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Blackface Minstrelsy in Minnesota

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The cover of The Five Star Minstrel Book (Northwestern Press, 1938), which is meant to act as a guide for anyone wanting to organize a blackface minstrel show.

The cover of The Five Star Minstrel Book (Northwestern Press, 1938), which is meant to act as a guide for anyone wanting to organize a blackface minstrel show.

Blackface minstrelsy was born out of New England in the early nineteenth century and reached the peak of its national popularity in the mid-1800s. The performances put on by blackface actors electrified audiences across the country, who were typically white people. Their reception in Minnesota was no different.

Blackface in the US gained popularity sometime between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is often defined as a form of theatrical makeup employed by non-African people, primarily white people, to create a caricature of the appearance of African Americans. In the 1830s these caricatures evolved into full-fledged productions, known as minstrel shows, that combined blackface with comedy, music, variety acts, and dancing.

Notably, the crude, vulgar, and racist humor of blackface minstrelsy spiked in popularity among white audiences in the 1850s, just as the country was in violent racial turmoil and on the verge of civil war. It often depicted enslaved Africans on plantations and characterized them as lazy, unintelligent, hypersexual, and conniving. In the long run, blackface minstrelsy embedded these stereotypes into American popular thought, and by the mid-1800s, it was the most popular form of entertainment in the US. Many scholars and historians assert that blackface minstrelsy was the first original form of popular American entertainment.

Contrary to popular belief, blackface minstrelsy began in the Northern states, and some of its most influential performers and creative minds were born and raised Northerners. Famed songwriter Stephen Foster, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1826, wrote many songs made popular by blackface minstrels, such as “Camptown Races.” George M. Cohan, born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1878, and widely considered the father of American musical comedy, frequently wrote material for minstrel shows.

Often, the white people writing songs and comic monologues for these shows employed what the industry came to call a “negro dialect,” which was more about a deliberately foolish misuse of language than depicting actual nineteenth-century African American Vernacular English. Early blackface minstrel shows depended solely on the imagination of white people, whose skewed perceptions of African American life created blackface characters. Blackface caricatures took many forms; and some of the most common were the “Mammy” figure, the “Uncle Tom,” the “tragic mulatto,” the “sambo” and the “black buck.”

One such example, published by Joseph E. Frank in Minneapolis in 1903, is a song titled “Mammy’s Little Coal Black Coon,” in which an African American mother sings her son to sleep: “Hush-a-bye go to sleep ma baby / Mammy’s little coal black boy / Yes I know youse black and mighty shady / But you am yo mammy’s only joy...” These lyrics reflect how disconnected blackface could be from the Black experience.

The advent of the traveling minstrel troupe allowed this entertainment to move westward. Blackface minstrels toured the same circuits as opera companies and circuses and performed at venues ranging from high-class theaters in emerging cities to small-town tavern stages. Troupes eventually came to Minnesota where, as in the Eastern US, the shows were an instant hit.

At the turn of the twentieth century, blackface minstrel performances were incorporated into vaudeville acts. They frequently featured in some of Minnesota’s most famous theaters, such as the Orpheum (St. Paul), the Pence Opera House (Minneapolis), and the Academy of Music (Minneapolis). Blackface minstrels also made it onto the midway at the Minnesota State Fair. Performances took place across the state, reaching Crookston, Alexandria, and Stephen, but the most famous minstrels performed in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Despite their national popularity, not everyone was a fan of the shows. The prominent African-American-owned and -operated newspaper the Appeal openly criticized not only minstrel shows but the people of color who participated in them. An editorial in the June 12, 1915, edition stated that

The Appeal has always opposed minstrel shows and has recently called attention to the misrepresentations of the colored people, often given in public schools and churches by white people. If the colored people … wish to make an effective protest against prejudice breeding programs of every kind, they must stop burlesquing themselves and ‘come clean.'

