Base­ball Ap­ple pie Black­face

More pho­tos of politi­cians are out there, says cul­tural his­to­rian Rhae Lynn Barnes. Min­strel shows were seen as all-Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment — more re­cently than you think.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Dig­i­talHis­to­ry_ Rhae Lynn Barnes, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can cul­tural his­tory at Prince­ton Univer­sity, is au­thor of the forth­com­ing book “Darkol­ogy: When the Amer­i­can Dream Wore Black­face.”

Both Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark R. Her­ring (D) of Vir­ginia have ad­mit­ted that they wore black­face as stu­dents in the 1980s in im­i­ta­tions of fa­mous African Amer­i­cans. News broke Thurs­day that the Vir­ginia Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader, Tommy Nor­ment (R), was an edi­tor of a 1968 col­lege year­book filled with black­face pho­tos.

Will yet more pho­tos emerge of rowdy black­face frat par­ties and politi­cians’ youth­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion in ama­teur min­strel shows? The an­swer is al­most cer­tainly yes. More politi­cians prob­a­bly took part than we will ever know.

Black­face is as Amer­i­can as the rul­ing class. Through­out the 20th cen­tury, all-male fra­ter­nal or­ders, schools, fed­eral agen­cies and the U.S. mil­i­tary col­lec­tively in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized the prac­tice. Watch­ing black­face per­for­mances was a com­mon pas­time for U.S. pres­i­dents from both par­ties. “Black­ing up” was seen as an ex­pres­sion of cul­tural her­itage and pa­tri­o­tism through­out Jim Crow Amer­ica — an era named af­ter a fa­mous black­face stock char­ac­ter — and up un­til the civil rights move­ment. Even now, one re­cent poll by YouGov found, only 58 per­cent of Amer­i­cans op­pose the prac­tice.

As an ex­pert in the his­tory of ama­teur black­face min­strelsy, I was not sur­prised to see that a young Northam had a photo show­ing a man in black­face and some­one dressed as a Klans­man on his page in the 1984 Eastern Vir­ginia Med­i­cal School year­book. I spent a decade por­ing over black­face com­pos­ites from year­books and fra­ter­nal or­ders, watch­ing cracked film footage, and cat­a­logu­ing more than 10,000 black­face plays — col­lect­ing and pre­serv­ing dis­carded pro­grams, scrap­books, pho­to­graphs and black­face how-to guides from li­brary sales, an­tique auctions and aban­doned boxes out­side fore­closed homes.

The re­ac­tion to the news out of Vir­ginia shows how deeply the his­tory of black­face has been buried, along with the prac­tice. Once cen­tral to Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, min­strelsy be­came taboo af­ter African Amer­i­can ac­tivists fought against it in the 1960s and 1970s. But the truth is that it’s hard to look any­where with­out see­ing its ves­tiges.

Black­face orig­i­nated in North­ern cities in the 1830s, but it quickly be­came pop­u­lar in Vir­ginia. Dan Em­mett, the founder of the first glob­ally fa­mous min­strel troupe hail­ing from New York City, re­branded it as the Vir­ginia Min­strels in 1843 in an at­tempt to claim a plan­ta­tion pedi­gree for black­face mu­sic and dance. Vir­ginia, which had im­ported en­slaved Africans as early as 1619, em­bod­ied the com­plex re­la­tion­ship between black­face en­ter­tain­ment, slav­ery and Amer­i­can cul­ture. The troupe did not just bor­row Vir­ginia’s brand but ac­tively shaped it — its song “Dixie” be­came the un­of­fi­cial Con­fed­er­ate an­them.

The state’s flag­ship univer­sity, the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia (where Her­ring’s per­for­mance took place), em­braced black­face en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, es­pe­cially once the Civil War meant that the school could no longer rely on in­come from hir­ing out en­slaved peo­ple it owned to work on nearby plan­ta­tions. Start­ing dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion, U-Va. made black­face a part of its fundrais­ing strat­egy. In 1886 or 1887, the of­fi­cial Univer­sity Min­strel Troupe do­nated the pro­ceeds of its show to the con­struc­tion of the univer­sity chapel, where cou­ples con­tinue to marry each year. The show, which in­cluded a “stump speech” — a stand-up com­edy rou­tine lam­poon­ing black politi­cians — also fea­tured a “Ber­lesque of Mikado,” prob­a­bly in yel­low­face.

For decades, the U-Va. min­strel troupe “sweetly” sang in “darky di­alect,” as their pro­grams put it, to raise funds. Dur­ing World War I, a univer­sity-spon­sored min­strel show took place on the steps of the Ro­tunda. The school’s year­book is named “Corks and Curls,” min­strel slang for the burned cork used to blacken faces and the curly Afro wigs that were sig­na­ture cos­tume pieces (though the year­book of­fi­cially de­nies that’s where the name came from), and scores of old copies high­light the promi­nence of black­face on cam­pus.

