted as saying, “I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people."
George fell ill in 1908 and Aida left the stage for a few years to care for him. She returned briefly in 1910 as a solo act, and also appeared in drag, taking over her husband’s role in Bandanna Land.
George died in 1911. The following year, Aida took her solo performance on tour for 16 months before returning to New York City where she took on the role of Salome at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre on Broadway. The startling success of this show lead to requests for more, and Aida worked steadily until her sudden and unexpected death from kidney failure at age 34.
The fight for equal rights has many battlefields. Though her life was short and she did not march in the streets or protest Congress, Aida’s contribution to the advancement of her race and gender should not be undervalued.
Frederick Douglass described blackface as, “...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” Blackface was a parody of blackness, performed by white people for white people, allowing them to assert their superiority and therefore justify their racism, both in practice and in thought.
Aida’s talent and grace, paired with her unashamed blackness, challenged the discriminatory foundations of an entire generation of theater.