On February 6, 1842 the very first all Black face review took the stage of the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City. The Virginia Minstrels launched a new theatrical form with their own entirely self-contained shows after brief trials, first for no admission at a billiards parlor, and in January as part of a larger program at the Chatham Theater.
While Black face performers had been popular on stage for at least two decades, they usually appeared as solo or duet acts or occasionally in short comic skits. The new show put the whole cast in Black face and invented most of the conventions that became standard to Minstrel shows.
Dan Emmett, a fiddler, conceived and put together the original four member troupe which also included banjo player Dick Pelham; Billy Whitlock, dancer/comic/tambourine player; and bones player/comic Frank Brower. Whitlock and Bower became the first end men known as Tambo and Bones, who provided the patter and jokes. Emmett acted as masters of ceremonies, a role that would later come to be known as the Interlocutor and be refined as a character aspiring to dignity, but pompous and “putting on airs.” Whitlock also did a Locomotive Lecture, a predecessor to the stump speech, the comic centerpiece of the second act of later Minstrel Shows.
The Minstrels successfully toured for a year and in 1843 their songs were published as The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels. Among the songs the troupe introduced were Jimmie Crack Corn and Turkey in the Straw which would later come to be regarded as genuine American folk songs. They were probably written by Emmett, an accomplished song writer who later published many songs under his own name, most famously Dixie, the biggest hit of 1859. Ironically, Emmett, an ardent Unionist would become distraught when the song became the unofficial Confederate anthem.
The group broke up late in 1844 with each performer going on to other projects, including imitation Minstrel shows that were quickly springing up. They reassembled in England in 1845 and introduced the form to British and Irish audiences in three months of performances. Pelham stayed in England and helped popularize it there.
By the 1850’s Minstrel shows were the most popular form of live theater in America. Dozens of companies toured housed in major cities, and more ragged troupes plied the small towns of the Midwest and South. Casts grew and a number of stock characters were introduced for the comic sketches including the beloved elderly slave Uncle Ned; his wife Mammy (like all women’s parts in the first decades of the Minstrel show played by a man); the Trickster who could fool his master (often left out of Southern shows); Jim Crow a braggart actually modeled on a white stock character of the bragging frontiersman a la Davy Crocket; the dandy Zip Coon; and the Wench or Yeller, a light skinned mulatto or high yellow woman in fashionable white clothing who was the object of lust for both the black characters and the unseen white massas.
All of these characters were performed with exaggerated accents—in fact accents some scholars believe to have been virtually made up but which became so pervasive that they actually influenced Black speech. Characters were given to wild gesturing, lip smacking and eye rolling which was highlighted by the burnt cork make-up. They were seen as ignorant, foolish, vain, lazy, and apt to petty crime, although the Uncle Ned and Mammy characters could be sympathetic for their loyalty to the Massa and his family. The shows established stereotypes which persist to this day.
The most famous and successful Minstrel troupe of this period were the Christie Minstrels which had the good fortune of having Stephen Foster as their principle song writer. Formed by Edwin Pearce Christy this company finished firmly setting the conventions of the Minstrel show, including the division into three acts. The large company, always seated in a semi-circle after entering to a grand promenade, provided the specialty performance in the second act, and actors for the final act, an extended skit often satirizing a classic or popular play.
After Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out, many troupes dedicated the final act to short versions of the book or satires of it. Some were faithful to Stowe and sympathetic to the black characters. Many others turned the characters into the worst stereotypes from the Minstrel show stock company—a development that in the years after the Civil War so obscured Stowe’s original work that many assumed that the derogatory images came from her work. The shows became known as Tom Shows. This image tarred the reputation of the book and its author with emerging Black empowerment critics who turned Uncle Tom into an epithet.
Despite what seems to us today to be overt racism, the shows were popular with black audiences as well as with whites. At least blacks could see themselves—or caricatures of themselves on stage. At least they were not invisible. It has been compared to the later phenomena of the immigrant Irish embracing the stock Paddy characters of early Vaudeville with their broad, but unrecognizable brogues, pugnacious aggressiveness, sloppy drunkenness, and the sentimental songs composed for them. In both cases the victims of the stereotyping came to embrace parts of the image and even integrate it into their own culture.
By the 1850’s Blacks were getting into the Minstrel business themselves. A handful in the north even appeared in the white Blackface shows, although they corked their faces in keeping with the tradition.
In 1855 the first known all Black troupes started touring, often touting their “authenticness” in comparison to white troupes. Some of these troupes began to cork only the end men and occasionally the Interlocutor. This was popular with Black audiences, but the same troupes sometimes had to cork the entire cast to satisfy white ones. The Black troupes were also the first to include women minstrels and to give them expanding parts in the shows.
By the 1880’s some of the Black Troupes were as famous as the white ones and producing their own recognized stars. The most famous of these troupes toured under different names ultimately becoming Callender's Consolidated Colored Minstrels. In the 1870 Black troupes began insinuating the first truly genuine Black music into their shows—spirituals known as Jubilees. White companies soon followed.
Black touring companies, who often found their biggest audiences in the South often faced, both prejudice and physical danger. They often could not fine accommodations in town too small for Colored hotels, and were expected to stay in make-up and character while on the street. Mobs sometimes attacked theaters or took pot shot at trains known to be carrying the companies.
While white minstrelsy faded with the rise of vaudeville, Black troupes continued to be popular with Black audiences. In the early 20th Century Black troupes began introducing more authentic Black music into the mix. Among those who performed with or began their careers in Minstrel shows were W. C. Handy, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee and Rufus Thomas. So later Black Minstrel shows played an important part in spreading and popularizing early jazz and blues.
After dominating the American stage for decades Minstrel shows, at least for white audiences, began to lose their appeal to the wider variety of vaudeville. By the early 20’s the last of the professional White troupes had closed.
But the Minstrel show retained a strong nostalgic appeal. Acts based on the first act of the Minstrel shows—when the whole troop is on stage for big musical numbers, became a standard in vaudeville and were regularly featured in the great Broadway reviews like the Ziegfeld Follies where major stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor made their names performing in them. Many of the most famous comic sketches and skits lived on in burlesque with the characters often stripped of their Negro identities or even transformed to other ethnic stenotypes. Amos ‘n Andy, they long running radio and TV hit was based on Minstrel characters.
Jolson brought Black face and Minstrelsy to the very first successful sound feature film The Jazz Singer. Bing Crosby played Edwin Christy in an early bio-pic that was essentially just a parade of Minstrel numbers by Foster. MGM, especially, mined Minstrel shows in many of their patented show-biz musicals. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney did them. Even Fred Astaire did them. This continued up through the studio’s big budget Technicolor extravaganzas of the 1950’s. Almost all of these numbers featured their stars in black face.
By the 1960’s that was impossible on the professional stage, movies, or television even as a historic “recreation.” But Minstrel shows were still licensed and frequently performed by community theaters and by high schools right up to the final decades of the century.
The legacy of the Minstrel show, after the understandable revulsion of the Civil Rights Era, remains debated. If nothing else it is a laboratory for the collision of White and Black and one of the most important formative parts, for better or ill, of an American culture.