The prac­tice was pop­u­lar be­yond the univer­sity, too. The Ku Klux Klan in Vir­ginia used black­face in raids to con­fuse vic­tims, and the Klan and the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy de­ployed it in com­edy shows to re­cruit mem­bers. In 1924, as Char­lottesville erected its in­fa­mous Robert E. Lee statue, the Char­lottesville Elks ran ads pro­mot­ing their min­strel show and ridi­cul­ing black Amer­i­can sol­diers. The group’s shows fea­tured fic­tion­al­ized black­face slaves and their Klans­man coun­ter­parts — a pair­ing on dis­play in the Northam photo.

As late as 1974, the an­nual Char­lottesville Lions Club min­strel show was still so pop­u­lar, it was rec­om­mended in travel guide­books. In Novem­ber 2002, U-Va. made na­tional head­lines when three stu­dents ar­rived at a Hal­loween fra­ter­nity party in black­face.

Vir­ginia’s en­thu­si­as­tic em­brace of min­strelsy is not unique. Af­ter the Civil War, ama­teur black­face spread quickly in the North and West. Ev­ery­day Amer­i­cans bought com­mer­cially pack­aged “how-to” plays to per­form racial stereo­types at home. By the turn of the 20th cen­tury, pro-Klan movies with black­face scenes such as “The Birth of a Na­tion” were stan­dard con­sumer fare.

Per­haps the big­gest sin­gle or­ga­ni­za­tion be­hind the spread of black­face was founded in 1868 in New York City: the Benev­o­lent and Pro­tec­tive Or­der of Elks (the BPOE or the Elks Club), orig­i­nally called the Jolly Corks and com­monly re­ferred to as “the burnt cork broth­er­hood” in homage to its min­strel founders. (These days, the Elks, like the U-Va. year­book, say the name has noth­ing to do with black­face — though many of the men in­volved in the name’s os­ten­si­ble ori­gin story were fa­mous black­face per­form­ers.) By the mid-20th cen­tury, the Elks Club was the largest fra­ter­nal group in the na­tion. It even­tu­ally be­came a seg­re­gated, all-male, anti-com­mu­nist busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal net­work re­liant on black­face fundrais­ing to fi­nance thou­sands of lodges that served as hubs for po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing, pa­tri­otic so­cial events and civic ed­u­ca­tion.

By the 1960s, the Elks could count Pres­i­dents Warren G. Hard­ing, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, Harry Tru­man, Dwight D. Eisen­hower and John F. Kennedy among their broth­er­hood, not to men- tion numer­ous gen­er­als and sen­a­tors. Other Elks in­cluded pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barry Gold­wa­ter; House speak­ers Tip O’Neill, Carl Al­bert, John McCor­mack, Sam Ray­burn and Tom Fo­ley; Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice Earl Warren; and more than 60 state gov­er­nors.

No politi­cian who was a mem­ber could feign ig­no­rance of the Elks’ strong con­nec­tions to white supremacy, re­in­forced by their vote in 1970 to main­tain their or­der as racially ex­clu­sive. Nor could they be un­aware of the Elks’ use of black­face min­strelsy, since learn­ing that his­tory was part of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ini­ti­a­tion process. And there is no ev­i­dence that any of these politi­cians spoke out against ama­teur black­face min­strel shows within their or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son cel­e­brated his suc­cess at the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence end­ing World War I by en­joy­ing an ama­teur min­strel show aboard the USS Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, where a white crew mem­ber made up in black­face and drag as “Mammy” sat in Wil­son’s lap and threw “her” arms around him while ca­ress­ing his chin. When ama­teur min­strel Ge­orge H. O’Con­nor died in 1946, his obit­u­ary in the New York Times called him the “Min­strel to Pres­i­dents.” O’Con­nor cher­ished a card slipped to him by a waiter af­ter one of these events; Roo­sevelt had writ­ten, “Dear Ge­orge, like old wine, you get bet­ter as the years roll on.” News footage from 1928 shows Pres­i­dent-elect Her­bert Hoover and his wife laugh­ing, clap­ping and shak­ing the hands of U.S. Navy sailors dressed in black­face on­board the USS Mary­land. And in the 1943 mu­si­cal “This Is the Army,” a fresh-faced Ronald Rea­gan helps di­rect an all-Army min­strel num­ber called “Mandy” while in his uni­form, for a fic­tional Roo­sevelt seated in the au­di­ence.

