When you log more than a century of years as Juanita Boisseau Ramseur did, you’ve seen a lot, and I mean a lot, but she was, as Rodgers and Hart wrote, “like sweet seventeen a lot.”
“At eighty and ninety years of age she was still doing the splits,” said actress/singer Jeree Wade during funeral services for Ramseur last Friday at North Presbyterian Church on 155th Street. “Life for her didn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing.”
And swung it did for Ramseur, who joined the ancestors on May 22, two months shy of her 101st birthday. Wade and Ty Stephens, accompanied by pianist/composer Frank Owens, invoked segments of Ramseur’s remarkable career with songs from the musical revue, “Shades of Harlem.”
Stephens was especially effective in his rendition of the ballad “Body and Soul,” including gestures toward Ramseur’s photo at the front of the church and the casket nearby.
Wade, who conceived and directed “Shades of Harlem,” told the attendees that Ramseur began performing in the musical in her seventies and remained with the company for the next score of years.
Born in Baltimore, July 22, 1911, Ramseur was dancing as soon as she took her first steps as a child. Other than a genetic predisposition for the world of entertainment, it was her aunt, Rae Jefferson, deemed the “Songbird of Atlantic City,” who had the greatest impact on her career.
At nine, the untrained Ramseur won a dance contest doing the Charleston and five years later her long professional career was underway in earnest. She was soon in the chorus line at the Cotton Club and by the 1930s she was often on stage with Ethel Waters, the Nicholas Brothers, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, and Lena Horne. In fact, if you look carefully you can see her in Horne’s classic “Stormy Weather.”
“Around 1935, Juanita briefly left the United States for Paris, France and became an ex-patriot along with other colored entertainers of the time as they were treated better and more appreciated among white Europeans,” said her granddaughter Denise Du’Maine, reading from the program and occasionally imitated her grandmother’s rough voice. “Juanita would return to a chorus job at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre where she teamed up with singer George Dewey Washington, and for a time tried her hand at choreography.”
Du’Maine also delivered impressions of her grandmother through song and dance, and if her liturgical dance bore any resemblance to Ramseur’s ability then she was as nimble as she was graceful.
Thanks to her lifelong friend Sylvia Alston, who was in attendance with other notables such as actor Adam Wade and songstress Erica Vaughn, Ramseur was tipped off about the making of the film “Cotton Club” in the early 1980s. She was hired as a consultant but later felt the film didn’t accurately capture the club’s history. “It was a good movie but not true to the way the Cotton Club really was,” Ramseur said in several interviews. “It was more of a gangster movie.”
Though she wasn’t paid for her consultancy, Ramseur was inspired by the experience and that led her back into the circuit with performances in “Shades of Harlem.”
“Marvelous,” was often her response to queries about her health, recounted her cousin Winnie Jefferson. And marvelous was Rev. Christopher Smith’s reflection on Ramseur’s life, weaving his encomium around Scripture from Luke and John.
Toward the end of the services, there were a few thoughtful words from community liaison Leslie Wyche, speaking on behalf of Councilmember Inez Dickens. “Juanita is gone but what we can do is take some portions of her wonderful life and make it our own,” he said.
Along with her granddaughter Denise and her cousin Winnie, Ramseur is survived by her cousin Cassandra Harris, her mother, Thelma Jefferson, a host of nieces and nephews, and her cherished friend Mrs. Inez Yarborough. She was predeceased by her husband, Frederick, in 2000.
She will be interred at Calverton Cemetery in Calverton, New York.