When and Where Was Scott Joplin Born?

By John Tennison, MD            Copyright April 16, 2017

With all of the celebrations of Scott Joplin that have been occurring in 2017, I have seen several published statements recently that address the questions of "when" and "where" Scott Joplin was born. Some recent statements I have read state that Joplin was born "near Texarkana," but with no attempt to clarify what is meant by "near." Another common claim and one for which there is no documented evidence is that Scott Joplin was born "in Linden."

Unless new documents are found, we will probably never know with precision when or where Scott Joplin was born.  However, from a probabilistic standpoint, Joplin seems most likely to have been born near the corridor between Linden, Texas and Texarkana, (Texas or Arkansas).  Scott Joplin was probably born in what is now known as Cass County, but which had previously been known as Davis County.  A "Jiles Joplin" [race not identified in 1867] appears on the August 1867 voter rolls for Davis (later Cass) County in Precint 1.  Interestingly, this same voter registration record claims that Jiles Joplin had been in Precinct 1 of Davis County for 12 years.

In July of 1870, a "Jiles Joplin", identified as black, is show as the head of household in Precint 1 of Davis County, and with a child, Scott Joplin, who is listed as 2 years old, living in the same household.  Thus, Scott Joplin's father appears to have been in Precinct 1 of Cass County both before and after Scott Joplin's birth.  Thus from an "Occam's Razor" analysis, the simplest explanation would be that Scott Joplin was conceived and born in Cass County.  Scott Joplin's mother Florence Joplin and Scott's brother's Monroe and Robert are also shown as living in the same household in Precinct 1 of Davis County on the 1870 Census.

However, based on my discoveries in 2015 of the earliest known references to the word "Texarkana," Scott Joplin could have actually been born in Miller County, Arkansas, which still would have been in the area officially known as "Texarkana" by no later than December of 1856, which was about 11-12 years BEFORE Joplin was born.  Yet, a birth in Miller County, AR, seems less likely than a birth in Davis County, Texas.

Based on the claims of Miriam Fort Gill in 1915, the word "Texarkana" was first publicly and enthusiastically displayed on a sign placed in Bowie County in 1849 within what is now the city-limits of modern-day Texarkana, Texas. Scott Joplin's father might have known the area as Texarkana and might have taught Scott Joplin to use the word "Texarkana" to refer to land in the area of the Arkansas-Texans border between the Red and Sulphur Rivers.

During the Scott Joplin International Centennial Celebration in Texarkana on April 1, 2017, I stated from the stage of the Perot Theatre that musician and historian Jerry Atkins had first learned of Scott Joplin from George Beasley, Sr. in 1956. Moreover, I stated that what Jerry Atkins wrote about Scott Joplin is still relevant today. When I said this, I was making specific reference to what Jerry Atkins wrote in the December, 1977 issue of the Texas Monthly. Here is what Jerry wrote verbatim on page 251 of the Texas Monthly:

"Dick Reavis' attempt to reestablish the birthplace of Scott Joplin is both futile and pointless. We'll never know on which plot of ground he was born, but we know that he lived his early life in Texarkana, conceived many of his musical ideas here, and was educated well enough to enter George Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri. Scott Joplin's second wife, Lottie Stokes, related her memories to our leading ragtime historian in the late forties. She stated his birthdate and birthplace to be November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, Texas.

What is important is that the Texas Historical Marker is placed in the neighborhood where the Joplins lived and where Scott got his musical and academic education. Its wording was carefully selected by the Texas Historical Commission, and I consider it to be accurate. His father's name is spelled exactly as it appears in old Texarkana city directories and as leading ragtime scholars have usually spelled it.

I think we deserve more than a statement that 'it's better that he be honored in Texarkana than no place at all.'

Jerry Atkins

Texarkana Historical Society


Although I have some ideas, I am not certain who Jerry was referring to when he wrote of "our leading ragtime historian."

When I can find the time, I will update this article by addressing further the questions of "when" and "where" Scott Joplin was born.