The Blackface Minstrel show is considered to be the first distinctly American theatrical form. A minstrel show is the imitation and often offensive exaggeration of African-American music, culture, vernacular English, physical traits, etc for entertainment.
It's easy to disown minstrelsy as a distressing and unfortunate area of American History. However, the minstrel show is significant to popular entertainment history for a number of reasons:
The first recorded blackface performances can be traced back to the early 1600s in Williams Shakespeare Othello out of necessity; black people were not allowed to perform on stage and had limited rights in Europe. There were blackface performances in America since 1769, when Lewis Hallam, Jr. portrayed a drunken black man in the play, The Padlock. In the 1810's, localized versions of the blackface clown with curly wig and painted face was popular. After the war of 1812, Americans yearned to separate themselves culturally from their European counterparts; however, it was Englishman Charles Matthews who took the first major leaps in minstrelsy.
Charles Matthews is considered to be the father of American Minstrelsy; he toured the southern slave states to create a one-man minstrel show in 1822. Matthews also invented the pun filled "stump speech" after listening to a southern preacher:
Minstrel Stump Speech (1902):
"A Meeting at the Linkiln' Club" (2:14)
Though many would disagree, many minstrel performers claimed that their productions were "authentic" accounts of black southern life and their characters were based on real people. Creator of the plantation dancer character known as Jim Crow, Thomas Rice claimed to have seen a disabled black man dancing in Kentucky. However, it was with the song entitled "Jump Jim Crow " written by Rice in 1828 that truly popularized blackface minstrelsy in the United States:
"Come listen all you gals and boys,
I'm going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow."
--"Jim Crow," a song by
Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice
The song was wildly successful and "Jim Crow" became a euphuism for an African-American--blurring reality and entertainment. Consequently, The Jim Crow Laws (enforced between 1876 and 1965) limited the rights of African-Americans, were named after this song.
Minstrel Performances were often a small part of shows, sometimes warm-up comedy or musical acts. These bawdy shows were considered low-brow and distasteful and many theaters would not allow such performances. However, U.S. economic panic of 1837, high-end theaters started produce minstrel shows as cheap entertainment because the acts were cheap. As the politics of the abolitionist movement surged, the popularity of minstrel shows also grew. Northerner's were curious about southern slave life. Some performances were somewhat sympathetic showing the cruelty of slavery, causing a ban of minstrel shows in some southern counties. Towards the beginning of the Civil War, there was a consorted effort to show Northerners that slaves were happy with their lot in life and were simple people who enjoyed the confines of slavery. The myths of the happy plantation slave, always ready to sing and dance, became more prevalent as the Civil War drew near.
Blackface minstrel shows started as small aspect of entertainment but quickly became full-length shows. The Virginia Minstrels, created by Dan Emmett, were the first to create the first full-length minstrel performance giving audiences an entire evening of entertainment. Their show featured skits, music, and dance and was a success in America and abroad. Other minstrel troupes followed suit.
One troupe in particular, Christy's Minstrels, standardized their performance into three acts. The first act opened with a song then featured wisecracking banter between the straight-man master of ceremonies (interlocutor) and the more comic and silly music performers. This chitchat act later lead to duo-type performances between "Mr. Tambo" (tambourine player) and/or "Mr. Bones" (bones or spoons player). The second act featured a fractured play (often Shakespeare) or a dance performance with a featured guest of high talent like William Henry Lane or John Diamond. The third act usually opened with a pun filled stump speech and a large musical number using all the dancers and musicians. This show pattern can be seen in variety and talk shows to this day, such as the opening monologue, music performances, and banter between the bandleader and the host.
