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Minstrelsy and Blackface in African American History

Friday, June 8th, 2012 | Posted in Your Library in Action by Eileen M. Thornton | Comments Off

“This is part of our history and a lot of times history is ugly.”

A chance conversation during a Special Collections visit with her Theory of History class led USF student Simone Sanders to discover USF Libraries’ Bank of America Black American Music Collection. For the senior majoring in history, the materials struck a nerve. Sanders (USF ’12) has long had a deep interest in African American history, and was already well-versed on the history of minstrelsy when she and Special Collections Assistant Librarian Andy Huse began collaborating on a digital exhibition chronicling its development and social context from the 1830s to the 1920s.

Student Simone Sanders and Librarian Andy Huse collaborate on the History of Minstrelsy exhibition

Blind Tom Wiggins

Minstrelsy in America, for all of its frivolous humor and popularity, was an exploitative form of musical theater that exaggerated real-life black circumstances and reinforced dangerous stereotypes during the 19th and 20th centuries. An embodiment of extremes represented in the often-sordid history of the genre, Blind Tom Wiggins was born a slave and purported to be developmentally disabled but was clearly a compositional genius, writing his first piece – Rain Storm – at the age of five. One of the highest grossing composers of the time, his masters exploited him to make a fortune in touring performances, eventually stealing him from his mother. After emancipation, some performers were able to improve their lot through performing in blackface. With few options for making a living, the public’s demand for blackface and minstrel performances was a potential source of income for newly-freed African Americans, who gradually began to replace the white performers in blackface. As the tide changed in the later era of the ‘New Negro,’ Bert Williams and George Walker were able to take what was developed as a racist, oppressive form of entertainment and turn it into a successful theater company with progressive messages.

Bert Williams

While some items in the Bank of America Black American Music Collection are shocking, representing negative stereotypes that the US mainstream in that era accepted and celebrated but which can be deeply offensive in 2012, co-curator Simone Sanders says, “…minstrelsy is a forgotten part of American entertainment. People start with jazz as the ‘first’ American art form, but this comes before jazz. This is part of our history and a lot of times history is ugly.”

In addition to this collection of rare and historic sheet music, the Library’s African American History Collections include the Armwood Family Papers; the papers of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Field Secretary for the Florida NAACP, and his wife Helen; and the Otis R. Anthony African Americans in Florida Oral Histories .

Contact Merrell Dickey to support student involvement and digitization of library collections for broad use: (813) 974-1654 mdickey@usf.edu.

 

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