Blackface in Brockton

While perusing the archives for old pictures of the McCormick Community Centre, I came across something shocking – 2 pictures of the McCormick Minstrels, one dated December 28, 1916 and the other January 29, 1920.  I was interested to find out the history of this photograph.  What was the minstrel show?

Jump Jim Crow

First on de heel tap, den on the toe
Every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
I wheel about and turn about an do just so,
And every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.

It’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of white people performing in blackface as its history stretches back to before Shakespearean actors performed Othello, but the beginnings of whites performing slave music in North America can be traced to around the 1820s.  Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) “Daddy” Rice popularized blackface with his performance as “Daddy Jim Crow” which was based on a folk trickster persona that was popular among black slaves.  The persona was also inspired by a black crippled slave whom Rice met in St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. He used to sing the traditional slave song “Jump Jim Crow” with a little hop at the end of each verse. Rice took his “Daddy Jim Crow” performance on tour and by 1841 the song became so popular that the U.S. Ambassidor to Central America was played the song as his official welcome in Yucatan, Mexico because the song was actually thought to be the United States national anthem.  The Boston Post wrote, “The two most popular characters in the world at the present are [Queen]Victoria and Jim Crow.”

At this time it was common to see black people mocked as being uneducated, irrational, and lazy.  Rice’s minstrel shows and his stage persona helped to perpetuate this negative and stereotypical view among white audiences.  By 1938, “Jim Crow” became a derogtory term for “Negro” and later in the century when laws were passed for the segregation of African Americans from whites, the laws became known as “Jim Crow laws”.

Researching the minstrel show in Toronto. I read in Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and  Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book The Underground Railroad: Next stop Toronto!  that 45 members of the black community approached city hall in 1840 to ban the minstrel show in Toronto.  At the time they were denied, but 2 years later it passed council that minstrel shows were not to be performed in the city. Nevertheless, the minstrel show’s popularity grew and could not be restrained.

I decided to talk to someone who knew the history of minstrel shows in Canada and Toronto, and I found Cheryl Thompson, Ph D., an expert on the subject.  Her essay, “Come One, Come All: Blackface Minstrelsy as a Canadian Tradition and Early Form of Popular Culture,” will be published later this year.

■ – In 1842, Minstrel shows were banned in Toronto.  The photo I found from the local community centre was dated 1920.  Was the ban a reflection of the wishes of the wider community and if so, why did the shows continue past this date? Who was responsible for administering and maintaining these bans and were there repercussions for those who ignored them?

Cheryl Thompson – Yes, there is some evidence to suggest that a group of black Torontonians petitioned the city in the 1840s to forbid travelling circuses and minstrel shows, even though many feared that such protest would incite racist repercussions.  But there is no evidence that minstrel shows were banned. My research of Toronto newspapers reveals the consistent presence of advertisements for professional minstrel shows at theatre houses, and amateur minstrel shows at athletic clubs, high schools, girls and boys’ clubs, and lodges consistently from the 1880s through to the 1930s.

■ – I imagine that with this many children dressed up in blackface that this particular minstrel show had a wide support in the neighbourhood. This wasn’t a small group; this was a well- organized troupe.  In your research, did you come across what material a children’s troupe like this might perform?

CT – Children’s groups often performed minstrel shows. For example, in the 1920s, the Eaton’s Girls Club would frequently entertain audiences with a minstrel show. The minstrel show was so ubiquitous in Toronto that the real question to ask is which group was not holding a minstrel show. Whites, but also other ethnic groups, especially Jews, also performed amateur minstrel shows, such as the Jewish Boys and Girls Club in the 1920s.

■ –  What would have been the appeal of a minstrel show in a community like this? Were the shows’ primary purposes to maintain rigid racial boundaries and reinforce racial stereotypes? Was there any other reason for using blackface?

CT – Yes, maintaining rigid racial boundaries and reinforcing racial stereotypes were two primary reasons. It is difficult to speak to intentions or get into the minds of people who put on darkening makeup to appear in performances as supposed black people. Part of the allure was in the mimicry and the distance from black bodies. It was easy to perform these shows in spaces where blacks were absent. Toronto has a long history of de facto segregation, so during the time period of these images, blacks would not have been allowed in spaces where these performances were taking place. These spaces became “safe” white spaces where people could deflect their own subjugation in society by taking on the supposed corporeal features of those deemed to be “less than”… The racial implications of blackface are interconnected with issues related to immigration, a sentimental remembrance for black enslavement, and access to employment.

■ – In some ways, Canadian cities were a haven for Black people escaping slavery in the 19th century, but with the Jim Crow laws passed in the United States at the end of that century, I imagine that some of that racial tension would have been felt in Canada too.  Can you descibe what a Black person’s experience of Toronto after the WWI would have been like?

CT – Before and after WWI, Canada’s federal government implemented racist immigration policies that in not so many words aimed to “keep Canada white.” Blacks, especially African Americans, were overtly named as unwanted immigrants. There are even images of military troops from WWI performing blackface shows overseas during the war. The early twentieth century can be remembered as a time where the principles of eugenics were widespread. Eugenics was a form of social Darwinism which stated that the white Anglo-Saxon race (men, specifically) was superior to all other races and that they, and only they, had the right to teach, build, and own. Whiteness was defined by a superiority that was biological and believed to be intrinsic to the white race. Thus, the experience of blacks in Toronto during this time would have been marked by an astute awareness of this widespread belief. At the same time, black Torontonians during this time opened businesses and ran churches; they organized in the 1920s with many joining chapters of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), so there was resistance to the widespread racism of the period. If you look on the city of Toronto archives you will find a panorama photographic of black community members standing outside what is now Old City Hall in the early 1920s.

■ – When did the Minstrel show in Toronto (or Canada) fall out of fashion?

CT – Some would argue that it has never fallen out of fashion, the reason why every Halloween there is another incident where whites wear blackface at a university party. The difference today is that these performance are taking place at elite universities across the country rather than local clubs, and the newspapers are reporting the incidents as a problem, not celebrating how great the show was. In terms of the minstrel show as part of the community, by the 1960s it began to fade away and few clubs would have performed these shows after this period. The civil rights movement and shifting attitudes toward race and immigration had a role to play in changing white attitudes about the shows, which many had previously considered to be “fun.” In the contemporary, young white kids believe that it is OK or not racist to put on blackface to portray Jamaicans or a black rapper whom “they like and admire” because these white kids have no clue about the history of blackface in the United States nor are they aware of its history here in Canada and right in their own local communities. They think it is OK because there is a geographic distance between those whom they are “imitating” and the practice of blackening one’s face. But in fact, there is not. If you look at contemporary blackface, these white students are darkening their skins (meaning, putting on a black makeup that doesn’t even resemble actual black skin) just like whites did a century ago. These kids are mocking black bodies and culture, just like they did a century ago. And just like a century ago, they find enjoyment in the practice. The only difference is that these performances are no longer behind closed doors, they are made public and are viewed by the very blacks that the shows of the past kept away. Will blackface ever go away? Probably not until we take seriously the history of race and racism in Canada.



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