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.