As early as the 1830s, black abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglas watched white men darken their faces with burnt cork for satirizing and ridiculing black people in public performances. One of these artists, Thomas D. Rice, later saw a former black slave dance a jig and sing a plantation song called Jump Jim Crow. By creating a caricature of this traditional slave tune and placing it in blackface productions, he demeaned this race even further in what has come to be known as minstrel shows. Impresarios turned them into three-part plays with jokes, songs, and skits, and from around 1850 to the 1930s, minstrel shows remained the most popular entertainment in the United States, including Quincy. The remains of this racist theater continued until the early 1960s.
Minstrel performances began in Quincy just before the Civil War, and by the 1870s were headlining at the Opera House and Empire Theater, the city’s main venues. In November 1877, the oldest organization of minstrels in the country, Duprez & Benedict, came to Quincy and played sold out. While white men (and later women) in blackface comprised almost all major touring shows, some black companies have also engaged in minstrel entertainment, trying to rise above the fate of almost all. Blacks of the country. Sprague & Blodgets Original Georgia Minstrels and Maharas Minstrels (featured as 20 artists of color) performed to an enthusiastic audience at the Quincys Opera House.
While black and white audiences attended minstrel performances, racial segregation remained rampant in Quincy. When the Maharas Minstrels appeared in the Casino for notice on November 8, 1893, the Quincy Daily Whig stated: The management wishes to correct the misunderstanding that there is a mixture of black and white. It’s not like that. Perfect arrangements have been made for people of color in their own section of the house.
In the early part of the 20th century, not only did Quincy Theaters feature minstrel performances, but service organizations were promoting them as well. To raise money for charitable causes, the Elks, Moose, Triple Oaks, Knights of Columbus, Eagles, Masons and Turner Hall have regularly held productions. The Moose even formed their own dramatic minstrel club. A performance of the Knights of Columbus came in as the Three KCs: the original Knights of Columbus show, Kansas City, the hometown of the touring company, and the Kute Comics performing in the show. One advertisement stated that a KC member and former Quincy resident, Charles Jochem, had composed one of the songs.
Many local churches have also organized minstrel performances. The Salem Minstrels, made up of members of the church’s Mens League, have put on a number of performances at Salem Hall, complete with orchestra and pre-performance banquet. St. Johns Catholic Church announced that its 1916 show generated a profit of $ 230, an increase of almost 100% from the previous year. St. Francis Solanus Church has had large annual minstrel shows for over 20 years and had to postpone the date for a year because it was in conflict with a Holy Name Society meeting.
Public schools have also hosted shows performed primarily by students and their parents. Among the many productions of the early 1900s, the mothers of the Jefferson School acted as Dark Town Ladies Minstrel to help buy a piano. The Jackson Schools eighth grade class put on a show to benefit the baseball team, and the Centennial Debating Club at Quincy High School presented an original minstrel show composed by local resident John Guill.
During World War I, several organizations sponsored minstrels to inspire patriotism and national solidarity for the American cause. Since its inception, minstrel performances typically ended with a grand finale waving the flag of The Star-Spangled Banner. After the war ended, Fifer Minstrels of Quincys Soldiers and Sailors Home held a citywide parade for returning servicemen, followed by a show in the Armory.
Black soldiers, however, who had fought in the war expected better treatment and respect after returning to the United States. Even before the war began, the Empire Theater published a warning in the Quincy Daily Herald for March 7, 1912 about racial insensitivity. All elements of rudeness have been carefully avoided and the entertainment could pass into the hands of Sunday School censors.
However, a November 10, 1917 editorial, Quincy Daily Whig, attempted to justify this profitable genre in an era of widespread racial segregation. The modern minstrel evolved from the colored race. The negro himself makes the best minstrel if he can be prevented from being embarrassed.
The minstrel began to decline in the 1920s, as other forms of entertainment such as vaudeville and film emerged. The remains of this racist theater, however, continued in these new places. The film Birth of a Nation, which featured black actors in humiliating portrayals of blacks, overwhelmed audiences in Quincy and across the country, and sparked a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. During the Great Depression, Quincy neighborhoods sometimes hosted informal shows presented by residents to help those suffering during these trying times.
As the aggression in Europe that would lead to World War II intensified, some local minstrels replaced the blackface with performances that disparaged allied enemies of Japan and Germany during the war. The Mens Club of Emerson School performed Sultan Minstrel, presented as a gay minstrel with oriental decor, and the Empire Theater performed Wang with the Kamekichi Japs.
While minstrel shows continued sporadically in Quincy until the civil rights era of the 1960s, the word minstrel itself began to appear more in newspaper crosswords as a clue to the troubadour than to designate a form of entertainment. A question-and-answer column in December 18, 1961, the Quincy Herald-Whig asked: What is the origin of Jim Crow? The term which now meant separate and unequal treatment of blacks in this request referred to its roots in the jig of song and dance once practiced by slaves on plantations which distorted racial perception of the country by creating a mocking and humiliating image of blacks. .
Amusements. Quincy Daily Whig, November 8, 1893, 3.
Attractions to the Empire. Quincy Daily Herald, March 7, 1912, 9.
Minstrels show at the Empire. Quincy Daily Whig, November 10, 1917, 4.
Minstrels are awesome. Quincy Daily Whig, February 9, 1915, 9.
The minstrels organize a new drama club. Quincy Daily Whig, April 27, 1917, 9.
Oriental frame for gay minstrel by Emerson Men. Quincy Herald-Whig, May 3, 1933, 12.
Question and answer. Quincy Herald-Whig, December 18, 1961, 14.
Riggs, Marlon. Ethnic notions: African-American stereotypes and prejudices. San Francisco: California News, 1987, film.
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in 19th Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been published widely as a contributor to literary magazines, as a correspondent for the Catholic Times, and for 23 years as a writer for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has cycled over 10,000 miles in his life.
The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County preserves the Governor John Wood Mansion, the History Museum on the Square, the 1835 Log Cabin, the livery, the Lincoln Gallery exhibits, and a collection of artifacts and documents that recount the history of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information visit hsqac.org or by email at [email protected]
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