While blackface minstrelsy was mostly performed by white people, some African Americans and other racial minorities also participated in shows. They came to be known as “colored minstrels” and claimed an “authenticity” in their acts that white minstrels could not deliver. Although blatantly racist, this type of performance was initially the only avenue by which racial minorities could make careers for themselves after decades of social and legal exclusion from the entertainment industry. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Jimmy Bland, Billy Kersands, Hattie McDaniel, and Wallace King achieved fame that rivaled white performers'. As the industry branched out of blackface performance, so did the opportunities that people of color could access.

As mentioned by the Appeal, blackface minstrel shows were often hosted in churches and schools, and, frequently, for the purpose of charitable fundraising. Organizations of high esteem such as the Elks Lodge, the American Institute of Banking, the Roosevelt Club, and the Fraternal Order of the Eagles produced well-attended shows.

For example, in 1939, the Louis Agassiz School Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in Minneapolis hired Jessie M. Miller to produce a minstrel show. Miller claimed to specialize in minstrel show productions, and her services helped the Louis Agassiz PTA achieve a net profit of $67.94, effectively earning back more than 100 percent of its investment. In 2020, this amount equals $1,257.85 in net profit.

By the 1930s, as new forms of entertainment like radio began to take center stage, live blackface minstrelsy was less common, but its racist iconography could be seen everywhere—including in Hollywood movies. Caricatures of African Americans were regularly used in advertisements and comic strips in newspapers such as the Minneapolis Journal and the St. Paul Daily News, and they were reminiscent of blackface performers.

Blackface minstrelsy was more than a type of comedy performance; it influenced virtually every aspect of popular American culture, and it was praised as such. One 1926 promotional pamphlet called blackface comedy “clean, wholesome, and rollicking fun.” Another pamphlet, for a St. Paul Elks Lodge minstrel show, had fifteen advertisements for members running for public office in Minnesota, including judges and councilmen, along with “compliments” from St. Paul Mayor Laurence C. Hodgson and a county sheriff. Blackface was socially acceptable across all levels of society.

While the most famous blackface minstrels were men, women frequently participated in productions. Tim McMahon’s Minstrel Maids and Watermelon Girls, an all-female blackface minstrel troupe, starred in a vaudeville production at the Orpheum in 1905 and 1906. They later performed at the Unique Theater in Minneapolis until 1910. A performance at the St. Paul Winter Carnival in 1916 featured fourteen people, five of whom were women, in “Africa costumes.” Minnesota’s famed Judy Garland also performed in blackface for two separate films in the 1930s.

Blackface minstrelsy’s popularity and acceptance fell sharply in the 1950s with the growing influence of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Civil Rights movement. Scholars argue that although much has been done to erase blackface from the public eye, it has not disappeared completely; rather, it has evolved in such a way that it is almost unrecognizable from its original form. Many point to the phenomenon dubbed “blackfishing” as the new blackface, in which individuals, most notably social media influencers, use make-up to appear Black or non-white to gain fame and make money.

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  • Bibliography
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Abramovitch, Seth. “Blackface and Hollywood: From Al Jolson to Judy Garland to Dave Chappelle.” Hollywood Reporter, February 12, 2019.
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/blackface-hollywood-al-jolson-judy-garland-dave-chappelle-1185380

“Adventures of the Duff Family.” St. Paul Daily News, April 8, 1918.

“Adventures of the Duff Family.” St. Paul Daily News, April 9, 1918.

“At The Playhouses.” Sunday Journal (Minneapolis), September 2, 1906.

Charles L. Bartholomew collection
Special Collections, Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis
Description: Editorial cartoons from the early 1900s drawn for the Minneapolis Journal covering all topics, from local to international. Donated by Charles Bartholomew.
https://www.hclib.org/-/media/Hennepin-Library/Programs-and-Services/Finding-aids/A-B/1994-06-Bartholomew-Charles-L.pdf

Collection of Negro minstrel music and songs, 1840–1918
Sheet Music Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: This collection primarily contains sheet music involving black minstrelsy, an indigenous cultural form immensely popular in the United States from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The fifty-five scores in this collection range from the 1840s to 1918 and contain a rich mixture of imagery and language depicting racial stereotypes and parody.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/lb00014.xml

