Peg Leg Bates

fountain inn museum

Peg Leg Bates was born Clayton Bates in Fountain Inn, South Carolina on October 11, 1907, the son of Rufus and Emma Stewart Bates.  By age five, the talented youngster was dancing on the streets of Fountain Inn for pennies and nickels.  At age twelve, he lost of portion of his leg left and two fingers in a cotton gin accident.  When his uncle, Wit, returned from service in World War I to find his nephew leg-less, he made Clayton his first crude “peg leg.”

Bates subsequently taught himself to tap dance with the wooden peg leg.  By the time he was fifteen, Bates again was adept enough at dancing to enter amateur talent shows, working his way up to employment with a performers’ circuit which supplied entertainers to African-American theaters in the United States. By 1928, Bates was living in Harlem in New York City and performing on Broadway.  He was the second African-American to perform at Radio City Music Hall following in the footsteps of Ella Fitzgerald. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 22 times, more than any other entertainer in the history of the show.

He danced in movies with Shirley Temple and had two command performances before the King & Queen of England in 1936 and 1938.  He was part of the first Louis Armstrong tour of Britain in the mid 1950s.  In 1951, he opened the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  At one time, it was the largest African-American owned resort in the country. Bates retired from show business in 1989.  He was awarded the Flo-Bert Award in 1991 for being an outstanding figure in the field of tap dancing.

In December 1998, Bates returned home to accept the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by his home state.  The morning after the award presentation Bates collapsed and died on his way to church on December 6, 1998 at age 91. The citizens of Fountain Inn erected a life-size statue in his memory on the grounds of Fountain Inn City Hall.  Bates was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2005.