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History of Minstrel Shows: Reconstruction - 4

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  • 1865 Brooker and Clayton Minstrel show rose to fame with an all-black cast, claimed that every member of their cast was a former slave
  • 1870 Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels, featuring all-women show in skimpy clothing
  • 1876 Callendar's Minstrels first all-black cast to perform blackface without make-up
  • 1903 Uncle Tom's Cabin 14 minute film made with all white actors in blackface, a dramatic presentation of black life
  • 1910 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded, outspoken against negative portrayals of African Americans
  • 1915 Birth of a Nation, silent film with white actors in blackface, first blockbuster of its time
  • 1918 Birth of a Race made in response to Birth of a Nation

Minstrel PerformerAfter the American Civil War (1861-1865), African-Americans began to fill the roles in blackface minstrelsy first with painted faces and then without.  Though the roles were often degrading, the minstrel shows allowed African-Americans to work on stage and break through some entertainment barriers.  Most of the Minstrel shows moved away from the larger Eastern Cities like New York to the Midwestern United States, the South, and the West. 

Early minstrelsy was not only about race, but also class and region; it was as much anti-Southern as it was anti-black.  There were also black minstrel troupes, comprised largely of African-American men (Brooker and Clayton Minstrel Show, Thomas Dilward, William Henry Lane, Callendar's Minstrels, and Blackbirds) imitating poor and uneducated African-Americans from the south.  However, for the most part, white actors and producers cornered the market until after the Civil War when most moved to the vaudevillian stage.  It is the common belief that these shows were solely made for white audiences at the expense and humiliation of African-American cultural heritage.  However, there were black northern audiences of minstrel shows who were often equally as clueless as their white counterparts of life in southern plantations.  Many formally educated Americans criticized the shows from the beginning due to their derogatory lampoon and distortion of black people and black culture.

Callendar's Minstrels: the first all-black cast to perform blackface without makeup.When African-Americans performed in Blackface minstrel style, producers and audiences expected these performers to use black-stage dialect, dance certain specialized routines and movements.  In 1876, Callendar's Minstrels was the first all-black cast to perform blackface without make-up.  When Black performers took off the blackface make-up and this was an important act in the history of minstrelsy and in stereotypes of black people.  They took off the make up but continued to perform "minstrel" style, which blurred the lines between real black culture and contrived stage black impersonations.  They traveled across America, often where few African-Americans actually lived and perpetuated stereotypes that were developed since the beginning of Minstrelsy. 

Bert Williams in BlackfaceMany African-American performers got their start in black minstrelsy.  Comedian Bert Williams started performing in blackface with a duo act called "The Two Real Coons."  In 1921 Lew Leslie directed, created, and produced Blackbirds, an all black mistrel show reached highest popularity across the United States and Europe in the late 1920s.  Bill Robinson aka "Bojangles" performed in Blackbirds of 1928, Ethel Waters performed in Blackbirds of 1933, and Lena Horne in Blackbirds on 1939.

As African-Americans were making some social gains in America, anger and hatred perpetuated mainly from displaced Southern confederates.  Veterans of the Confederate Army founded the first Ku Klux Klan in 1866 and other white supremacy organizations were created.  In film Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan was portrayed as heroes and Gus (a black man played in blackface by white actor Walter Long) a dangerous rapist who was lynched. This created a new stereotype: "thug" or dangerous black man.  It also produced an impetus for lynching black men accused of crimes or sometimes just for whistling at a white woman.  It is believed that over 3,500 black men were lynched by mobs between the years 1880 and 1951.  The racist organizations made life in the south extremely uncomfortable and dangerous for many black Americans and many chose to move north were they had more opportunities.  This movement is called the Great Migration.

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