A blues singer who recorded for Brunswick and Paramount and owned the Green Parrot dancehall, Bastrop-born Hattie Burleson was the queen of Deep Ellum in Dallas in the 1920’s. But on Aug. 20, 1919, she looked headed to prison after shooting to death one of Dallas’ most prominent black citizens, Dallas Express founder and editor William Elisha King.
According to a front page story in the Aug. 22, 1919 Express, Burleson was driven to the house at 2811 Flora Street where King was recuperating from a streetcar fall. “The lady of the house” was preparing lunch while King, 51, and Burleson talked in the other room. “As their conversation became intensed, the woman drew a .38 calibre pistol from her handbag and shot Mr. King in the chest,” it was reported. The 29-year-old Burleson was identified as King’s former secretary who owned a rooming house at 2516 Swiss Avenue on the same block as the Express offices. There also may have been a romantic relationship. In a May 5, 1942 history of the African-American newspaper, Burleson was described as King’s “female admirer,” but there’s no mention that the killer walked.
A recently discovered death certificate indicates that the Hattie C. Burleson who shot King was the future blues singer, who also had the middle initial C. The Express reported that Burleson was from Kaufman County, which is where the singer is buried. Her occupation on the death certificate was “show business.”
That’s the career she pursued with passion after she was exonerated in the homicide of King. It’s unknown why she was acquitted, as an arrest affidavit request for the Dallas Police Department found “no responsive documents to your request.” But we can assume the grand jury sided with a claim of self defense by the woman who stood only four and a half feet tall.
The extent of the King/Burleson relationship is purely conjecture, but a July 31, 1918 story in the Express has King and Burleson participating in the Union Station send-off of 500 black soldiers to WWI. King spoke at the event, flanked by Hattie C. dressed as a Red Cross nurse.
Besides singing on seven sides, copyrighting several songs and running the Parrot, Burleson promoted and performed in “colored” variety shows all over the Texas. While on the road, Burleson would scout singers, dancers and musicians and send the really good ones to Ella B. Moore, whose Park Theater in Deep Ellum hosted the likes of Bessie Smith and Ida Cox. Lillian Glinn of Hillsboro was one of “Madam” Burleson’s proteges.
The famous recording sessions in Dallas in December 1927, conducted by Frank B. Walker of Columbia and featuring the recording debuts of not only Glinn, but Blind Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips, drew two tracks- “Doggone My Good Luck Soul” and “Black Hand Blues”- by a singer named Hattie Hudson, who sounds a lot like Hattie Burleson. A pseudonym for the notorious “slayress” of eight years earlier? Burleson was listed, under her own name, as the writer of those songs and many others recorded at that session. According to research published in Blues Come to Texas by Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, Burleson received $25 per composition. Most likely the biz-savvy Burleson procured the songs, which included Billiken Johnson’s train-mimicking “Interurban Blues,” but didn’t write them.
By the next year, Burleson was recording for Brunswick in Dallas under her own name, including “Dead Lover Blues” and “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues,” backed by Don Albert of San Antonio on trumpet. Four more sides were recorded in Grafton, Wis. two years later for the Paramount label.
William Elisha King’s unsavory death seemed incongruous to the intellectually-uplifting purpose that had guided his life.
Not only the founding publisher of the Southwest’s leading black newspaper, W.E. King was a noted lecturer on the issues of race and politics. Every issue of the Dallas Express contained a photo of “Hon. W.E. King,” with that week’s speaking itinerary. A son of former slaves from Mississippi, King (b. 1866) was a schoolteacher for seven years before starting the Fair Play newspaper, which advocated for Negro rights, in 1889. But that agenda led to threats and he was forced to leave Mississippi.
His first job in Dallas was editing the Western Star religious newspaper. The next year he started the Dallas Bee, then soon changed the name to the Dallas Express. King sold the paper to educator J.P. Starks in 1914, but was kept on as editor. The Dallas Express continued to publish until 1971.