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Minstrelsy in Minnesota: Blackface wasn’t only a southern problem

The governor of Virginia faces demands that he resign his office after his past experiences with blackface racism were made public. But know that blackface was never only a southern problem. In the performing arts, Minnesota’s past is filled with racist blackface performances.

Karen Cooper
Karen Cooper
As entertainment in the 19th century, white people told jokes in “Negro dialect,” performing caricatures of black Americans that portrayed black Americans as dangerous, shifty, lazy, and stupid. To us today, these were acts of demeaning hatred. And yet this obvious racism was America’s absolute favorite art form for decades. This was minstrelsy.

Minstrel shows started in New York City in 1843, when four white musicians “blacked up” their faces. Sitting in a line on the stage, they mimicked and mocked black people, dancing and wisecracking between songs. They played banjo, tambourine, bones, and violin, and they called themselves Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels. They weren’t the first entertainers to play as black people to amuse white audiences, but that night they created something that lasted for decades. Before and after the Civil War, in the North and in the South, well into the 20th century, minstrel shows drew their audiences from every strata of society.

Dan Emmett himself brought his traveling minstrel troupe to Minnesota. He was the older brother of Lafayette S. Emmett, the “dignified and aristocratic” first chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Neither of these Emmett brothers was impressed with the other’s choice of career. In 1857, Emmett’s minstrels played in St. Paul on 3rd St. in Irvine Hall. It was said that when Emmett wrote his most famous and now infamous song “Dixie,” he sent a copy to R. C. Munger in St. Paul to get his opinion on its merits. The first time “Dixie” was sung in the West was in the Munger Brothers music store.

Music was a huge part of minstrelsy, of course. Dan Emmett also wrote “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel I Believe,” “Polly Wolly Doodle,” and others. Enduring American songwriter Stephen Foster was on a minstrel show payroll. Think of “Camptown Races,” “Oh Susannah!,” “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” They were written for, or popularized on, the minstrel stage. Other minstrel songs we still know today include “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home?” and “Buffalo Gals.” All of these were played and sung by white people in blackface. For many of us, these are simply American songs, but what does it mean that we still sing them today?

A minstrel show advertisement that ran on page one of the Minneapolis Tribune on Sunday, November 21, 1875.
A minstrel show advertisement that ran on page one of the Minneapolis Tribune on Sunday, November 21, 1875.
It wasn’t just the national traveling troupes who performed minstrel shows. In January 1859, the local “Dakota Serenaders” from Hastings went to Red Wing to perform their stereotypes of black people. One reaction at the time: “Some of their delineations of negro comicalities were excellent.” This was well before the railroads were built in Minnesota, when the state was considered isolated after winter weather closed the Mississippi River to steamboat traffic. Overland travel was difficult and slow, but nothing stopped the spread of minstrelsy.

As minstrel shows adopted a standardized three-part formula of entertainment, the troupes of performers grew larger and the performances more elaborate. And these shows lost nothing of their popularity for many decades after the Civil War. Access to Minnesota audiences increased as Minnesota’s railroads were built in the post-war years. In 1868, within a year of its opening, national touring troupes were playing the Pence Opera House, Minneapolis’ premier performance space. When the more prestigious Academy of Music opened in 1872, it immediately booked minstrel shows. The shows were not known for being “of high character,” and one review, after noting that their “negro eccentricities were new, original, and perfectly irresistable,” nevertheless warned that “all persons who are so constituted as to be unable to appreciate an evening of that kind should be no means attend.”

It’s not that our Minnesota forebears didn’t know that minstrelsy was a racial insult against a whole group of their fellow citizens, it’s that they did it anyway. Minstrel shows and blackface performance popularized profoundly horrible lies about African-American people and these lies are still part of our social fabric today.

This piece is excerpted from the manuscript “The Rowdy History of Minnehaha Falls” by historian Karen Cooper. She blogs at urbancreek.com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 02/08/2019 - 09:56 am.

    Karen, thanks for a well done piece.

    So much for “upper midwest values” that we all hear about.

  2. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 02/08/2019 - 11:49 am.

    I applaud the recent (for some) realization that blackface is wrong, and has been far more widespread than many knew. But I keep wondering: if there had never been the disrespectful and deeply racist blackface performances of the past, and someone today came up with the idea for the first time, and used blackface makeup to portray in a favorable light a rap artist they honestly admire, would that be racist? Or is it just the history of oppression that makes it so?

    These are honest questions, without any hidden agenda, and I am hoping for some enlightenment. I don’t believe I would be offended today by someone portraying my fellow whites in whiteface, even in a pejorative manner, but if whites had a history of being oppressed, rather than being oppressors, I think I would find it deeply offensive.

    So many do not seem to understand how much history matters. Or take it into account, anyway…

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