A North Carolina Highway Historical Marker soon will recognize an African American woman who revolutionized entertainment as one of the founders of stand-up comedy in the United States.
The marker commemorating the life of Loretta Mary Aiken, who was known as Jackie “Moms” Mabley, will be placed in Brevard near the site of her childhood home Friday, Oct. 20.
Born in 1894, Aiken often took inspiration from her hometown, referring to it as “the greatest place on Earth.” She began entertaining at local church fundraisers where she always “got the funny parts.” At the encouragement of her grandmother Jane, she left home in her teens and joined Black vaudeville Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) where she took her stage name and performed for Black audiences across the country.
Considered to be the first female African American stand-up comedian, Mabley's career spanned six decades. Dressed in her trademark cap, mismatched housecoat, oversized shoes, and toothless smile, Mabley’s character was a frumpy, grandmotherly figure that would “tell you some facts.” She appealed to a broad audience with her captivating storytelling while challenging societal norms. She was approachable and used clever social satire to discuss topics other comics at the time wouldn’t – politics, racism, sexism, ageism, and female sexuality.
Mabley moved to New York City in 1923 where she performed at major venues like Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club, with entertainment legends including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. She also had a residency at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, becoming the first woman to be a headliner as a solo act and was one of the highest-paid performers earning more than $10,000 per week.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she became known to a wider audience, recording more than 20 comedy albums, performing at larger “white” venues, and appearing in film and on television shows like Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show. In 1962, she made history as the first Black woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. She also recorded music, including a cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John” as a tribute to civil rights champions Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy.
She inspired and continues to inspire countless performers, including Joan Rivers, Debbie Allen, Kathy Griffin, and Eddie Murphy. Comedian Whoopi Goldberg cited Mabley as one of her greatest inspirations: “Moms opened a door for women to stand up and be funny, to talk about things as they saw them, and to encourage people to be thoughtful.”
The marker will be dedicated at the corner of West Main and Caldwell streets in Brevard at 5 p.m. A retrospective of Mabley's life will follow at the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center (1/2 mile away) and will include a short video about her career.
For more information about the historical marker, please visit https://ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=P-100.
About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR) manages, promotes, and enhances the things that people love about North Carolina – its diverse arts and culture, rich history, and spectacular natural areas. Through its programs, the department enhances education, stimulates economic development, improves public health, expands accessibility, and strengthens community resiliency.
The department manages over 100 locations across the state, including 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, five science museums, four aquariums, 35 state parks, four recreation areas, dozens of state trails and natural areas, the North Carolina Zoo, the North Carolina Symphony, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, the American Indian Heritage Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Office of State Archaeology, the Highway Historical Markers program, the N.C. Land and Water Fund, and the Natural Heritage Program. For more information, please visit www.ncdcr.gov.