Cooper, Karen. “Minstrelsy in Minnesota: Blackface Wasn’t Only a Southern Problem.” MinnPost, February 8, 2019.
https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2019/02/minstrelsy-in-minnesota-blackface-wasnt-only-a-southern-problem

“Discrimination in Advertising Trade Cards” [primary source set]. Minnesota Digital Library.
https://mndigital.org/projects/primary-source-sets/discrimination-advertising-trade-cards

Elks Lodge no. 59. “Big Minstrel Jubilee: Metropolitan Opera House” [program]. St. Paul, 1924. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society Library as PN1968.U62 S444 1924.

“Entertainments.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 14, 1910.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.

Fisher, Ham. “Joe Palooka.” Faribault Daily News, September 9, 1941.

“Just Boy.” St. Paul Daily News, April 21, 1918.

Marling, Karal Ann. Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1990.

“Married Life.” St. Paul Daily News, April 14, 1918.

“Married Life.” St. Paul Daily News, April 20, 1918.

“McGee Forecasts Lynchings in State.” St. Paul Daily News, April 20, 1918.

McNally, Dennis. On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2014.

“Must Come Clean.” The Appeal, June 12, 1915.

Morris, Wesley. “The Birth of American Music.” 1619 Project (New York Times). Podcast audio, September 6, 2019.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html?action=click&module=audio-series-bar&region=header&pgtype=Article

“Our Daily Movie.” St. Paul Daily News, April 12, 1918.

Pamphlets relating to minstrel shows performed in Minnesota, 1887–
Pamphlet Collection, Minnesota Historical Society Pamphlet, St. Paul
Description: A collection of blackface minstrel show pamphlets handed out at performances in Minnesota between 1887 and the late 1930s.

Rasool, Amira. “Some White Influencers Are Being Accused of ‘Blacfishing,’ Or Using Makeup To Appear Balck.” Teen Vogue, November 16, 2018.
https://www.teenvogue.com/story/blackfish-niggerfish-white-influencers-using-makeup-to-appear-black

Rogin, Michael. “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice.” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 3 (Spring 1992): 417–453.

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying—The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Related Images