Music was a central aspect of the minstrel show. For many white northerners, the minstrel shows were their only glimpse into black southern slave life, music, food, and culture. Though skewed and unrealistic, the performances brought issues of slavery to the hearts and minds of white Americans. Popular musical instruments such as the banjo, tambourine, and bones (like spoons) taken from Black-American culture were fashionable due to the popularity of minstrel shows. The melody, lyrics, and structure of many songs used in minstrelsy were assimilated from slave spirituals and African-American cultural expression. Some shows, like Ethiopian Serenaders, attempted to keep to clean and inoffensive material. The focus of their show was to feature talent rather than slapstick and bawdy jokes. However, most shows featured grossly distorted characters of African-Americans being stereotyped as lazy, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. Skit and song subjects often featured a grossly inaccurate depiction of slave life and using a humorous view of the mistreatment of slaves. A common song theme featured a runaway or freed slave missing his master.
Dance became an important element of the minstrel show. For example, the cakewalk was a dance invented by slaves imitating the white slave owners. Amused by the dance, slave owners liked this dance and held cakewalk dance competitions, where the winner would win a cake, aka take the cake. These dances were appropriated and exaggerated by minstrel show performers. Later black performers danced the "cakewalk" dance and were told to make in more "authentic" by exaggerating body movements. William Henry Lane, an African American performer and dancer known as "Master Juba", used both African-American dance and Irish-immigrant dance with an emphasis on footwork to create his routines. William Henry Lane and John Diamond, who both worked in multiple minstrel troupes and used dance steps from African, Irish, and English culture had multiple dance-offs in the 1840s. John Diamond, who was white, danced both with and without blackface make-up.
After 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.
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.
Many 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.
The Great Migration of African-Americans moving from southern rural areas to urban areas in the northeast, upper Midwest, and West began around 1910. This movement was due to the increased work opportunities, better education for their children, and to escape racism. By the turn of the century there was a growing black middle and upper class, opening new businesses and property ownership in a neighborhood in New York City known as Harlem. The area became the epicenter to artists, musicians, intellectuals and more during the period known and the Harlem Renaissance a term coined by Alain Locke.
This was also the Jazz Age, and minorities were gaining recognition and social acceptance across the country. Performers in particular were making gains artistically including: Jelly Roll Morton (self proclaimed Originator of Jazz), Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Josephine Baker, Earl Hines, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Nat King Cole, Fats Waller, and many more.
At the same time that many African-Americans were making cultural and capital gains, they continued to face racism and stereotypes in the media. There continued to be records made racist lyrics such as "All Coons Look Alike to Me" by Arthur Collins.
Song: "All Coon Look Alike to Me" (1902)
by Arthur Collins (2:12)
Blackface performances were common feature in vaudeville, but it remained isolated to a skit or a song and did not dominate the entirety of the show. Vaudeville featured a string of entertaining acts including acrobats, animal acts, dancing, songs, magicians, comedy, and other performances. Many period performers got their start in Vaudeville including Al Jolson, Harry Frankel (Singin' Sam), Marx Bros, WC Field, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, and Judy Garland.
As vaudeville eased its way on to the medium of radio in the 1920s, minstrel skits aired on amateur radio. The earliest known attempt at blackface on radio is the rare radio show Two Black Crows that ran in the mid 1930s. The Black Crows featured Charles Mack and George Moran (also John Swor and Bert Swor) who were a renowned blackface vaudeville duo-act. The show feature black-stage dialect derived and developed from the history of minstrel shows, but no overly racist jokes and overtones. This show opened the door for the most famous and controversial blackface radio show of all time, Amos n Andy.
"Two Black Crows" (3:27)
From 1928 to 1960 Gosden and Correll broadcast their Amos 'n' Andy Show , which was one of the most famous and popular shows on radio in the 1930s. At one point capturing 60% of all radio listenership and being credited for selling 4.4 million radios. Movie houses would stop their films to air Amos and Andy over the loud speakers. Freeman Gosden met the director and more experienced actor Charles Correll in Durham, North Carolina, in 1920 and began a working relationship at a traveling vaudeville Joe Bren Production Company. After working on a joke and jingle show, they were open to trying a new form of radio performance: the serial. With the help of WGN station manager Ben McCanna knew that the radio medium was moving beyond song and patter routines like the comic serial "The Gumps." Gosden and Correll were uncomfortable with producing "The Gumps" for the radio because they didn't relate to the characters in the strip but they did feel comfortable with black stage dialect from previous experience with the Joe Bren Production Company. They used the comic strip "Mutt and Jeff" as inspiration and created the hit serial show Sam and Henry. The show featured two African-American men from rural Alabama, Sam Smith and Henry Johnson, newly arrived in Chicago. The concept was loosely based on what is know historically as "The Great Migration", which was the movement of African-Americans from southern states to Northern states between the years 1919-1940.