One of clear­est ex­am­ples of the re­la­tion­ship between Amer­i­can politi­cians and ama­teur black­face is the an­nual Grid­iron Din­ner in Wash­ing­ton, which a cen­tury ago might as well have been called the an­nual White House min­strel show. At the Grid­iron Club, Theodore Roo­sevelt beamed when Lew Dock­stader, an Elks min­strel celebrity, shuf­fled on­stage in black­face im­per­son­at­ing an African Amer­i­can from Tuskegee Univer­sity. Newly in­au­gu­rated Pres­i­dent Wil­liam Howard Taft took his fron­trow seat in 1909 at what one news­pa­per hailed as Amer­ica’s “na­tional min­strel show” and an “all-star burnt-cork ag­gre­ga­tion.” Per­haps the most dis­turb­ing show was in 1921, when Pres­i­dent Warren G. Hard­ing and the Cab­i­net got an “un­ex­pected thrill when a Ku Klux Klan demon­stra­tion took place” dur­ing the din­ner, as the Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported it. A “group of clans­men in hooded garb, rid­ing hobby horses, rushed upon the scene. Out went the lights, leav­ing only a spot­light to il­lu­mi­nate the ghostly visi­ta­tion.” They im­per­son­ated a raid. They “seized and dragged the two shiv­er­ing vic­tims to the front” to mock in­ter­ro­gate them on­stage.

Dur­ing Jim Crow’s cen­tury-long reign, this strange, vis­i­ble and highly per­va­sive world of black­face min­strelsy took hold in nearly ev­ery city and town in the United States. Cal­i­for­nia hosted more ama­teur black­face shows per capita than any other state in the post-Civil War pe­riod. The shows and pa­rades were so cen­tral to civic and cam­pus life that it is dif­fi­cult to find a univer­sity year­book from the first half of the 20th cen­tury with­out a black­face im­age.

Ama­teur black­face min­strelsy served the U.S. gov­ern­ment as some­thing akin to an of­fi­cial cul­ture. A child might be re­quired to play a min­strel in school, where cur­ricu­lums de­rived from state guides fea­tured plays and mu­sic se­lected by the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion. As a young man, he might per­form in and watch black­face while serv­ing in the armed forces. (The mil­i­tary was led by prom­i­nent Elks mem­bers, and it taught Amer­i­cans to em­body stereo­typ­i­cal black­ness and trans­mit­ted racist proslav­ery an­te­bel­lum cul­ture in the form of Stephen Fos­ter songs such as “Oh! Su­sanna,” “Camp­town Races” and “Old Folks at Home.” Such gov­ern­ment-spon­sored racism per­sisted in some forms through the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion.) When he re­turned home, he would en­ter a univer­sity — on the G.I. Bill — where black­face was again a rit­u­al­ized cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tion of white man­hood. Fi­nally, as a busi­ness­man, he would join fra­ter­nal or­ders that per­pet­u­ated the cy­cle.

How did this mon­strous, mass-com­mer­cial­ized em­pire of ama­teur black­face min­strelsy end? And why have you never heard about any of this be­fore?

The an­swer has to do with a largely for­got­ten civil rights vic­tory spear­headed by black moth­ers in the 1950s and 1960s. These women, typ­i­cally black Rosie the Rivet­ers mar­ried to vet­er­ans who be­lieved in the “Dou­ble Vic­tory” cam­paign — free­dom at home and abroad — stood on the front lines of school de­seg­re­ga­tion. Once those walls had been breached, they were hor­ri­fied to dis­cover that the mu­sic, po­ems, lit­er­a­ture and plays to which their chil­dren were ex­posed were forms of ama­teur black­face min­strelsy. They ran a na­tional me­dia cam­paign and filed le­gal cases to ban black­face per­for­mance, dress-up, and texts from schools and gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions.

Iron­i­cally, these coura­geous and de­ter­mined moth­ers who en­vi­sioned a bet­ter world for their chil­dren were so suc­cess­ful at driv­ing black­face out of the main­stream that schools now rarely (if ever) teach its his­tory — which is why so many white Amer­i­cans are un­in­formed about how the prac­tice per­sisted and why it is so of­fen­sive and hurt­ful to African Amer­i­cans. It also might sug­gest why we now see black­face hip-hop par­ties on col­lege cam­puses; younger gen­er­a­tions do not un­der­stand the lin­eage they res­ur­rect when don­ning black­face, be­cause it is never dis­cussed in their his­tory classes.

The de­fi­ant re­turn of re­pressed racism in Northam’s year­book spread rep­re­sents only a small shard of a dark, ex­pan­sive and ever-present na­tional story, one that shows how deeply in­ter­twined the his­tory of our coun­try and our po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship has been with ama­teur black­face min­strelsy. Long be­fore the re­cent scan­dals, “black­ing up” helped de­fine for many lead­ing Amer­i­cans what it meant to be a man.


New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, top left, and New York Gov. Al Smith, top right, pose with three judges in black­face at an Elks char­ity min­strel show in 1935.

Min­strel shows like the ones ad­ver­tised in these posters were com­mon na­tion­wide dur­ing the Jim Crow era.


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