Minstrel Troupe, St. Norbert College, Wisconsin, 1924.
St. Norbert College
explainer / culture

The Troubling History Behind Ralph Northam’s Blackface Klan Photo

How blackface shaped Virginia politics and culture for more than a century.
The era we now call Jim Crow America was named after a famous blackface minstrel character. His signature debut song “Jumpin’ Jim Crow” reached global fame in 1832, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that everyday Americans bought commercially packaged how-to minstrel blackface plays to perfect these racial stereotypes. A new era of segregation, mass culture and blackface emerged, where blackface-imitating pro-Klan movies such as “Birth of a Nation” were the go-to entertainment form for young men.

In Jim Crow’s century-long reign, a strange, visible and highly pervasive world of blackface minstrel shows took hold in nearly every city and town in the United States. Amateur blackface minstrel shows and parades were so central to civic and campus life in 20th century America that it’s hard to find a university yearbook without a blackface image or a town that didn’t hold one.

U-Va.’s love affair with — and financial reliance on — amateur blackface grew during Reconstruction. A rumor circulated throughout U-Va. that “some of the students are forming themselves into a negro minstrel troupe” to perform on campus and in the local towns in Virginia. In 1886, the official University Minstrel Troupe donated the proceeds of their minstrel show to the construction of the University of Virginia Chapel, where hundreds of couples continue to marry each year. The show, which included a “stump speech” — a standup comedy routine lampooning black politicians — also featured a “Berlesque of Mikado,” likely in yellowface.

Throughout the First Klan era, the U-Va. minstrel troupe “sweetly” sang in “darky dialect” to fundraise. During World War I, a university-sponsored minstrel show took place on the white steps of the Rotunda, where Lewis Commodore used to be enslaved. Scores of U-Va. yearbooks named “Cork and Curls” (minstrel slang for the burned cork used to blacken faces and the curly Afro wigs that were signature costume pieces) show blackface was omnipresent on campus.

Blackface was a fundraising and socialization tool for white, all-male, Christian civic organizations, such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. The Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Virginia used blackface in raids to confuse victims and in comedy shows to recruit members. In 1924, as Charlottesville erected their infamous Robert E. Lee statue, the Charlottesville Elks Minstrel show ran ads ridiculing black American soldiers. They all solidified the relationship between slavery, blackface, white-supremacist political power, segregation, business and university life.
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