Minstrelsy's Many Faces

The history and use of “blackface” in the evolution of African American entertainment revealed through rare USF Libraries collection.

Andy Huse of USF Libraries and Simone Sanders look over exhibits included in History of Minstrelsy. Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 10, 2012) – Once meant to attract and amuse audiences, the images are disturbing – ridiculously exaggerated eyes, lips, noses, faces and gestures. 

USF Tampa Library Special & Digital Collections Librarian Andy Huse and undergraduate history major Simone Sanders want people to see them. 

The two curated History of Minstrelsy: From “Jump Jim Crow” to “The Jazz Singer” available online at http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/. 

The individual pieces of sheet music – more than 2,100 pieces are in the Bank of America African-American Musical Heritage Collection catalog – are carefully stored in boxes in Special Collections for on-site viewing in the reading room. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of its kind.

The pieces chosen for the online exhibit tell a story that historians, anthropologists, musicologists, songwriters, singers or anyone interested in the history of race and culture in America would find a true revelation.

“As much as ugliness is revealed, there’s also a lot of beauty,” said Huse.

The contradiction stems from the underlying hateful messages and the creatively triumphant responses to them.

“Contextualizing is very important to do, especially with racially charged stuff like this,” Huse pointed out. “The collection of rare sheet music is not here just for amusement. It’s important to learn what it can teach us about an important part of American history.”

Her “Theory of History” class, taught by Assistant Professor Julia Irwin, brought Sanders to Special Collections in the first place.  When she saw original sheet music and posters featuring minstrel stars of the past, Sanders asked, “What are you going to do with all this?” 

The answer: Huse was in the early stages of planning an exhibition.  She asked if she could help.  The timing was perfect. Sanders was able to set up an independent study project for herself and the two began a very collaborative endeavor.

Huse was struck by Sanders’ work ethic.  “I never had to nudge her like you often have to do with students. I was impressed with what she did and it was a privilege to work with her,” he said. 

There was plenty to tackle.

“It was a process of discovery for both of us. We were connecting dots, discussing, debating and arguing, constantly sending files back and forth,” Huse said.

As they combed through box after box, they each latched onto certain composers, artists and ideas, trying to pick the best of the lot to tell the story of the minstrel era. Some pieces date from as early as the 1830s; many are from the years during and after the Civil War.  The exhibit stops in the 1930s.  The collection has many more recent pieces. 

While Huse provided the overall historical framework and the starting and stopping points for the exhibit, Sanders was free to follow wherever the documents led.

“I don’t think the images surprised me as much as the huge popularity of the music,” she said.  “The fact that it was the most popular music and entertainment in the entire country, especially in the north, was something of a shock. It seemed in a way northerners could participate in the system of slavery without feeling guilty.”

Another contradiction emerged for Sanders.

“These attempts to make African Americans inferior were in truth a dichotomy between admiration and mocking even as it was a form of exploitation,” she said.

African-American herself, Sanders questions the thinking of the first whites who blackened their faces with burnt cork. “If you hate me why are you trying to look like me? They had to get made up to try to dance like these people they claimed to despise.”

She couldn’t help but compare what she saw to the music industry of today. 

“What if every CD cover looked back at you and said that you were inferior, every image looked back in a way that makes one feel belittled and very upset?”

She found it interesting that such imagery served the role of what she describes as “a kind of ‘chicken soup for the soul’ during war and economic crisis,” she said.  “The people who took pleasure in these images could come together and feel empowered,” albeit at the expense of a group of people.  That is, until things started to change.

“Black artists had the sense to ask, ‘why get a cheap imitation when the real performers were a whole lot better,’” Sanders observed. 

Impressed with the artists who emerged from this pivotal chapter in American cultural history, she couldn’t help feeling connected to the faces depicted in the illustrations – such as Blind Tom, Bessie Smith, Bert Williams and other African American composers. The contrast between the photos of elegantly attired and sophisticated-looking Black performers and their undignified precursors is particularly striking. They, and their effect on the free Blacks who lived in the north during that time, captured her imagination.

