Fellows Find: Photos, playbills, news clippings document history of blackface in minstrel shows
Matthew Sutton completed his Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary in May 2011. This June, he came to the Ransom Center, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship, to begin the process of revising his dissertation, Storyville: Discourses in Southern Musicians’ Autobiographies, into a book. A former archivist, Sutton worked extensively with the holdings of the performing arts collection, examining primary documents related to blackface minstrelsy in the United States. He shares some of his findings from the Center’s minstrel collection here.
Among the Ransom Center’s many treasures in its performing arts collections are the 4,000 items related to the minstrel show. Culled from private collections, these preserved photographs, programs, sheet-music arrangements, and first-person accounts reveal the world of the blackface minstrel from the Jacksonian age to the 1950s. These are not pleasant items to look at, but they represent an origin point for much of our present-day popular culture and our desire to imitate, borrow, or steal across class and racial lines in the name of entertainment.
One encapsulation of the hold the minstrel theater had on the antebellum working classes can be found in an anecdote from the unpublished memoir of impresario Samuel Sanford (1821–1905). To promote the opening of his Philadelphia minstrel theater in late 1855, Sanford announced plans to distribute toys to children (black and white) on Christmas Day and 5,000 loaves of bread to the city’s poor on New Year’s Day. For maximum impact, these “gifts” were thrown from the roof of the theater. After the Christmas spectacle, Philadelphia mayor Robert T. Conrad (a part-time playwright and defender of the “legitimate” theater) accused Sanford of inciting a riot. According to Sanford (a biased source, to be sure) and the newspaper clippings he saved and appended to his manuscript almost 40 years later, Philadelphians defied Conrad (one paper deriding the mayor as “His Majesty”), sided with the minstrel, and duly assembled for his New Year’s dispensation.
The indelible image of Sanford and his confederates heaving bread and toys off a theater roof to publicize their broad imitations of African Americans and ersatz “plantation melodies” connects on several levels. As a publicity stunt, it rivals the “ballyhoos” of Sanford’s contemporary P. T. Barnum, another showman who learned his tricks in the minstrel trade. As symbolism, it perfectly echoes Roman satirist Juvenal, who concluded that the masses could tolerate the injustices of their times so long as they had “bread and circuses,” that is to say, cheap and abundant food and entertainment. As history, it illustrates how blackface minstrelsy was sold to the white working class as a natural, even beneficial facet of urban life, when in fact its crude racial stereotyping was symptomatic of a nation struggling with its multiracial identity and nearing its end as a half-slave/half-free entity.
Archival holdings like the Sanford manuscript typically present scholars with more questions than answers. Yet they also open new avenues of inquiry, challenge past assumptions, and spur further research. Such is the value of primary sources from the “bit players” of history. Such is the value of the Ransom Center.