The cover of The Five Star Minstrel Book (Northwestern Press, 1938), which is meant to act as a guide for anyone wanting to organize a blackface minstrel show.
The cover of The Five Star Minstrel Book (Northwestern Press, 1938), which is meant to act as a guide for anyone wanting to organize a blackface minstrel show.
Business trade Card for Joseph R. Hofflin, Druggist and Dealer in Patent Medicines featuring the theft of a watermelon, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Created between 1880 and 1910.
Business trade Card for Joseph R. Hofflin, Druggist and Dealer in Patent Medicines featuring the theft of a watermelon, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Created between 1880 and 1910.
Members of a Salvation Army team put on a blackface minstrel show in Stephen, Minnesota, in January and February of 1887.
Members of a Salvation Army team put on a blackface minstrel show in Stephen, Minnesota, in January and February of 1887.
Blackface minstrel sheet music written by Walter Bellam. Published by Joseph E. Frank in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From the Minnesota Historical Society sheet music collection, St. Paul.
Blackface minstrel sheet music written by Walter Bellam. Published by Joseph E. Frank in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From the Minnesota Historical Society sheet music collection, St. Paul.
Sheet music printed by the publishing company of Carlton Pillsbury, a member of the politically and economically influential Pillsbury family. This music was performed by Al Jolsen, George Armstrong, Bobby Carroll, and others.
Sheet music printed by the publishing company of Carlton Pillsbury, a member of the politically and economically influential Pillsbury family. This music was performed by Al Jolsen, George Armstrong, Bobby Carroll, and others.
Page from the Bankers in Burnt Cork pamphlet. This show was a blackface minstrel production organized by the St. Paul chapter of the American Institute of Banking. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Page from the Bankers in Burnt Cork pamphlet. This show was a blackface minstrel production organized by the St. Paul chapter of the American Institute of Banking. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Advertisement in the Bankers in Burnt Cork pamphlet featuring blackface iconography. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Advertisement in the Bankers in Burnt Cork pamphlet featuring blackface iconography. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
A political cartoon by Charles Bartholomew published in the Minneapolis Journal on February 28, 1912.
A political cartoon by Charles Bartholomew published in the Minneapolis Journal on February 28, 1912.
A scene from the movie Birth of a Nation (1915) featuring hooded Ku Klux Klan members surrounding Gus, a Black man portrayed in blackface by actor Walter Long.
A scene from the movie Birth of a Nation (1915) featuring hooded Ku Klux Klan members surrounding Gus, a Black man portrayed in blackface by actor Walter Long.
Participants in an agricultural pageant in Anoka County, Minnesota.
Participants in an agricultural pageant in Anoka County, Minnesota.
Participants in the 1916 St. Paul Winter carnival pose in their "Africa costumes."
Participants in the 1916 St. Paul Winter carnival pose in their "Africa costumes."
Front and back cover spread for a minstrel show featuring a Gold Medal Flour advertisement. This show was held at West High School auditorium in Minneapolis in an effort to raise money for the Fatherless Children of France. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Front and back cover spread for a minstrel show featuring a Gold Medal Flour advertisement. This show was held at West High School auditorium in Minneapolis in an effort to raise money for the Fatherless Children of France. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Cover art of the pamphlet handed out at the charity minstrel show. It features minstrel drawings and a hat advertisement in the form of a minstrel skit. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Cover art of the pamphlet handed out at the charity minstrel show. It features minstrel drawings and a hat advertisement in the form of a minstrel skit. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Five candidates for public office advertise their campaigns in a blackface minstrel show pamphlet. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Five candidates for public office advertise their campaigns in a blackface minstrel show pamphlet. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Cover spread of a pamphlet promoting the fiftieth anniversary of the stage partnership between James McIntrye and Thomas Heath, who were some of the most influential and famous blackface minstrels of their time. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Cover spread of a pamphlet promoting the fiftieth anniversary of the stage partnership between James McIntrye and Thomas Heath, who were some of the most influential and famous blackface minstrels of their time. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Inside spread of a pamphlet promoting the fiftieth anniversary performance by long time stage partners James McIntyre and Thomas Heath. The pamphlet celebrates the longevity of the duo as well as the quality of their blackface minstrel shows. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Inside spread of a pamphlet promoting the fiftieth anniversary performance by long time stage partners James McIntyre and Thomas Heath. The pamphlet celebrates the longevity of the duo as well as the quality of their blackface minstrel shows. From the Minnesota Historical Society pamphlet collection, St. Paul.
Metal windup toy car model of the Fresh Air Taxicab from the radio show Amos 'n Andy, made by Louis Marx and Co. of New York. It features two caricatured men riding in the car, the driver is wearing an orange vest, while the passenger wears a blue jacket and smokes a cigar. Made sometime between 1930 and 1939.
Metal windup toy car model of the Fresh Air Taxicab from the radio show Amos 'n Andy, made by Louis Marx and Co. of New York. It features two caricatured men riding in the car, the driver is wearing an orange vest, while the passenger wears a blue jacket and smokes a cigar. Made sometime between 1930 and 1939.
Inside spread of The Five Star Minstrel Book, describing the iconic details of traditional minstrel-show costume and makeup.
Inside spread of The Five Star Minstrel Book, describing the iconic details of traditional minstrel-show costume and makeup.
University of Minnesota students, and members of the campus Aquatic League, practice a dance number in blackface for the comic water ballet to be performed in the Cooke Hall exhibition pool on Friday night. L to R: Susan Fredrickson of Santa Cruz, California; Trudy Schlek of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Kit Thiele of Madison, Minnesota; and Gerrie Ghent of St. Paul, rehearse a "Licorice Lindy" dance number with canes in Cooke Hall. Originally published in the Minneapolis Tribune, April 14, 1950.
University of Minnesota students, and members of the campus Aquatic League, practice a dance number in blackface for the comic water ballet to be performed in the Cooke Hall exhibition pool on Friday night. L to R: Susan Fredrickson of Santa Cruz, California; Trudy Schlek of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Kit Thiele of Madison, Minnesota; and Gerrie Ghent of St. Paul, rehearse a "Licorice Lindy" dance number with canes in Cooke Hall. Originally published in the Minneapolis Tribune, April 14, 1950.
Participants in a Kiddies Parade, an annual event held during the summer in New Ulm, Minnesota. The children and parents make all of their own costumes and floats.
Participants in a Kiddies Parade, an annual event held during the summer in New Ulm, Minnesota. The children and parents make all of their own costumes and floats.

