December 1991

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates

Dancer

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates is a great American hero. He was born in rural Fountain Inn, South Carolina and raised by his mother, Emma Bates, after his father abandoned them. When he was 12, he lost his left leg after it was mangled in the conveyor belt of a cotton separator at a mill where he was working. With no hospital nearby for Black people, his leg was amputated on the table in his mother’s kitchen. Clayton Bates loved to dance. He started dancing at the age of five. After the mill accident, people said he would never dance again. He started to dance again using two broomsticks under his arm until his uncle, Whitt Stewart, made his peg leg. Within a short time, his peg leg matched the dancing ability of his other leg. Peg Leg and his mother moved to Greenville where he danced at carnivals and county fairs until he was discovered at Greenville Black Liberty Theatre by a New York producer in 1927. By this time, he could leap five feet in the air and perform almost every known tap dance step. He performed at the Lafayette Theatre in New York with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In a brief time Bates was a show-stopper, dancing at the Apollo Theatre, the Cotton Club and resorts and clubs throughout the United States. He gave two command performances before the King and Queen of England. He appeared on television variety shows, including the Ed Sullivan Show on which he appeared 21 times. He toured Europe, South America and Australia. In 1951, Mr. Bates and his wife, Alice, transformed their 60-acre turkey farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York into a resort for African-Americans. For many years of his professional life, he had been denied the opportunity to sleep in hotels at resorts where he performed. He wanted a better life for his people . An extraordinary human being, Peg Leg Bates has never boasted or sought self pity. He grew up in the rural, segregated South. He lost his leg and had no education. Yet he educated himself and became one of the world’s greatest dancers. He never considered himself handicapped. “God showed me what to do with one leg. God blesses us differently.”