Old Time Radio Show (April 20, 1926):
"Sam n' Henry: At the Dentist" (3:20)
Meanwhile, Jack L. Cooper became the first African-American Disk Jockey (DJ); he made his radio debut in 1922 on KDKA Washington DC as the "One man Minstrel Show." He worked until 1961 as a DJ, announcer, actor, newscaster, and other radio roles. He formed the Jack L. Cooper Radio Productions and worked every aspect of radio from producer, director, and writer.
The minstrel show on the radio medium offered a bit of a challenge because it could not rely on visuals. The voice characterizations needed to be exaggerated to help listeners distinguish between characters. Gosden and Correll were talented voice actors and had a wide voice range. Looking to expand the broadcasting of "Sam and Henry", Gosden and Correll soon became frustrated with the lack of vision WGN Chicago to look into syndicating the show nationally and creating phonographs with the "Sam and Henry." WGN Chicago owned the names of the show Sam and Henry. Gosden and Correll took the concept of the show to another local radio station WMAQ and created Amos and Andy. The NBC Blue Network began broadcasting Amos and Andy on August 19th, 1929 and it was an instant success. When NBC purchased WMAQ in late 1931, Gosden and Correll moved their show to "Studio F" in the NBC studios. In 1938, they again moved the show, this time to Hollywood where they continued production until 1960. After decades on the air, many listeners cared about and sympathized with Amos, Andy, Kingfish, and the others and developed a listening bond to their wellbeing.
Old Time Radio Show : (April 20, 1926):
"Amos n Andy : Annual Minstrel Show at the Lodge" (13:19)
Although the show was wildly popular with among black and white audiences, there was early negative response to the Amos n' Andy show in the December 1930 issue of Abbott's Monthly. Bishop W.J. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church wrote an article sharply denouncing Amos 'n' Andy, singling out the lower-class characterizations and the "crude, repetitional, and moronic" dialogue. The Pittsburgh Courier was the nation's second largest African American newspaper at the time, and publisher Robert Vann expanded Walls' criticism into a full-fledged crusade during a six-month period in 1931. (Later the Pittsburgh Courier supported the TV version of the show). Some may argue that there were plenty of "crude, repetitional, and moronic" white characters on the radio such as Lum n Abner, Eb and Zeb, Irma on My Friend Irma, Mel Blanc, and even Gracie on Burns and Allen. However, there were not many alternative portrayals of African-Americans in film, stage, and on old time radio.
Amos n' Andy creator Freeman Gosden, was raised with an African-American nanny and based many of his 100s of characters on his memory. Both Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll visited black communities throughout the production of Amos n' Andy and hired African-American actors for female roles on their show. The Johnson Family is a one-man show put on by Jimmy Scribner from his childhood memories in the south. These claims of "authenticity" lead to widespread expectations and definitions of "blackness" which were not based entirely on truth. It also limited roles for African-American performers. If they did not speak in black stage dialect or behave a certain way they were not considered authentically black. Intellectuals and small radio stations looked to produce positive images of African Americans.
After WWII, millions of African-American soldiers returned to America with high hopes after defending freedom abroad. Over 2.5 million African-American men registered for the draft serving in the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, and black women also volunteered for the war effort. The faced discrimination both in the military and the home front, but it solidified African-American equal contribution to America. Jubilee was a radio show gears towards African-American WWII soldiers and feature the best black performers of the era. After serving with distinction, African-American sought a greater role in America and a balanced representation of black people in film, television, and old time radio shows.
