Blackface is something I’m glad that we have left in the past. It was basically just when a white person would paint his face black and pretend to be a person of African descent. What makes it worse it that they would then usually get on stage and perform racist acts or sing racist songs. They painted themselves huge lips as well as dark faces, and played to other stereotype like watermelon eating. Blackface performers really were a disgusting bunch – just racist, horrid, annoying and antiquated. I guess that’s why they don’t really exist any more. Here are the 10 most racist blackface performers.
Thomas D. Rice
Thomas D. Rice was one of the original blackface performers. He would wear black make-up and pretend to be an African American. While performing blackface, he was known as “Dandy Rice” and he spoke in overly exaggerated impressions of black peoples voices. He promoted harmful stereotypes and generally mocked people of African descent. He satirised the songs that slaves once sang, and created comedy characters to further mock African American folk heroes. He was alive in a time when blackface performers were at their most popular. Only after he died did it become less socially acceptable to present black people as morons.
Dan Emmett was a blackface performer himself, but is more known for helping others get into that line of work. He was known for putting together the first troupe of blackface minstrels. It was the first group of performers in which all members wore blackface. For some reason this was seen as quite a big achievement. He was known for writing songs that heavily featured banjos, which is a bizarre combination of things to be known for. He died in 1904, and is now largely forgotten about. His group were called the Virginia minstrels and they were notorious during the late Victorian era. He often joined them on stage, and one their tours across North-America.
Milt G. Barlow
Milt G. Barlow spent his childhood working several jobs, none of which suited him. He fought on the losing side of the American Civil War and eventually drifted into live performing. As a gifted singer and dancer, he noticed that blackface performers were making good money and decided he could also do that kind of thing. So he dived into minstrel shows and found success doing so. He performed in a show called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in which he played a character called “old black Joe” – which is just about the most racist thing of all time.
Al Jolson was a popular Jazz singer in the early 20th century. He was one of the biggest performers of his age, and therefore one of the biggest and most racist blackface performers. Performing in blackface was extremely common when he entered the industry, so don’t expect him to have not been involved. During the 1920s, he regularly blacked up and sang jazz music on stage in front of confused audiences. His on-stage character was called “Gus” and was known for his one liners, often making racial jokes at the expense of white people. This actually made him popular among black audiences.
Rollin Howard was one of the many blackface performers who seemed to enjoy cross dressing. Many considered him to be the best at pretending to be black women, donning black face paint and large dresses. He performed as a fake black woman for about 10 years when he was in his 20s. Over that time, he became a favourite among audiences that loved to attend those types of shows every day.
George Dixon joined the circus at age 15 – and always loved performing. He was also a fairly groundbreaking journalist, but that’s a story for another article. He became incredibly famous for being the first of what we would now recognise as blackface performers. He created a character known as “Zip Coon” which he often performed as in some of America’s largest theatres. He really did make a lot of money from blackface. In the 1830s, he gave a speech in front of 120 thousand people in which he urged them to support the French revolution. Apparently this caused a lot of controversy as his audience was mostly working class and people feared another American uprising. I bet Karl Marx was a fan of his.
Lew Dockstader was the star of America’s last popular minstrel show. This gives him a unique position in the history books, as his story allows us to learn what it was like after the business peaked and was in decline. He was working with blackface performers since the young age of 17, and developed a great love for the business. He performed both alone and with a group, and he travelled all across America to rake in the racist cash. He didn’t impersonate black people in his voice or movement – he didn’t appropriate their culture at all. He just wore black face paint – I don’t know why but it was a convention for all performers to do so. It was a weird period in history.
Primrose And West
Primrose and West were two blackface performers who teamed up with the goal of being as racist as possible. They were originally just 2 members of a blackface team. But when they asked for more money, their request was ignored. Frustrated by this, they decided to leave the team and create their own act. And so that’s what they did. They basically just stole a bunch of ideas from other minstrel teams. And I’m sure this inherited knowledge helped them out a lot, because their team was hugely successful within two years of them starting. They later progressed to simply managing blackface performers in the teams that they owned. They had their teams engaging in upper-class activities such as tennis. They called this type of thing “millionaires of minstrelsy.”
Artie Hall was a popular actress in the late 18 hundreds. She was also a singer, who was famous for her coon songs. Coon songs were a racist genre of music that promoted harmful perceptions of black people. It was popular well into the 1920s. While singing, she would be wearing black face paint. The purpose of this was to convince people that she genuinely was of African descent. But at the end of her act, she would usually remove her gloves to let people know that her skin was really white. She died suddenly in 1906 during a huge earthquake in San Francisco. The earthquake caused the theatre that she was performing in to collapse and she didn’t have time to escape in time.
J. H. Haverly
J. H. Haverly was probably the most successful manager of blackface performers. He built a business empire and a personal fortune by capitalising on minstrel shows in the late 19th century. He brought together many teams of minstrels, and brought them on tours in both North-America and Europe. He was inspired by P.T. Barnum and several other successful entertainment promoters. With the techniques learned from them, his teams became some of the most popular in the world. His business inspired many others to get involved with racist stage shows, but they had a hard time competing with him. His reputation combined with his ability to jump on new trends meant his success would be maintained until his death in 1901.