“The negative images originated from slavery – from people being enslaved – along with the mindsets, on all sides. I think about the pain caused because of this. I felt sadness for anybody who had to see themselves depicted in such a way. When the new performers came along, I felt sad about what they had to go through but also a true respect for them.”

Until the Civil Rights movement engineered the demise of what could be called the blackface industry, quite a few people grew rich trading on the degradation of African Americans as a form of entertainment.  Sheet music, the posters, photographs and other ephemera in the exhibit illustrate the progression from whites in black makeup to African Americans in black makeup all imitating a stereotyped concept of a people.

Although no one knows for sure when and where blackface got its start, one man is known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” the man who created the character Jim Crow in 1830. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice carries that singular distinction.

Years later the Williams and Walker Company would become the first African American blackface minstrel company to bring black musical theater to the attention of a White mainstream audience.

The exhibition notes explain that its existence “contested the cultural ownership of racial representations.”

Huse was startled by the story the materials in the exhibit tell as well.

“On one hand there was the abolitionist angle where they put on shows in blackface to publicize the plight of the slaves,” he noted.  “I didn’t realize how pervasive these images were and how long they stayed in the mainstream.  But most shocking perhaps was how quickly these images disappeared from the mainstream, even though a lot of residue remains that is still active whether performers know it or not.”

Huse doesn’t want this period to be forgotten.

“So much of this is so repulsive but a fact of life that happened only a few generations ago.  To think Judy Garland performed in blackface as a child. That’s how recent.  While I’m surprised it could change so quickly, it’s disturbing that people pretend it never happened.  The value in reminding people, like everything else, is to show how far society has come.  We shouldn’t kid ourselves though.  We’re not so far removed and there are lots of reminders still around.”

The decline in minstrelsy began in the 1930s as African Americans demanded their rights and attitudes began to change. Yet interestingly, sheet music written by Black composers had the pictures of White performers on them – such as Bing Crosby and Sophie Tucker – leaving the authors’ identities hidden.    Huse says the era of minstrelsy set a pattern in motion.

“You would see the process repeat itself over and over again – every single generation,” he pointed out. “Whites flocked to this music written by and about African Americans and White singers would record their songs, do their dances and grow rich. The same thing happens today.”

Thankful to Andy, who she says “encouraged me to be curious,” Sanders discovered a calling.  She spent part of her summer in Louisiana researching the history of two plantations via a Federal Cultural Resource Diversity Internship through the Student Conservation Association – a National Park Service project researching the lives of enslaved people. 

“The Special Collections experience made me want to tell the stories of people who have no voice – the people who saw these images on a day-to-day basis and who never got to say what it made them feel like. The effect wasn’t benign, it wasn’t funny. So now I’m working at a job I’ve never enjoyed so much in my life.”

Huse reminds all who see the exhibition, “It is part of our history and part of American history, part of all of our stories. Minstrelsy in its own weird way did open an avenue to the entertainment we have today. Like all of American history there’s beauty and there’s the kind of twisted stuff.”

Serendipity brought the collection to USF.  In 1988, USF librarian Paul Camp was adding to USF’s sheet music collection and sought out a music dealer named Edith Allen in Michigan.  She ended up selling her entire collection to the university. The sale was made possible by a grant of $45,000 from Bank of America (formerly NationsBank) – $25,000 for the purchase and the rest for an endowment to maintain and enhance the collection.

In addition to the assortment of rare and historic sheet music, the Library’s African American History Collections include the Armwood Family Papers; the papers of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Field Secretary for the Florida NAACP, and his wife Helen; and the Otis R. Anthony African Americans in Florida Oral Histories .  Special Collections also houses the Florida Studies Center Collections, the Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center Collections, the Science Fiction Collections, Children’s and Young Adult Literature Collections, Arts Collections, Literature and Book Arts Collections and the USF Archives. 

Library users are encouraged to visit Special Collections to examine the documents for themselves in addition to accessing the digital collections online.  For more information visit http://www.lib.usf.edu/special-collections/.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.