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Cork and Community: Postwar Blackface Minstrelsy in the Rural Midwest

  • Howard L. Sacks

Nearly a century-and-a-half after urban professional entertainers first attained instant popularity for music, dance, and humor performed in blackface, amateur minstrels in the rural Midwest continued to pack school auditoriums and smalltown theaters with their homespun variety. Blackening their hands and faces with storebought makeup (the modern equivalent of the burnt cork of the nineteenth century), farmers and schoolteachers sang spirited renditions of “There's Nothin Like a Minstrel Show” mechanics and school board members donned tutus in an exotic ballet burlesque; and a realtor with a rich baritone sang his version of “Mammy,” a perennial favorite.

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1. Hildebrand, Fred and Michelena, Vera, “There's Nothin' Like A Minstrel Show.” in Hildebrand, Fred, Burnt Cork and Melody: A New Minstrel Folio (New York: Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, 1953), 79.

2. For a general overview of minstrelsy's early history, see Toll, Robert C., Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).

3. In the early 1950s, the NAACP actively campaigned against minstrel show performances; see Papers of the NAACP. Part 15: Segregation and Discrimination: Complaints and Responses, 1940–1955 (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1996).

4. See Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Sacks, Howard L. and Sacks, Judith Rose, Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); Cockrell, Dale, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Lhamon, W.T. Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Mahar, William J.. Behind the Burnt CorkMask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1999).

5. For an acritical view, see Wittke, Carl, Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage (Durham: Duke University Press, 1930); an argument for minstrelsy's unremitting racism can be found in Dennison, Sam. Scandalize My Name: Black Imagery in American Popular Music (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982).

6. Cockrell, Demons of Disorder, 149–55.

7. Lhamon, Raising Cain, 69–90.

8. For a sample of this literature, see Bean, Annemarie, Hatch, James V., and McNamara, Brooks (eds.), Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy (Hanover. New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press. 1996). An exception to the scholarly preoccupation with nineteenth-century minstrelsy can be found in the study of blackface film performance; see Rogin, Michael, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

9. While calling themselves minstrels, these shows no longer use blackface and conform to identifiable minstrel formats only generally. They do. however, include plantation themes.

10. Hamm, Charles, Putting Popular Music in Its Place (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 363.

11. Cohen, A.P., The Symbolic Construction of Community (New York: Tavistock/Ellis Horwood. 1985), 20.

12. For a study exploring rural diversity as it pertains to poverty, see Duncan, Cynthia M., Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). Reviewing recent work in theatre studies, Tracy C. Davis and Bruce McConachie refer to scholarship emphasizing “multiple, diverse, yet simultaneous experiences of reception” see Theatre Survey 39:2 (Nov. 1998): 2.

13. “‘Community Week' Out for the Duration,” Centerburg Gazette, 4 February 1943. The event's organizers purchased a war bond with funds already earmarked for the celebration.

14. Primary materials are drawn from six shows of the period, with particular emphasis on the Centerburg minstrel. The Centerburg show was the longest running, continuing annually until 1974. Complete scripts survive for seven shows, along with several personal collections of jokes and other humorous material. These shows are distinctive in that their humor was constructed almost entirely by the endmen, not from published routines, therefore providing a more local flavor to the shows.

15. The Community Within: Black Experience in Knox County, Ohio (Gambier, Ohio: Kenyon College. 1993), 12 (exhibition booklet).

16. In The Doctor, The Mechanic, The School, The Farm, and Ohio Town, viewers were asked to see Mount Vernon as a collectivity of neighbors whose cooperative spirit insured a smoothly functioning society and a bright future; see “‘Typical City‘ of U.S. A. Was Picked in 1944,” Mount Vernon News, Sesquicentennial Edition, Section A, 5 July 1955.

17. Minstrel shows of the period fall into two general types. Some groups put on a minstrel only once or twice in conjunction with an annual event whose format would vary. Others produced minstrel shows regularly over the course of many years.

18. “Community Week Is Big Success This Year.” Centerburg Gazette, 26 January 1956.

19. Except as noted otherwise, all quoted statements are drawn from interviews with performers, producers, and audience members of Knox County minstrel shows. These interviews took place July 1996 through October 1998. For reasons of confidentiality, the speakers are not identified by name in this article.

20. A 1960 Centerburg newspaper, for example, reported that “advance ticket sales were so heavy that the second showing of the minstrel was scheduled to give everyone an opportunity to see it.” Centerburg Gazette, 28 January 1960.

21. Newspaper accounts of minstrel shows in the early decades of the century often referred to the directors' professional background. For example, the 1908 minstrel presented by the local Elks “was given under the supervision of Mr. Harvey J. Moore, whose experience in minstrel work proved of great benefit to all who took part.” “Minstrels,” Knox County Daily Republican News, 30 June 1908. Band accompaniment for the performance was “under the leadership of Mr. Edward Wing, late of the Dockstader minstrel show.” “The Elk Parade,” Knox County Daily Republican News, 30 June 1908.

22. Minstrel books and folios for use by amateurs and professionals had been available since the 1860s; see Mahar, William J., “Ethiopian Skits and Sketches: Contents and Contexts of Blackface Minstrelsy, 18401890,” in Bean, Hatch, and McNamara, Inside the Minstrel Mask, 183; Engle, Gary D., This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), xxi; Schecter, William, The History of Negro Humor in America (New York: Fleet Press Corporation, 1970), 52; Wittke, Tambo and Bones, 126.

23. One minstrel book, for example, indicates that “the routines submitted in this book are flexible, not arbitrary. It is possible, and desirable, to introduce… topical ‘gags’ and allusions to local figures and foibles. This type of humor, because it is so intimate, is usually highly successful. Eight End-Men's routines are included; if this number of comedians is not available, the material may be judiciously redistributed among a smaller number.” Reach, James, The Darktown Follies: A Complete Minstrel (New York: Samuel French, 1936), 4.

24. Nostalgia for an idealized rural past has long been a dominant theme in minstrelsy, making it an appropriate vehicle for such techniques; see Finson, Jon W., The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 201.

25. For Emmett's biography and contributions to minstrelsy, see Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962).

26. “Woodward Opera House Business Plan,” proposal of the Knox Performing Arts Coalition. Mount Vemon, Ohio, 11 March 1996. Noting that Dan Emmett's minstrel career “has had an everlasting and profound impact on American music,” the proposal argues that restoration of the Woodward Opera House will “create a dynamic opportunity for us to resurrect our rich performing arts heritage in Knox County.” 17.

27. “Still Tickets for Benefit Minstrel,” Mount Vernon News, 24 April 1950. Programs for the shows held at the Catholic church in Mount Vemon always included an extensive history of Emmett, noting his national contribution to American culture and his close tie to Mount Vernon.

28. For a useful introduction to the types of popular humor, see McNamara, Brooks, ed., American Popular Entertainments: Jokes, Monologues, Bits, and Sketches (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983).

29. Mahar, “Ethiopian Skits and Sketches,” 193, 197, 205; Ely, Melvin Patrick, The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon (New York: Free Press, 1991). 44; Schecter, The History of Negro Humor in America, 67.

30. All jokes and other routines cited are drawn from the scripts of Centerburg's “Community Week” minstrel shows.

31. Cockrell, Demons of Disorder, 30–55.

32. The function seems continuous with earlier minstrelsy, as William Mahar notes in regard to performances in the second half of the nineteenth century: “Offered the relative protection provided by makeup and costume, the burnt-cork brethren could serve up their entertainment with relative impunity”; Mahar, William J., “Black English in Early Blackface Minstrelsy: A New Interpretation of the Sources of Minstrel Show Dialect.” American Quarterly 37 (2, Summer 1985): 285.

