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 Pittsburg, 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 disjointed 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 which rivaled that of any white performer. 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, the Fraternal Order of the Eagle, and many more 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.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.