Turning Point

In the 1960s, the NAACP’s campaign against racist iconography is a success but results in a significant erasure of the history of blackface minstrelsy, leading people to develop misconceptions about its origins, significance, and popularity.

Chronology

1830s

Thomas Dartmouth Rice performs the song “Jump Jim Crow,” which popularizes blackface performance across the country. By 1832, he is headlining a tour of New England with his minstrel act.

1840s

William Henry Lane and Thomas Dilward become the first African Americans to perform as blackface minstrels.

1852

Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

1857

In Scott v. Sanford, popularly known as the “Dred Scott case,” the US Supreme Court rules that African Americans are not citizens and have no right to sue in federal court.

1865

After four years of brutal conflict, the Civil War comes to an end and the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified in December. Slavery is abolished but change is slow to come for freedmen.

1866

At a meeting with abolitionist Frederick Douglass, esteemed suffragist Susan B. Anthony says that she would rather cut off her right hand than work for suffrage for African Americans and not women. She does not acknowledge that these two groups overlap.

1868

A year after its opening, the Pence Opera House in Minneapolis books nationally touring minstrel troupes.

1877

The Reconstruction period that began in 1865 ends, and federal troops are withdrawn from the South. Southern Democrats, most of them Redeemers, begin to legislate Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation and targeted African Americans’ freedom.

1880s

African American officials continue to be elected despite the rise of Jim Crow segregation, but their voter turnout declines as literacy tests and poll taxes effectively disenfranchise most African Americans.

1890s

Noting the rise of lynchings in the decades after the Civil War, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett travels across the county, and eventually around the world, documenting violence against African Americans in hopes of ending its proliferation.

ca. 1900

Pat Chapelle, an African American, founds and organizes the Rabbit’s Foot Company, which became a long-running minstrel and variety troupe. It helps jumpstart the careers of many Black musicians and entertainers.

1910

The first racial housing covenant is recorded in Minneapolis. It states that “premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”

1913

The St. Paul branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) receives its charter. The Minneapolis branch receives its charter the following year.

1915

President Woodrow Wilson hosts a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House. Widely considered the first blockbuster, the film is also considered integral to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

1919

The University of Minnesota Glee Club organizes the “All University Minstrel Show and Post War Jubilee” at the Twin Cities campus in celebration of the end of World War I.

1920

On June 15, a mob of 10,000 white residents in Duluth lynches Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie for the alleged rape of two white women. The NAACP begins an investigation into the lynching soon after.

1927

The Jazz Singer premiers on October 6. It stars Al Jolson, who plays a young Jewish man torn between tradition and pursuing stardom as a blackface minstrel. It was a major success and the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue.

ca. 1930s

Blackface minstrelsy begins to fall out of favor as vaudeville loses popularity to newer forms of entertainment, like radio and talking pictures.

1935

The Dark-Town Minstrels, sponsored by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, perform in Alexandria, Minnesota, at a local high school.

1940s

The NAACP launches a campaign against racial housing covenants in the Twin Cities.

1960s

The success of the Civil Rights movement and the growing influence of the NAACP leads to a sharp decline in blackface and minstrel content in popular culture. While the practice becomes socially taboo, it does not disappear completely.

2013

In an example of the persistence of blackface in public life in the twenty-first century, Non-Muslim St. Paul police officers dress in hijab to mock Somali Target employees.