Sam Lucas’ Funeral and the Approaching War

Published: 27 March 2024

By Paul LaRue
Member, Ohio World War I Centennial Committee
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

Headline Sam Lucas funeral framed

Sam Lucas was a Black Civil War Veteran, and a popular star of stage and screen. Sam Lucas was born with family and ancestral ties to slavery. His funeral was a fascinating harbinger of World War I.

The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry recognizes our nation’s most important films, including many important early films that have become largely forgotten. The 1914 silent film Uncle Toms Cabin features Sam Lucas and is one such film listed on the National Film Registry.

Sam Lucas told two stories of his birth. In his pension and military documents, he stated he was born in Hampshire County, Virginia (located in current day West Virginia). In newspaper articles he stated he was born in Washington Court House, Ohio. His brother stated in his Civil War pension documents that he was born a slave in Hampshire County, Virginia. It is unclear if Lucas was born in slavery. His mother and brother were born in slavery before moving to Ohio. Lucas enlisted in the Union Army a month before the end of the Civil War. Lucas served as a Private in the 5th United States Colored Infantry as an assistant ward master in an Army hospital. Private Lucas was mustered out (honorably discharged) in October 1865.

Sam Lucas headstone

Following his time serving in the Union Army, Lucas returned to his former trade of barber. In 1872 he began his career acting in minstrel shows. During this period Lucas composed several songs. His most famous song was “My Grandfather’s Clock.” In the late 1870s Sam Lucas became the first Black actor cast in the stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Uncle Tom. Lucas would tour the country and travel to England featured in this role.

Sam Lucas performed in several early silent movies. Less than 15 percent of early silent movies still exist. In 1914 Lucas was cast as Uncle Tom in a movie version of the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic. Lucas would be the first Black actor cast to play this role on the screen.

Sam Lucas died on January 10, 1916, and his funeral was held Friday January 14, 1916. Even before Lucas’ death, the war in Europe had impacted Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The August 22,1914 issue of Moving Picture World, a trade publication for theater owners, announced the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The same issue featured “War News” from the Pathe Daily News and George Kleine advertised “European Armies in Action!” War clouds were clearly on the horizon.

Lucas’ funeral was held in the historic Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, Harlem, New York. One of the funeral speakers was Gus Frohman, one of the famous Frohman Brothers, significant theater owners and producers. Lucas had worked with the Frohman Brothers for decades. The three Frohman Brothers, Charles, Daniel, and Gus (Gustave) were Ohio natives. Eight months earlier, Charles Frohman lost his life in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Sam Lucas recalled giving young Charles Frohman haircuts.

There were numerous musical selections at Sam Lucas’ funeral. One selection was by the James Reese Europe’s Orchestra. They played Lucas’ composition of “My Grandfather’s Clock.” Lucas had starred in the Cole and Johnson Broadway production of The Shoo-Fly Regiment. James Reese Europe was the production’s musical director. Later that year James Reese Europe enlisted in the 15th New York, later re-designated the 369th. Lt. Europe would serve as band leader for the famous Harlem Hellfighters Regimental Band. Black Civil War Veterans, members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), served as escorts for Lucas’ funeral procession. Three years later, 200,000 Black World War I Soldiers were returning from France. Some of these soldiers were likely sons and grandsons of these Black Civil War Veterans. Sam Lucas was buried in the soldier section of Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Fifteen months after Sam Lucas’ funeral, America entered World War I. Lucas’ funeral signaled a changing America as it prepared to enter World War I.


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