Old Time Radio Show (mid 1940s):
"Jubilee: Count Basie & Teddy Wilson " (30:10)
Very few black actors were able to find respectable dramatic roles. Paul Robeson was one of the first celebrated dramatic African-American actors in theater and film. Born in 1898, Robeson excelled academically and was involved in singing, acting, and athletics at Rutgers University. He could converse, sing and perform in over 20 languages. A staunch supporter of equal rights, he once stated "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery." Though he did not make many films in the United States, he opened opportunities for other African-American performers including Sidney Pointier.
Paul Robeson recording (1940s):
Meanwhile, main-stream broadcasts including traditional stereotype of African Americans continued into the 1950s. Although Amos n Andy is cited most often as an example of blackface radio performances, there were other minstrel-type old time radio shows like Beulah and Aunt Jemima. Both Beulah and Aunt Jemima radio shows were based on the "Mammy" stereotype (agreeable, servile, nurturing, overweight, jolly and boisterous) that was pervasive in 19th century minstrel shows and 20th century films. Beulah was a supporting character on the popular Fibber McGee and Molly radio series and became a spin-off show. The show was heard on radio from 1945 to 1954, portrayed by Caucasian actor Marlin Hurt then later the African-American actress Hattie McDaniel.
Old Time Radio Show (1943):
"Aunt Jemima: Happy Time " (5:03)
Old Time Radio Show (1957):
"Beulah: Honorary Santa" (29:33)
Meanwhile, many of the radio shows produced by African-Americans were made for local radio stations and not syndicated. Shows like Destination Freedom, A New World A Coming, Freedom's People, and Americans All, Immigrants All are all extremely rare. Americans All, Immigrants All ran for 23 weeks and featured a different ethnic group each week. Freedom's People focused on African-American history highlighting different contributors each week. The shows were eventually used in classrooms across America. The network supported program glossed over current events and issues.
Old Time Radio Show (March 12, 1944)
"A New World A-Coming: Negro, Facism, and Democracy " (26:16)
African-American produced non-affiliated shows attempted a complete portrayal of black people Destination Freedom and A New World A Coming. Richard Durham's Destination Freedom premiered on June 27, 1948 on Chicago radio WMAQ. The show featured bibliographic accounts of importance African-American figures in American History including Satchell Paige, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Ralph Bunche, Harlem Renaissance Poet Langston Hughes, boxer Joe Lewis, and many others.
Historical Boxing Pre-match: (1938)
"Joe Louis v Max Schmeling Prefight" (0:43)
A New World A Coming is a radio show based on the writings of Roi Ottley, who hoped that African Americans could exercise right and responsibility of full citizenship in America. "The negro is the barometer of democracy in America." The program gave examples of people and soldiers mistreated due to their complexion in the workplace, theaters, restaurants, banks, and other situations. Equally, the show criticized black people who weren't civically active in their community and promoted buying war bonds. The show called for improved race relations for a better world.
As televisions gained in popularity, The Amos n Andy Show (as well as Beulah) moved to the television medium with one drastic change in the format: the actors on the television show were all African-American. The show faced a firestorm of criticism, most notably from the NAACP, which posted this bulletin calling for the cancelation of the show:
"Why the Amos 'n' Andy TV Show Should Be Taken Off the Air' NAACP Bulletin, August 15, 1951:
The call for cancellation succeeded and Amos n Andy was withdrawn from television after two seasons. Networks also canceled other shows staring African Americans in 1953, most notably the Nat King Cole Show and Beulah. Between fear of reprisal and growing disinterest in advertisers to be associated with black shows, an African-American themed television show was not produced until the 1970s.
As the controversy of black representation on old time radio shows and television stirred as early as 1930, there were many blackface performances on film through the 1930s and into the 1940s. Performing in blackface continued to be normalized, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen also performed in blackface including:
** It should be noted that Al Jolson was a staunch Civil Rights activist
and helped open opportunities for African-Americans on Broadway.
Chronological list of directly-related old time radio show collections:
Old Time Radio Personalities of interest: