Pretty songs, well sung, blackface eccentricities, dancing and the comedy of minstrelsy made up the program of the Georgetown University Minstrels and Comedy Club, which gave a performance at the Belasco Theater last evening for the benefit of the Poughkeepsie crew fund.
– Washington Post, May 8, 1910
The Saturday evening show, reported on by the Evening Star newspaper in Washington D.C., took place on May 7, 1910. It was staged to raise funds to help send the varsity crew team to the prestigious Poughkeepsie intercollegiate regatta in June, and was overseen by the boat club’s manager. It followed a typical minstrel show structure (two parts in this case; some shows had three). In the first act, Georgetown’s fifty-man Glee Club opened the program with “a medley of popular songs” followed by “soft shoe dancing,” a form of tap associated with blackface and minstrelsy, and often performed in vaudeville acts. Also in the first act, an “interlocutor” (in whiteface) and “end men” (in blackface) traded jokes—a minstrel show staple. Joe McNulty, “of gridiron fame,” played the interlocutor. Messrs. Pearce, Merkling, Alicoate, and Meeks “will take care of the end parts,” noted the Washington Post in its preview of the performance. In the second act, the olio, a variety of skits were staged. Georgetown alumnus George O’Connor “with his dialect and comical songs, scored a hit.” O’Connor would be hailed as “Minstrel to Presidents” upon his death in 1946. Also, the Georgetown Alumni Mandolin, Banjo, and Guitar Club made its debut performance, and the evening closed out with a sketch, “The Battle of Crazy Creek,” a golfing parody.
This must have been a popular event, since no fewer than four Washington papers ran columns about it, before or after. The Evening Star, Washington Post, Washington Herald, and Washington Times were all eager to preview or report on minute details of the program, as was the fashion in newspaper writing of this time. The Herald, two weeks before the show, reported that “rehearsals have been held for the past two months both at the college and in Carroll Institute Hall.” Ads ran on consecutive days in multiple papers leading up to the big night.
On Sunday, the Herald observed that the applause from the audience—mostly “college men and their friends”—was such that performers had to repeat their lines. The theater was “decorated with the Georgetown colors and Blue and Gray pennants and flags draped the boxes.” And, “probably the part that received the most applause was the minstrel show.”
Georgetown’s varsity rowers, it came to pass, never raced that summer on the Hudson against the Columbia, Syracuse, or eventual champion Cornell. The Evening Star broke the story, writing that the two strokes “had been taken from the squad on account of parental objection to their rowing four miles,” while another rower was ordered by his doctor to stop training.
As we witness revelations of blackface participation by politicians in Virginia, Florida, and elsewhere, we are reminded of the sordid history of this racial and demeaning form of popular entertainment that Georgetown students were once as eager as anyone to not only enjoy blackface minstrelsy, but to perform it as well. These revelations come against the backdrop of Georgetown University’s engagement with slavery in its own history. Through its Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation Initiative, the university “has begun a sustained and long-term process to engage the historical role of our University in the institution of slavery and its legacies in our nation.”
And so we look to our own pasts, and those of the institutions we affiliate with, to inquire after our connection to the practice. I myself am a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and also the graduate public policy program. When news broke in February 2019 that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had included a disturbing photo in his medical school yearbook depicting a man in blackface and one in Klan robes, I wondered if any similar pictures would be, or could be, discovered in the yearbooks of my alma mater.
The Georgetown University Library’s website has digital copies of the school’s yearbooks starting from their inception in 1901, and a collection of an even older campus publication—the Georgetown College Journal—from at least 1872 into the early 20th century. These online collections are a treasure of information about the history of the university, its campuses, its culture, its students, and their activities. Browsing through these tomes—titled Hodge Podge at first and Ye Domesday Booke (YDB) since 1908—is an uncomfortable trip into an oddly familiar past, but also a visit to a strange place of long ago. Yet these yearbooks and papers, by their nature, show only a narrow view of life on the Hilltop each year, a curated slice of reality. It is revealing, but limited. In scans through these yearbooks from 1901 into the 1980s (into my era), I and a classmate uncovered scenes of service, seriousness, frivolity, and the college experience, but also a number of racially-inflected images. Early yearbooks contained racist cartoons, including a blackface character and stereotyped Asians and Africans. Caucasian students wearing Native American costumes are prevalent. Finally, the 1943 YDB depicts the most dramatic, disappointing, and racist example of blackface minstrelsy staged on the Hilltop. More on that below.
A sketch of blackface minstrelsy in American culture
“By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.”
– National Museum of African American History and Culture
My intent here is to review blackface minstrelsy as it was staged at Georgetown University and environs, so I will offer only a sketch of the phenomenon as it developed across the United States. Blackface minstrelsy was a widespread and popular pastime in America before and after the Civil War, and into the 20th century. While the format and performers changed over these periods, blackface minstrelsy’s essential racism remained constant. The entertainment originated not in the American South, but in northern cities, including New York. Thomas D. Rice, a native of that city, is often credited with originating the “Jim Crow” performance in 1830. “The myth that quickly grew up around Rice,” noted Vanderbilt music historian Dale Cockrell in Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World,
maintains that on some occasion during 1828-31 he observed an old black stablehand (sometimes said to have been crippled), who sang a funny kind of song and danced a peculiar hopping, unjointed dance. Rice then outfitted himself like ‘Jim Crow’ and took to the stage (in Louisville, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh, depending on the telling) with his blackface interpretation of the song and dance, to instant and wild applause.
Prof. Cockrell further explained that “The birth of the minstrel show was truly a watershed moment, not to be understated” when, during the 1842-43 New York theater season, the Virginia Minstrels took the stage. “Soon there were minstrel troupes almost everywhere,” wrote historian Robert C. Toll, author of Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. “During the next half century,” Toll explained:
the minstrel show would be the most popular form of entertainment in America, for it was perfectly suited to the tastes of everyday Americans. As the upbeat overture quieted the noisy crowd and the curtain rose, the eight minstrels would burst into action, strutting, singing, waving their arms, banging their tambourines, and prancing around a semicircle of chairs. Finally, the dignified man in the middle, the interlocutor, established order by commanding: “Gentlemen, be seated!”
The first act featured banter between the interlocutor in formal dress and joking end men (in blackface, often dressed shabbily, or as “rubes”), then music and dancing. The second act, the olio, was more of a variety show of singing, dancing, and speeches about issues of the day. A third part would feature sketches, often depicting plantation life (a white man’s imagining of it).
The original, blockbuster, white performer traveling minstrel troupes began to fade after the Civil War, to be replaced by a combination of smaller troupes and new ones composed of African-Americans. The University of South Florida’s online exhibit, “History of Minstrels,” explains that:
After emancipation in 1865, African American performers, seeing minstrelsy as an opportunity for advancement, contributed a humanizing element to their portrayal of blacks even though they also performed in blackface. Black performers during the Jim Crow era combined blackface with the newly popular genre of vaudeville and brought a black political agenda to their stage performances. During the 1930s, minstrelsy lost its widespread popularity to jazz but could still be seen in aspects of American society such as film.
In January 1885, for example, Sawyer’s Original Colored Georgia Minstrels played the Herzog Dime Museum in Washington, on Pennsylvania near 11th Street. The Evening Critic reported on January 28 that:
A crowded house greeted the Georgia Minstrels again last night, The comicalities of the ebony performers were hugely enjoyed. The entertainment is a clean, attractive and, it has proved, a popular one. The genuine old plantation songs are rendered with an energy and faithfulness to life that is very enjoyable. Manager Herzog announces Jennie Calef for next week.
Throughout this history, two blackface “archetypes” emerged, as explained by Prof. Eric Lott: “Zip Coon,” the northern, urban dandy; and “Jim Crow,” the plantation African-American. The former character, Lott explained, is “probably being lampooned for assuming airs and intellect beyond his station.” He continued:
And the Southern plantation African-American type, Jim Crow, from which the system of legal segregation took its name, later in the century, is the happy-go-lucky, somewhat mischievous, enslaved person down South. Both these characters, Zip Coon and Jim Crow, had songs named after them. And variants on those and combinations of their features show up later in vaudeville and film and Halloween parties and Halloween characters.
In the early 20th century, stage minstrelsy became the province, mostly, of local amateurs, connected to civic organizations (schools, churches, clubs), and businesses. Professional blackface migrated into movies (e.g., The Jazz Singer , and Swing Time ) and radio (the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” show [1928-60]). Later in the century, blackface largely disappeared from screen and stage, but continued to be enacted casually in American culture (and, to some extent, abroad), especially around Halloween, at college parties, and even, as we have seen lately, in fashion.
Minstrelsy in the nation’s capital
Blackface minstrelsy came to Washington, D.C., almost as soon as the form arose. In a 1900 interview, an “old-time ‘Imitator of the Happy Ethiopian’” recalled Dumbleton’s Ethiopian Serenaders being at Apollo Hall in 1842. The hall, located near 13th and E Streets (now the site of Freedom Plaza), was in the 1830s and ‘40s a popular space for meetings, shows, and dances. It occupied space above a grocery store.
The Ethiopian Serenaders, reported the Madisonian, “whose astonishing performances have attracted crowded houses in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore,” played one three-night bill at Apollo Hall in October 1843, followed by a second three-night run owing to their “triumphant success.” Songs included “Dandy Jim from South Carolina” and “N*****’s life is always gay.”
The following month, the acclaimed Virginia Minstrels brought their act to Apollo Hall for multiple nights with great fanfare. Described by the Whig Standard as “the most original and best organized band of Ethiopians in this country,” the event promised that “No portion of this Exhibition will offend the most delicate and conscientious.” Tickets were 25 cents; children half price. The Apollo run was so successful that the troupe immediately moved on to the National Theatre, just across E Street, for another multi-night run.
“Notwithstanding the inclemency of last evening,” Friday night, November 17, “the National Theatre was graced by the beauty and fashion of the city, Col. Richard M. Johnson, ex-Vice President of the U. States, and friends.” Perhaps the rain kept President Tyler away, as he was expected to attend as well.
In April 1855, the New York-based Wood and Christy’s Minstrels made their Washington debut at the People’s Theater “for those who delight in negro minstrelsy.” Christy’s Minstrels may have been new to Washington, but with their 1843 debut in Buffalo, the troupe cemented the minstrel’s show’s three-act structure. The traditional program at the theater, located on Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets (a block now occupied by the FBI building and the Department of Justice), included W.P. Collins giving “his celebrated Happy Uncle Tom’s Dance.” The third part of the bill was titled, “Plantation or Life among the Lowly.” Like in other minstrel performances, overtures, oratory, and singing were included.
In an October 27, 1848, column in The North Star, Frederick Douglass took all of these major acts to task in one crisp statement, one of the few notable criticisms of minstrelsy during this period. Responding to another paper’s scathing review of the performance in Rochester (NY) of the abolitionist Hutchinson singers from New Hampshire, Douglass wrote:
We believe he [the newspaper editor] does not object to the “Virginia Minstrels,” “Christy’s Minstrels,” the “Ethiopian Serenaders,” or any of the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.
Blackface minstrelsy continued as a popular pastime in the nation’s capital even during the Civil War. In late November 1860, as the secession crisis accelerated in southern capitals after the election of Abraham Lincoln, George Christy’s Minstrels played a series of dates at Odd Fellows’ Hall, on 7th above D Street. The show’s ad in the Evening Star of November 21 jokingly announced: “Bear in mind the ‘matinee’ this afternoon, and also that to-morrow night is positively the last night of the troupe in this city, as Christy is under engagement to ‘secede’ southwardly at once.” Duprey and Green’s original New Orleans and Metropolitan Minstrel Troupe and Brass Band played a week at Odd Fellows’ Hall prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, took a break, and then played another week starting the day of the inaugural, March 4. Minstrel shows continued at the various Washington theaters (at least nine venues) through 1862, ’63, and ’64. Sam Sharpley’s Minstrels Brass Band and Burlesque Opera Troupe was scheduled to start a run at the Washington Theater, on the corner of 11th and C Streets (where the small plaza just behind where the Old Post Office Pavilion stands now), on April 17, 1865. Due to the tragic events at Ford’s Theater on April 14, Sharpley’s Minstrels delayed their opening night to April 24.
Minstrelsy ebbed immediately following the end of the war, but soon resumed. “On-stage, blackface minstrelsy was most popular immediately following the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction,” explained historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “when the country was trying to grapple with reforming itself and adapting its social hierarchy following the end of race-based slavery.”
Georgetown and minstrelsy after the Civil War
The Georgetown College Journal announced in its April 1884 edition that “old students who are readers” of the monthly magazine “will be pleased to learn that one of the triumphs of their day, a genuine Ethiopian minstrel troop, is about to be organized among the present generation.” One wonders if a previous generation of 19th century Hoyas engaged in minstrelsy.*
In any case, the “burnt cork talent” had already been assembled and roles of interlocutor and end men assigned. This notice heralded the birth of the Georgetown University Minstrel Society, or G.U.M.S., which “promises to eclipse anything of the kind ever given in Georgetown.” The early use of acronym must be familiar to contemporary Hoyas.
On November 25, 1885, the night before Thanksgiving, some “sable artists” gave a minstrel show at the college. “A long time has elapsed since last our mimic stage was darkened by a group of Ethiopian minstrels,” lamented the Georgetown College Journal.
Fred Lett, who was part of the company in 1884, was the end man named “Bones,” while Charles McNally was the other end man, traditionally named “Tambo.” Charles Heard, from St. Mary’s County in Maryland, presented the role of “plantation darkey,” possibly during the third act’s plantation sketch. “It was true to the life,” the Journal said. Most likely it was “true” to these white students’ uninformed idea of plantation life in antebellum America.
The leader (director?) of this Thanksgiving-eve entertainment was a student named Eric Dahlgren. Eric Bernard Dahlgren was a member of the class of 1888 and was likely the uncle of Joseph Drexel Dahlgren, infant son of John Vinton Dahlgren (Eric’s younger brother) and Elizabeth Wharton Drexel. When baby Joseph died in 1891, his parents—his mother really—financed the building of Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart behind Healy Hall, consecrated in 1893. It was the first building at Georgetown not named for a Jesuit priest.
Blackface entertainments continued apace in Washington throughout 1885. In addition to the Georgia minstrels, Ida Siddons’ Mastodon Female Minstrels played the Theatre Comique, with an “Amazon march,” in February.
Callendar’s Minstrels, “a company of genuine negro minstrels of the good old style” (another African-American troupe), appeared at Ford’s Opera House, late February. “The performers are all genuine darkies and have that richness and melody in voice frequently absent in the burnt cork persuasion,” per the February 25 Evening Critic.
In 1885 alone, Messrs. Dahlgren and Lett, and classmates, could have taken in a plethora of minstrel acts, at many of the theaters in Washington. The Flat Boat Minstrels at Herzog’s. Haverley’s United American-European Minstrels at Albaugh’s Grand Opera House. The company of Thatcher, Primrose, and West’s Minstrels at Ford’s Theater, twice that year. The California Minstrels, also at Ford’s, in a summer program. Again, at Ford’s, on two occasions, McNish, Johnson, and Slavin’s Mammoth Minstrels. And back at Albaugh’s was Barlow, Wilson, and Rankin’s Minstrels.
On April 19, 1885, the Sunday Herald and Weekly National Intelligencer even mused, “How conventional the minstrel performances are. Why doesn’t some one invent a different arrangement of the entertainment?”
But for the rest of the 19th century, these and similar act were the common and regular minstrel fare in Washington.
Minstrelsy continued at Georgetown in the 1880s. A writer in the January 1886 edition of the Georgetown College Journal reflected, “one of the good things accomplished by the minstrel troupe during its brief existence was the development of an amount of musical talent which has remained hidden for years.”
In December 1888, the Journal reported that the “Minstrel Club is now hard at work” on what was certain to be a successful performance, and the members were paying “great attention” to the components of the show: the olio, songs, music, jokes, and “an original burlesque skit.”
In January, Journal readers learned that the “Olden Time Minstrel,” staged five days before Christmas, “held the boards to the great delight of the ‘Preps’ and the complete satisfaction of all lovers of ‘burnt cork.’” Prompter (Charles) Piquette Mitchell, class of ’93 (and Law ’96), would go on to become the U.S. vice and deputy consul general in Mexico City.
The Minstrel Club entertained campus again in late February 1895, “the dull season of the college year,” with a performance in Gaston Hall, part of the Mardi Gras celebration. Not much detail was given in the campus press about the affair, but one curious detail stands out: the “Smackum Septette,” with Frank Slattery signing basso. John Smackum was an African-American laborer employed by the university for many years following the Civil War. He lived in a cottage near the Observatory. When his first wife died in early 1876, the Georgetown College Journal described Smackum as “our leading and greatly esteemed colored farm hand.” When Smackum, “our faithful man of mules,” remarried to Georgie Dent in 1878, in a ceremony presided over by the president of Gonzaga College, the Journal wrote warmly that “Now the chimney of the cottage by the Observatory again gives forth its cheerful column of smoke.” In 1896, one graduate reminisced about “the old darkey poet on the college farm” when he was a student in 1874-76. When John B. Smackum died on May 3, 1899, the Evening Star observed that “he was known widely as the ‘college poet,’ on account of his ability to make a rhyme answer to every question propounded to him.” A memorial service was held for him at Trinity Church, and he was interred at Holy Rood Cemetery, where Georgie Dent Smackum and other members of the Smackum family are buried.
So, perhaps the “Smackum Septette” was meant to honor the man, though one doubts that he was in attendance at the performance.
This account of 19th-century minstrelsy at Georgetown closes out in 1898, with an “entertainment” at Gaston Memorial Hall “for the benefit of the grand stand fund.” It may not have been a minstrel show per se, but it did include classic songs like “Darkies Awakening,” a popular banjo composition by George Lansing. This show also featured a singer whose fame would grow in coming years and who would become one of the most prominent Georgetown graduates of his era: George H. O’Connor. He was born in Washington in 1874 and, per Georgetown University Library, attended the university as a “special student,” taking part in musical and dramatic programs. He earned an LL.M. (master of legal letters) degree in 1895. For many years afterward, O’Connor took part in Glee Club and other musical activities with Georgetown students. In his professional life, O’Connor became president of multiple title insurance companies, but he remained an amateur comic and minstrel throughout his life. When he died in Washington in 1946, he was hailed as “minstrel to presidents.”
“Through the years,” the New York Times wrote in its obituary of O’Connor, “his lusty baritone made him the star performer at many of the capital’s social and charitable events.”
Minstrelsy into the 20th Century
Minstrel performance continued in the city and at Georgetown in the new century. It was a period, though, of minstrelsy’s decline and growing amateurism. In the year’s first month, January 1901, the institutional troupe at St. Elizabeth’s Asylum put on what was presumably a private show for the patients. And then, the famed Georgia Minstrels, “in their new black face classic,” went on at the Chase’s New Grand theater, which promised “polite vaudeville” to patrons who paid a quarter for the matinee or up to fifty cents in the evening.
But minstrelsy was changing, now seventy years after the debut of the form. Before the Civil War, troupes would set up in a theater in a city, and play week after week to sold out crowds. Runs were extended by popular demand. After the war, some of these troupes continued to play, but they were becoming more diffuse, playing shorter dates, and receiving fewer column inches in the local papers. As mentioned, African-Americans performed in their own minstrel shows, to the acclaim of white audiences. But the scene at the turn of the century was described in May 1901 by one of the notable “old” blackface minstrel men of the day, Milt Barlow. Born in 1843 in Kentucky at the dawn of blackface minstrelsy, Barlow started performing just after the war, during which he served in one of the few rebel units from his state. He was considered one of the best “burnt-cork” actors of the times. Three years before his death in 1904, his interview with the Baltimore Sun (he was in that city performing as Uncle Tom) was quoted by Washington’s Evening Star on the subject of the “Decay of Minstrelsy.” Barlow’s diagnosis of how minstrelsy had changed for the worse as the new century dawned is less instructive than his views on African-Americans are disturbing.
“Modern blackface minstrelsy retains nothing of the old except the name,” Barlow observed, and then named the increase in the number of performers “from sixteen to forty” as the reason why. Sacrificing quality for quantity is hardly a controversial observation in any age. What he said next, however, is disturbing to us now, but would not have been to him. “Many of the present minstrels also have no conception of the real darky,” Barlow explained, “and while they blacken their faces, they do nothing more to enact the character.” His (to us) contemptible racism also suggests blackface minstrelsy’s continued role in racial subjugation in the early 1900s. He continued:
Taken all together, the modern minstrel show is little more than a vaudeville performance and bears practically no resemblance to that which used to be seen.
A man who has not studied the negro cannot give a truthful picture of him on the stage. Naturally the negro is the funniest man in America today, but he does not realize it. I do not speak of the city darkies who have learned to read and write and cipher, but of the kind that were known to southerners before the war and are now rapidly dying out.
The rest, as reprehensible as it is, reminds us that virulent racism remained a cornerstone in American society in 1901, as well as in entertainment, and that a well-known purveyor of the type felt at liberty to offer such thoughts to a major city newspaper. Barlow added:
The negro is in many respects but an ape minus the tail, and in no way does he so resemble the ape as in his love of mimicry. If you watch a darky and he becomes aware of that fact he immediately tries to act and become forced, without being in the least funny, but observe him when unrestrained and you see a character worthy of the close attention of the best actors.
Barlow, of course, was considered one “of the best actors” in blackface minstrelsy of his day.
Georgetown students would, even before Barlow’s death in 1904, stage another minstrel show at a time when Barlow’s racist worldview was uncontroversial for most white Americans.
The Georgetown Musical Club, on February 24, 1903, appeared at Gaston Hall in a Mardi Gras minstrel show “for the benefit of the Holy Trinity schoolhouse fund,” to build a new parish hall and schoolhouse. The Georgetown College Journal gleefully described the entertainment as “a real, downright ‘n****r minstrel show,’ such as the Sunny South used to see in the palmy days ‘befo’ de wah.’”
The performers, numbering at least forty, included current students of the law, medical, and graduate schools, as well as alumni, among them George O’Connor, “a singer of coon melodies, [who] will be one of the ‘end men.’”
The finale of the first part, prior to the vaudeville olio, consisted of the entire club singing “Sons of Georgetown,” a song today’s Hoyas will recognize, though it now begins, “Hail, oh Georgetown, alma mater, swift Potomac’s lovely daughter.”
We learn from the Journal that “the show was a conspicuous success, and the audience that heard it packed the halls to the very doors, many being obliged to stand for want of seats to accommodate them.”
Whether or not these students—the sons, nephews, and grandsons of the Civil War generation—shared Barlow’s rancid perspective on African-Americans, they certainly encountered it explicitly and implicitly in their lives. The writers and editors of the Journal, at least, were conversant in the racist tropes and language of the times. And, whether they knew it or not, their enactment of blackface minstrelsy continued its racist tradition—no matter how much, according to Barlow, minstrelsy had decayed.
The show goes on around the capital
The famous traveling blackface minstrel troupes of the previous decades—Christy’s Minstrels, the Virginia Minstrels, Wood’s and more—may have died out before 1900, but minstrelsy seemed to flourish of in the nation’s capital in the first decades of the new century through civic organizations, schools, and private clubs. Amateurs held the boards now, and they were everywhere. For example, the U.S. Navy battleship Oregon had its own minstrel troupe, as did Navy “cadets” at Annapolis as of April 1902. The Arundel Boat Club put on a show in May 1903.
The Georgetown Musical Club repeated their February 1903 performance on St. Patrick’s Day near Ellicott City, Maryland, the proceeds of which would benefit the club’s own treasury. The next month, the club, “pleased a large audience … at National Rifles Armory, on G Street between Ninth and Tenth.” The next February, the “young men of Georgetown” contributed their talent to a minstrel show at National Rifles’ armory “For the benefit of St. Stephen’s Institute.”
The Dandy Dixie Minstrels, a professional African-American troupe out of Dallas, and comprised of “forty black-face performers,” played the Majestic Theater (at 9th and C, near where the Department of Justice now stands) in August 1906. Acts included “The Black Aristocrats.”
The U.S. Senate had its own minstrels. A Georgetown student named J. Montgomery reported in the Georgetown College Journal on his visit to Capitol Hill in February 1907 where he saw a performance put on by white supremacist Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina. “Then there was Senator [Henry Cabot] Lodge,” Montgomery recalled, “whom I recognized by his carefully trimmed whiskers, and whom Senator Tillman in his Senatorial negro minstrel show designated as the negro preacher from Massachusetts.”
A plethora of new organizations were getting into the minstrelsy business, including George Washington University students in April 1908. The Potomacs boat club staged a show “to help pay off the interest on the debt on their new boat house.” The Washington Canoe Club did its own show three months later. The Evening Star reported in April 1909:
Jewish charities profited materially by an excellent amateur performance given at the Columbia Theater last night by the Grease Paint Club. A large audience heard the songs and jokes of the minstrel troupe and enjoyed the afterpiece, a one-act farce, entitled ‘Jim.’
That same month, the Calcium Club at George Washington University gave “one of the best amateur entertainments ever seen in Washington.”
Then, of course, Georgetown men staged the May 1910 minstrel show at the Belasco Theater, described above. The Georgetown College Journal offers further that “the production was a creditable one and an additional reason for praising the efforts of the college-bred black-faces is that the idea was a new one to most of the participants and the field of endeavor practically untried.” Seventy years after the birth of blackface minstrelsy, 45 years after the end of the Civil War, a new generation of young Hoyas were being introduced to the racial style of entertainment.
Old-time minstrel shows, during the Great War and beyond
Minstrelsy, largely amateur, continued in the U.S. capital as the storm approached and then erupted in Europe. The Jolly Twenty-four, “a Hebrew organization of Washington,” said the paper, “will give their second annual minstrel show and ball” for Hebrew charities at the Masonic Temple, March 3, 1914. Catholic University put on a show “for the benefit of the athletic association at Brookland” in April 1914. The Metropolitan Minstrels, “a jolly little singing and dancing organization of girls and boys, and one of the most popular acts in vaudeville,” played the Cosmos Club repeatedly during this period. Neil O’Brien and his “great” American Minstrels played the National Theater for one week in April. O’Brien, the Washington Post reported, was “the funniest blackface comedian on the stage. His portrayal of the uncouth, awkward, and ambling negro of the levee is the best thing of its kind the modern stage has known.”
The variety of civic and church organizations throughout the city engaged in minstrelsy is staggering. The Epiphany Sunday school; the “Forget-Me-Not-Troop” of Girl Scouts of Kenilworth; the Boy Scouts of Anacostia; the District of Columbia Militia; Catholic University’s Calumet Club; International Association of Machinists’ Columbia Lodge No. 174—all staged their own minstrel shows before the “guns of August.” On November 19, the Chorus Club of the State, War, and Navy Departments gave a show titled “A Darktown Gambol” at the National Theater for the benefit of the National Red Cross.”
As 1916 got underway, the continent-spanning war in Europe entered its third year. Yet Americans and their government remained more concerned with growing violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, which would soon lead to General John J Pershing’s “Mexican Expedition” against Pancho Villa. On the night of January 15, the Georgetown Law class of 1918 held their annual smoker, a formal social event. Although the young men enjoyed speakers such as the esteemed D.C. Circuit Court Judge Ashley Gould (G.U. Law ’84), and entertainments including a “Hawaiian” quartet, “one of the most interesting features was a minstrel show given by members of the class.”
Hawaiian music also featured at the annual dinner of the Georgetown Alumni Association at the Raleigh Hotel in February 1917. “An old time minstrel show” was to be the “wind-up” of the evening, with the “victorious Blue and Gray foot ball team” the guests of honor. George O’Connor, on his way to becoming the “minstrel to presidents,” was the interlocutor.
In December 1917, even as American troops, including Hoyas, served in the trenches of France, “Members of the Junior Class [of the law school] are preparing for their annual smoker, which will be held during the early part of December. It is expected that a minstrel performance will be staged in connection with the affair.” (Georgetown College Journal, December 1917). George M. Elliott of the law class of 1918 played piano at two minstrel shows that academic year, possibly including the December 1917 one. But he was already “over there” by the time Ye Domesday Booke published at the end of term.
“Old-time” minstrelsy continued apace after the war, at Georgetown and in the city. Shows were typically staged for charity. The April 14, 1921, edition of the Hoya reported that the Georgetown Dental College was staging a minstrel show to raise funds for a free dental clinic in the city. “Reports that the teeth of thousands of school children in Washington,” we read, “are going to decay through the negligence of parents aroused the dental students to the need of extending the now limited free privileges of the school laboratory.”
In 1921: both Eastern and Western High Schools put on minstrel shows. March 1925: the “Jefferson Chocolate Drops” at Jefferson Junior High School performed “for the benefit of school activities.” April 1925: Kappa Alpha at the University of Maryland “gave its cotton pickers’ minstrel show for the marines at Quantico Monday night and were given a great reception by the large audience of devil dogs.” July 1927: Camp Good Will offered a minstrel titled “The Alabama Coons … with songs and dances by the children.” March 1928: American University’s junior class and Glee Club put on “a merry aggregation of genuine minstrel features … for the benefit of the college year book, ‘Aucola.’”
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Holy Name Society at Holy Trinity Church held minstrel shows during the Coolidge and Hoover administrations.
At the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first year in office, the United Veterans of America’s Wars, Drum and Bugle Corps, staged their show at the Government Printing Office, which included the talents of GPO employees. The 1930s saw a continued variety of minstrelsy sponsors, including: YMCA Dormitory Council; Southeast Citizens’ Association, “for the benefit of the Metropolitan Police Boys’ Club”; the D.C. National Guard, Company D, 121st Engineers; Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. Dramatic Club; the men’s Bible class of the Sherwood Presbyterian Church; and the Army and Navy Union.
In February 1941, the Dumbarton Avenue Methodist Church staged a show titled “Sambo, Dat Lazy Man” in order “to raise funds to refurnish the Sunday school.” In the month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the B.F.O. Elks, Washington Lodge, took the stage. But as American entered the second world war, stage minstrelsy was, finally, ebbing away, continuing to lose Americans’ attention to radio and film, and perhaps becoming somewhat less acceptable with the inception of civil rights awareness.
“Dark complexioned gentlemen”: The last (big) Georgetown show, 1943
As German forces battled Soviet troops in Kharkov, as Jews rose up in the Warsaw Ghetto, as General Patton led his armored forces in Tunisia, and as Japanese troops fought U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal, the 1943 edition of Ye Domesday Booke informed readers of a “rollicking revelry” that had been staged on campus that academic year. It was described (inaccurately) as “Georgetown’s first grand-scale attempt at musical comedy and satire in a combination that elicited a great deal of amusement and comment.” The account continued:
The performance itself began as an old-time minstrel show, consisting of a dapper interlocutor, Robert Napier, surrounded by numerous dark complexioned gentlemen, who readily snapped back the answers to his interrogations. As a matter of fact, it was rumored that the cast has pooled their point coupons in order to get sufficient corn for this colored quiz show. The chorus of fifty voices with their renditions of old negro spirituals and modern favorites was exceptionally well received.
The large chorus with their blackened faces paralleled the 50-man Glee Club that performed at the Belasco in 1910.
The figures wearing shiny suits to the right of the photo are the “end men,” part of the traditional minstrel format. Other performers in blackface may have worn “hobo” costumes and would have told jokes and acted out in exaggerated pantomimes of black behavior.
The “minstrel men” in the photo “speak,” as it were, for themselves.
Non-racialized acts followed, including skits, songs, piano-playing, and more. “Two original skits,” we learn, “brought howls of laughter and applause for their amusing depiction of behind-the-scenes life at G.U.”
Perhaps this was the very performance that an August 1942 column in D.C.’s Evening Star announced would occur in early September, “in the college quadrangle” and would be staged as “an old-time minstrel show” by the Mask and Bauble Club. However, as this performance occurred outdoors, it may not have been the same minstrel show as depicted in the 1943 yearbook. Mask and Bauble did help stage the latter show, in any case.
“On the whole,” YDB reported of the big show, “the ‘Rumboogie Revue’ was a superb production. May it continue to grow until it has become a campus institution.” Thankfully, there is no evidence that the revue became “a campus institution.”
The 1942-43 show (or shows) at Georgetown, a century after Dumbleton’s Ethiopian Serenaders played Apollo Hall, may have been the last major “old time minstrel” staged on campus, or by Georgetown students in the city. Perhaps it was the last show deemed worthy of multiple pages of remembrance in the school yearbook, but it may not have been the last time students engaged in the entertainment. The Evening Star referred to “Mask and Bauble’s minstrel show” to occur at the end of April 1948. I have found no further explanation nor review. Unlike the “rollicking revelry” of five years previous, the celebration of this entertainment is muted. The theater club recently issued a statement, saying that the images of past racism “in no way reflect our values or who we are as a community today.”
From Ye Domesday Booke of 1951, we learn that the senior class had introduced a barbershop quartet contest, and one of the acts appears to have blackened their faces, perhaps with burnt cork, for their performance.
If a more thorough investigation of available sources and archives turns up additional examples of blackface enacted at Georgetown during and after this post-war period, I will not be surprised.
Minstrelsy out, racism still in
Overt representations of blackface minstrelsy on Georgetown’s campus may have disappeared during and after the 1950s—this is what the readily available evidence shows … by not showing it in yearbooks and newspapers—but the environment that permitted minstrelsy and which minstrelsy had reinforced for a century continued at Georgetown and its environs. The school remained all-white through World War II. The first students of color had enrolled in the graduate, law, and medical schools by the late 1940s, but only in 1950 did Georgetown admit its first black undergraduate when Samuel Halsey enrolled in the School of Foreign Service, and even then only in the “evening division,” cut off from the majority of the student body (try to find him in the 1953 yearbook). Halsey, who died in 2012, graduated in 1953, served in government and business, and is now the namesake of a Citizenship Award established at Georgetown in 2002.
Even after this milestone, the university remained nearly all-white long after Samuel Halsey’s arrival, in its student body, in its administration, and in its faculty. The Georgetown College did not admit a black undergraduate until the mid-1960s, and not until the early ‘80s did Georgetown have its first tenured black faculty member on the main campus.
Meanwhile, racist tropes and practices persisted during this era of continued civil rights activity led by African-Americans and (perhaps new) attention to civil rights from white society. For example, throughout the 1960s, a “slave auction” featuring upper class male students and visiting students from local women’s schools bidding on the services of freshman was part of the annual John Carroll Weekend to kick off the new school year.
When the Grammy-award winning, folk music ensemble The New Christy Minstrels appeared for the first time at Georgetown’s McDonough Gym in February 1965, the Hoya’s writer explained that the group’s musical approach “began in the Nineteenth Century” when Edwin Christy formed his “group of singers with the object of presenting folk music of the era with a professional touch.” The group “caught on in New York and other major cities,” and were “responsible for immortalizing Stephen Foster’s music for future generations.” As if Edwin Christy’s minstrels didn’t also immortalize blackface. But except for the headline, “Yesterday’s Blackfaces, Today’s Christy Singers Will Appear This Friday,” the article makes no other reference to blackface. It just rests in the headline, unexamined, perhaps forgotten like the fading memory of minstrelsy.
During the two decades following World War II, blackface minstrelsy had nearly vanished in popular culture, but it was by no means dead in the D.C. area or nationally (or internationally: “The Black and White Minstrel Show” on Britain’s BBC started in 1958 and ran successfully for 20 years). Local Jaycees, Lions Clubs, churches, and similar organizations continued to put on shows for their own constituencies. The Congressional Club—formed of the spouses of members of Congress—staged an “old-fashioned minstrel show for diplomatic distaffers” in March 1963. One wonders what the wives of the ambassadors from France, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Iceland, and other countries thought about this entertainment.
In 1964, local TV reporter and morning show host Lorraine Flocks wrote and co-produced a variety stage show titled “Minstrel Time.” The Evening Star assured readers that Flocks was “very much aware that minstrel shows have come under attack recently as portraying Negroes in an unfavorable light” and that “she has made every effort to avoid offending anyone” by using no blackface. “And,” she added, “we have avoided songs with Negro dialect or connotations.” Still, Evening Star columnist Harry MacArthur critiqued even this whitewashed minstrelsy:
There are moments when all the frenzy does recall that earlier entertainment era when these affairs flourished. It can’t, however, hide or even gloss over the fairly obvious fact that whatever happened to the old time minstrel show was the old time minstrel show. It got passed by time as audiences grew more sophisticated and it didn’t. … It’s as if Al Jolson had decided one day that from now on he would wash his face and stand up to sing
The Jaycees of Alexandria, Virginia, continued to hold an annual blackface minstrel show as late as 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
But 1968 was also the year the Black Student Alliance (BSA) was established at Georgetown, and with it a turn to inclusion and diversity. Conan Louis, who was executive director of the G.U. Alumni Association in the early 1990s (when I was president of the Washington, D.C., alumni club), noted that when he arrived on campus in 1969, there were only about 30 black students out of a population of 6,000.
The black student population at Georgetown continued to remain small and insulated into the 1970s. “Georgetown is racist,” the author of a section of the 1975 Ye Domesday Booke wrote. “This should come as a surprise to no one, black or white. Racism exists here in the student body, the faculty and the administration. This is not an accusation; it is merely a statement of fact.” She or he described a “world totally alien” to the black student’s background and cultural experience, where the “black freshman is confronted with the harsh reality of being a member of an extremely small minority at a large institution geared to the whims and wishes of the majority alone.” Less than 4 percent of the Georgetown student body in 1975 was black, according to this author, and 60 percent of those were commuters. And, at this time, there were still no full-time black professors, and few if any black administrators. “There are entirely too many white students who are totally unaware of the problems that blacks face in this country, simply because of lack of exposure to us, our culture and our perspective.” At decade’s end, the black student population share at Georgetown remained stagnant at under 4 percent.
And yet during this period, the BSA worked to increase attention to issues such as black student retention, minority faculty hiring, and racial justice. The Community Scholars Program (CSP) and The Black House were established during this time, and the predecessor of today’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access was founded. I’m not able to recount in this piece the ongoing work of the BSA, the CSP, and the Center to promote social justice that continues today, but will just observe that the evaporation of the last vestiges of minstrelsy at Georgetown overlapped with the inception of this important work. Work that necessarily continues: today, about 7 percent of Georgetown students and over 13 percent of its faculty are black.
A 21st-century digital reckoning
Blackface was the cultural reflection of the long exclusion of black people from admission to Georgetown as students and from positions of power and influence at the school. It is part of our school’s—and our country’s—history and should be studied, discussed, and learned from.
— Georgetown history professor Adam Rothman, curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive, letter to the Hoya, quoted from “Blackface, Bigotry Found in University Archives”
In September 2016, Georgetown University President John DeGioia addressed the GU community on the school’s past association with the institution of slavery, including selling enslaved people to raise funds for the school. “I believe the most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery,” he said, “is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time.”
The renewed attention to blackface in mainstream media after the pictures emerged of Virginia Governor Northam and other public figures in blackface offers us another opportunity to, as President DeGioia said, address the “manifestations” of the legacy of this form of racism in American life today. Critics of the attention to blackface will take the weak position that it occurred in the past, when social mores and attitudes were different. But as writer P.R. Lockhartobserved in February, “framing controversies over blackface simply as a reaction to a form of older, long-gone racism is a mistake. As multiple examples from the past few years indicate, it has never really gone away.” Miami University (Ohio) Professor Wil Haygood said much the same: “Blackface in America just won’t go away—consistently showing up at stag parties, on frat row, in college musicals and elsewhere.”
Blackface won’t go away because it’s baked into America’s cultural DNA. Imagine a family tree, with some not-so-distant ancestors and their descendants, generation begetting generation, from then to now. Each generation passes material—genetic, social, cultural, historical—from one to the next, but with mutation, loss of fidelity, and diffusion along the way. Blackface minstrelsy is like this in a way. It entered white America’s DNA in the 1840s with large troupes performing in halls and theaters across the country to adoring crowds. As the originating generation passed down minstrelsy to new ones, the format changed, the performers diversified, but the racial meaning remained constant, even as black actors took the stage. Further down the generations, the marquee acts dissipated as members of local organizations, clubs, and institutions—including the young men of Georgetown—put on blackface to entertain their friends and neighbors. Minstrelsy had diffused from professional stage performers to the amateur club member, to a bunch of twenty-somethings at college parties. It had become instinctual to such a degree that a person like Ralph Northam at Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984 didn’t consider it at all controversial that anyone would don blackface, stand smiling next to someone in Klan robes and hood, have a picture taken, and then insert that photo into the yearbook.
Blackface won’t go away because the idea keeps getting passed on from generation to generation. According to recent Pew research, about a third of Americans said donning blackface for Halloween is always or sometimes acceptable. White adults are twice as likely as black adults to believe that. In the wake of the Northam scandal, USA Today Network reviewed 900 yearbooks from 120 schools across the country from the 1970s and ‘80s. The review uncovered hundreds of examples of offensive and racist material, from all regions of the country. In November 1988, when I was a sophomore at Georgetown and only a few years after the blackface-KKK photo appeared on Dr. Northam’s yearbook page (where it remained unremarked upon for 35 years), House GOP Leader Bob Michel mused on a morning news program that “we used to have minstrel shows when I was in grade school”—in the 1930s—but lamented that “today you can’t do that, everybody blackfaced up … I think it’s too bad.” He also used the N-word to explain that we don’t use the N-word anymore. Congressman Michel apologized later.
Frederick Douglass wondered, in that October 1848 column about the abolitionist singing family, why the other Rochester editor found them “disagreeable.” “Such a fact,” Douglass wrote, “betrays an unenviable state of mind, more to be deplored than blamed.” Douglass went on to describe the first of two nights of the Hutchinsons’ performances as “cold, dark and rainy,” with muddy streets and higher than normal ticket prices. And yet Minerva Hall was crowded. But, Douglass said, “there was evidently some ill feeling towards the colored part of the audience” before the show commenced. And yet “as the glorious harmony proceeded, caste stood abashed—the iron heart of prejudice, pride and scorn, seemed to melt away, and the general expression of the audience, among white and black, confessed the truth of a common origin and a common brotherhood.”
I am glad to live in a time when citizens can use digital tools to interrogate the pasts of leaders and institutions, but am saddened to confirm that Georgetown University and its students were no less participants in blackface minstrelsy than any others in their time, in a past that feels not so distant when depicted against the backdrop of Healy Hall.
In my journey into the history of blackface minstrelsy at Georgetown and its environs in the nation’s capital—in my reliance on the university’s digital archive for yearbooks and newspapers, and online newspaper databases—I’ve merely brushed a hand across the top of the pond. I look forward to learning more about this history from the research of others who will be able to access and interpret even more sources, to dive fully into the water to discover what lies beneath the surface. But in causing even a small ripple in our community’s past, I hope to illuminate some of the ways that Georgetown participated in this particular form of racist and dehumanizing entertainment.
I found something else in this process, though. While some of the pages of the Georgetown College Journal, Ye Domesday Booke, and the Hoya reveal evidence of Georgetown’s participation in the racist culture of past times, I also found examples of service: to the community, to the nation, and to the world. Young men and women of Georgetown then (as now) made contributions to national and foreign affairs, to business, to teaching, to the arts, to athletics, to medicine, and more. I’m a proud graduate (twice) of Georgetown University, and am proud of the work that President DeGioia, school faculty and students, and alumni leaders are doing to contend with the past and pursue social justice now and in the future. Knowing more about our racist past better equips us, I believe, to address our racist present. It enables us to better pursue that Jesuit ideal, to be men and women for others.
* Post script: As I was writing this post, I learned of an article in the Hoya newspaper, published on March 1, 2019, about blackface minstrelsy and other racialized imagery in Georgetown’s past. A senior named Marcus Lustig (C’19) is writing his thesis on blackface minstrelsy. According to the paper:
Blackface minstrel shows were put on at Georgetown for 89 years, according to Lustig. The earliest evidence he found was from December 1861 and the latest from spring 1950. Lustig argued that blackface is connected to anxieties about the white identify, especially for Catholic Americans.
Good luck to Mr. Lustig in his pursuit of this inquiry in a more rigorously academic fashion than the present account.
Also, thanks to those who read drafts of this piece and offered their comments.
Digital Georgetown, Georgetown University Library
History of Minstrelsy, University of South Florida
Blackface Minstrelsy in Modern America, Digital Public Library of America
Sources for the study of 19th and 20th century blackface minstrelsy, Brown University Library
Minstrel Songs, Library of Congress
— Fred Dews, March 2019