33. Buckland, Theresa Jill, “Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts: Exotic Dances on Street and Stage.” Dance Research Journal 22, 2 (Fall 1990): 2. The relative invisibility of the county's black population may have served we minstrels' goal of good-natured parody. Whereas early professional minstrels gave stage representations of a variety of ethnic types. Ohio's postwar minstrels relied exclusively on blackface as a mask with which to address taboo subjects. The absence of a large black population rendered black caricature a feasible vehicle. Using an Irish character to “speak the unspeakable,” in contrast, no doubt would have stirred vigorous objections from the area's sizable Irish-American community.

34. Mahar, “Ethiopian Skits and Sketches,” 199.

35. Cohen, Symbolic Construction of Community, 63.

36. Community Week program, 1970.

37. Dorman, James H., “Shaping the Popular Image of Post-Reconstruction Blacks: The ‘Coon Song’ Phenomenon of the Gilded Age.” American Quarterly 40 (December 1988): 440471.

38. Hamm, Putting Popular Music in Its Place, 362.

39. Buckland, “Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts,” 2.

40. Gilbert, Douglas, American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times (1940; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968), 7980.

41. This behavior can be understood as a manifestation of unconscious racism; see, for example. Davis, Peggy C., “Law as Microagression,” in Delgado, Richard and Stefancic, Jean, ed., Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000). 141151.

42. “Alpha Club Studies Negro Situation,” Centerhurg Gazette, 7 February 1957.

43. “Here's Your Chance,” Centerburg Gazette, 4 February 1960.

44. For example, Centerburg High School activities in the early 1960s included an annual “slave auction,” reported in the local paper: “You probably have never heard of a slave auction, outside of a civil war book. But the seniors at CHS had such an auction Jan. 30 and 31. Members of the class were sold to the highest bidder for eight hours of work. The class will make a profit of approximately $200 from this auction.” Centerburg Gazette, 7 February 1963.

45. This statement was drawn from the interviews, but the sentiment recurs frequently in conversations with white Knox Countians.

46. Vidich, Arthur J. and Bensman, Joseph, Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power and Religion in a Rural Community (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968), 314.

47. The Community Within. For a memoir depicting small-town life for African Americans in this period that closely parallels black experience in Knox County, see Gates, Henry Louis Jr., Colored People (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

48. Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk (1903; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 44.

49. Interview conducted with KT (name withheld for confidentiality) as part of research for The Community Within exhibit, Kenyon College, Gambler, Ohio, February 1993.

50. Unfortunately, this situation has not changed. White business leaders of the county are still unable to identify a black institution by name or location, such as a black church or fraternal club.

51. Vidich and Bensman, Small Town Mass Society, 294.

52. “Variety Show Attracts Usual Large Turnout,” Centerburg Gazette, 4 February 1971.

53. Fitchen, Janet M., Endangered Spaces, Enduring Places: Change, Identity, and Survival in Rural America (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. 1991), 259.

54. “A Good Place to Live,” Centerburg Gazette, 27 January 1955.

55. Cockrell, Demons of Disorder, 168–69.

56. Summarizing the several community studies of American small towns conducted in the decades before and after World War II, Richard Lingeman suggests that “what all had in common were the stresses of social change and an incapacity to deal with change in a rational way. The modern world clashed with the most deeply held small-town values.” Lingeman, Richard, Small Town America: A Narrative History, 1620–The Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980). 439.

57. Bellah, Robert N. et al. . Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 153.

58. Fitchen, Endangered Spaces, 259.

59. The book, written by scholars at Kenyon College in Knox County, was Sacks and Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie.

60. Mannies, Jo. “GOP Questions Carnahan's Role in 1960 Blackface Show.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 October 1999; Bell, Bill Jr. and Schlinkmann, Mark, “Camahan Offers Apology for Wearing Blackface in Show,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 26 October 1999.

61. Timberg, Craig, “Rehnquist's Inclusion of ‘Dixie’ Strikes a Sour Note,” Washington Post. 22 July 1999.

* Howard L. Sacks is National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor at Kenyon College, where he teaches American studies and sociology. He is the author (with Judith Rose Sacks) of Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).

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Theatre Survey
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