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  • Cleo E. Brown


Updated: May 5, 2022

Peg-Leg was born Clayton Bates at birth. On October 11th, 1907, he was born in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. His parents, Emma Bates and Rufus Stewart were sharecroppers. Clayton wanted to be a dancer, not a sharecropper or a farmer.

Therefore, he performed before his first live audience at five. He performed "Buck Dancing," the same as tap dancing, before an all-white audience at the local barbershop.

Clayton's mother disapproved of him dancing. One day, she went into town, grabbing him by the hand and telling his audience, "You will not make a monkey of my son! Go make a monkey of your own children".

At the age of twelve, Clayton began working in a factory. One day, the electricity went out in the factory. Clayton stepped on a piece of equipment called an auger which chewed up his leg. Unfortunately, the year was 1923, and in the rural south, when no hospital would admit him. Clayton's leg, therefore, was amputated on his mother's kitchen table the next day without an anesthetic.

This tragic incident led Clayton's mother to believe it was a condemnation of her by God for letting her son work in a factory. Additionally, Clayton lost his faith in God. When Clayton was fourteen, his Uncle Witt made him a wooden leg. Clayton taught himself how to tap dance using the makeshift leg from which his nickname "Peg Leg Bates" began.

By the age of fifteen, Clayton was once again proficient enough at dancing to enter amateur talent shows and other dance competitions. From these competitions, he networked his way into professional dancing and worked the International Circuit until 1940.

By the age of twenty, Bates was dancing on Broadway, but due to extreme segregation throughout the United States he was forced to perform in blackface to conceal his being a Negro. He was also not allowed to eat in whites only establishments.

However, later in his career Bates became such an international sensation, performing before royalty and major audiences worldwide that he was able to stop performing in blackface and eat wherever he desired.

By 1940 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bates executes a "Jet Plane" in which he leaps five feet in the air and then summersaults across the stage until he lands on his leg. This routine became his signature performance piece and eventually propelled him to international stardom.

In 1951, Bates bought a country club for African-Americans which he owned and operated until 1987. The club was located in the Catskills Mountains in Kerhonkson, New York. Distinguished guests and performers included Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sydney Potier, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Mel Torme.

In 1987, Bates decided to sell his business after the death of his wife. Additionally, The Civil Rights movement that forced white-owned establishments to accept African-Americans ironically led to a decline in supporting black-owned businesses.

When Bates's health declined, his daughter Melody stepped in to care for him. Eventually, he returned to his hometown of Fountain Inn, South Carolina, until he died on Sunday, December 8th, 1998.

The legendary dancing man was 91 years old when he suddenly collapsed and died while walking home from church on that day. Bate's death was on the same day he received an award at a fundraiser

Bates is famous for saying, "Don't look at me in sympathy for I am glad I am this way...I feel good knocking on wood...for I am Peg-Leg Bates, the one-legged dancing man." Today, streets and monuments are named after him in New York and South Carolina.



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