1. Brief historical survey
Who exactly started singing songs on stage with a black face is difficult
to tell. Probably it was Lewis Hallam, who did an imitation of a drunken
darkie during a performance of the play "The Padlock" in 1769.(3) After
this, minstrel songs were regularly inserted into theatre programs or given
at the circus. Up to 1842 minstrel songs were mainly performed by some
famous artists like George Washington Dixon or Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice. Rice
created his own dance style, which allegedly was inspired by an old, black
and limping stable hand that he watched somewhere in the South. This dance,
that became famous under the name "Jim Crow Dance", was always closely
connected with his name and he had to perform it everywhere he appeared.
This way ‘Jim Crow’ became the first stereotyped character of the minstrel
show. But soon "Jim Crow" was also used outside of the minstrel context.
Beginning in 1875 several states passed laws that separated blacks and
whites in everyday life. They were called Jim Crow laws. In 1896 the Supreme
Court confirmed these laws and declared "that the Fourteenth Amendment
did not forbid racial separation, provided that separate facilities were
equal."(4) Today the name "Jim Crow" is a metaphor for racial discrimination.
But still minstrel songs were only short interludes in variety shows or
in the circus.
It was in 1843, when Dan Emmett founded the Virginia Minstrels, that
the minstrel show as a full evening entertainment came into existence.
Almost at the same time the Christy Minstrels, founded by E.P. Christy,
began to perform. They were the ones who finally established the stereotyped
pattern that was used all through the booming years of minstrelsy. These
two groups were the leading minstrel performers of minstrelsy’s golden
age that lasted until 1870. Even throughout the hard years of the Civil
War the minstrel show was very popular. After the war the first blacks
began to join the minstrel troupes that grew bigger and bigger. But this
steady growth and the diminishing importance of blackface acts were some
of the reasons for the decline in the late seventies, and around 1900 almost
no troupe was left.
|(3) "Minstrel Show" , in: Richard Moody (ed.),
Dramas from the American
Theatre 1762-1909. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, p. 475.
(4) Franklin, John Hope. An Illustrated History of Black Americans.
New York, Time Life Books, 1970, p. 59.