Thursday, November 22, 2007
A Minstrel Show In The Woodpile
Post number 100!
From our vantage point in the early years of the 21st Century, it is difficult to know what to make of the phenomenon of minstrel shows. For most of us, blackface may bring to mind Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, or Amos and Andy. Perhaps we know that minstrel shows were popular entertainment in the 19th century, later replaced in popularity by vaudville. The idea of white people pretending to be African-Americans in order to entertain each other seems slightly ridiculous at best, and more likely obviously racist.
So what does it say about Jamaica Plain at the turn of the 20th century when we learn that minstrel shows were popular fixtures of social organizations at the time? While the travelling minstrel shows of the mid-late 1800s may have past their prime years of success, it seems that the form was still quite popular among amateur groups when it was time to put on the annual show. The Jamaica Club's production in 1898 was "the best ever." Apparently it was a yearly event, playing to a nearly full house at Eliot Hall. From 1900:
"The annual appearance of the minstrel troupe of Jamaica Plain's leading social organization has become one of the social features of the section. Its successes have been so great in the past that the mere announcement of the dates is sufficient to warrant a call for the entire seating capacity of the house, and this year is no exception. As for the show itself, it can be said it has never been exceeded by any of the club's efforts."
In October of 1901, a headline declares
"Fun Behind Black Faces.
Minstrelsy at Columbia Hall by Young Men of Church and Parish of the Blessed Sacrament."
Under the headline we learn:
"There was more than the interest over what might be termed merely a minstrel show, for the participants were giving their time and talent for the benefit of the church of the Blessed Sacrament and parish. Among the many projects under the direction of the progressive clergy there has been the erection of a new school building and steps have been taken toward the construction of a new ediface."
Not to be left out, the next month the young women of Blessed Sacrament followed with their own ladies-only minstrel show, with orchestra selections and songs sung in front of a chorus of "ebonied Roxbury belles."
At the end of the same year, the Jamaica Plain council, Knights of Columbus, put on a minstrel show at Curtis Hall before a large audience. They added a Japanese element, with the host, or interlocutor, playing the part of the Mikado. Still, the stereotypical elements of the standard minstrel show remained, with blackface "end men", "plantation" songs and buck and wing dances.
The next year brought the Jamaica Club back into the news, with the chairman of the board of street commissioners in his initial bow as interlocutor.
Coverage of Jamaica Plain minstrel shows in feature articles is limited to these few years, with allusions to past performances. We don't know from this source when they began, how popular they were across the entire community, or when they went out of fashion. I think we can say that they had a broad popularity, and based on the Globe articles, there was nothing to hide in either putting them on or discussing them. Which, to our modern sensibility, raises the question: what where those people thinking?
No doubt this subject has been examined in detail in historical studies, but in our case we can't go back and ask past Jamaica Plain residents about their attitudes and intentions. Would they argue that it was just good clean fun, with no intention to insult or harm? Would any of those who were not at the shows see them as we do? Without direct evidence from those involved, we just can't say.
What we can say about these shows is that the racism in them was explicit. The best way to show this would be to publish the articles as written, but I've decided to not do so. The language is so obviously offensive that to replicate it now would be to ask for trouble in today's environment. I invite you to go to the Boston Globe archive at the Boston Public Library web site with your library card number, and search for the articles yourself. Seeing the scans of the articles, with the associated drawings, is no less than shocking.
I think I can say that Jamaica Plain was no worse than any other similar community of the time. Minstrel shows were popular across the country, and leading form of entertainment for decades. Presumable, the people who put on these shows, and those who watched and enjoyed them, were not doing so in a conscious effort to harm African-Americans. The nature of the offence seems more subtle, but no less pernicious than that. The lampooning of African -Americans that was the heart of minstrel shows suggest that both performers and audience, if not overtly hostile to black people, certainly didn't take them seriously as human beings. And the latter is no less a crime than the former.
Boston Daily Globe
April 27, 1898
February 23, 1900
October 3, 1901
NOverber 26, 1901
December 31, 1901
February 19, 1902
This article has a postscript. I add it with apprehension, because it is difficult to know what to make of it. The previous articles speak for themselves, but this much later picture, shown below, is more difficult to interpret. It comes from the front page of the Jamaica Plain Citizen, April 16, 1948. The caption reads "These youngsters, all members of Cub 1, participated in the annual Boy Scout Minstrel Show last week presented to a capacity audience in Capen Memorial Hall."
The picture is a poor copy, but it makes the uncomfortable point. Had the minstrel show been defanged by this time, making a simple children's musical show of old South songs (think Way Down Upon the Suwannee River) out of the old racist lampoons? In this case I can add a relevant clue. In previous issues of the Citizen that year, there were respectful articles about a Negro History Week celebration of the time, and the efforts of a "colored" woman to publicize the achievements of black artists. The crude charcterizations of the earlier Boston Globe articles are gone, replaced with what we might describe as the language of "inclusion." If nothing else, this shows that history is messy in its details, and times change in fits and starts.
A final note: in the blackface picture above, I assumed at first glance that there were two women present, playing parts with the boys. The caption revealed that the "girls" were actually boys. In the original minstrel shows, it was common to have women's parts played by men in drag, and the Jamaica Plain men were no different.