by Juanita Zerda, Board President, Winchester Multicultural Network

Juanita ZerdaIn response to the news from Virginia about politicians using blackface, the Winchester Multicultural Network’s Board and Response and Advocacy Committee have been conducting research about blackface in US and local history, and having conversations with several African Americans in our local area. Here is some of what we have learned.

Origins of Blackface and the name Jim Crow

Blackface as a form of entertainment is generally accepted to have begun in 1828 when a white minstrel performer used it in the song “Jump Jim Crow.” Harris Gibson, a cardio-thoracic surgeon who has lived in Winchester for the past fifty years, notes that, at that time, “both the intent and impact of blackface was to spread the stereotype of blacks as buffoons.” The name Jim Crow, and the song, is said to have been taken from a physically disabled African slave, named either Jim Crow or Jim Cuff. The mocking, racist version of the song became so popular among white audiences that the term Jim Crow came to be used as a slur against African Americans, and was then used as the name for the laws of segregation that were enacted in the south in the late 1800’s.

Minstrel performances in Winchester

While many of us think of the south as the locus of overt racism found in laws and in minstrel shows and blackface performances, these shows were actually very popular here in Winchester. Nancy Schrock, Chair of the town’s Archives Advisory Committee, brought this history to our attention. Town Archivist Ellen Knight has written an article that can be found on the Arts and Entertainment page of our Town’s web sit. In the late 1800’s, the local Wedgemere Tennis Club tennis club became the Wedgemere Minstrels during the winter, doing shows that became very successful fundraisers. The February 2, 1889 Winchester Star describes one of the ensembles as “twelve boys from the public schools blackened and costumed” who sang plantations songs. Several other local clubs also offered minstrel shows as fundraisers, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, Ms. Knight’s article also depicts an advertisement for a fundraiser for the Boy Scouts held in 1942 at the Winchester High School Auditorium, where people could bring 50 cents to be entertained by “UNCLE SAMbo and his blackface minstrel troupe.”

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Blackface persists

Blackface minstrel performances are an ugly part of our past, but the revelations from Virginia highlight the fact that blackface persists. GeGe Jackson, a Steering Committee member of the Network, was appalled when she contemplated a person finishing medical school who would choose to have those pictures on his page. She asked “What are the ramifications on his interactions with parents and children of color, over the decades?” Then, she took in the opinions of African Americans in Virginia, who as a group, were more likely than whites to want the governor to retain his position, because of his recent policies and practices. Dr. Gibson said the same, “For example, I heard a black farmer who became a Virginia official talking about how the governor had transformed a farm subsidy program from one serving almost only whites to one serving the most needy, and thus more blacks…People from the most suspect backgrounds sometimes make the most positive difference. For example, both Presidents Abe Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson had roots in communities of much overt racism, but in the end they each did things that made a positive difference for blacks.” And another resident commented about being “more interested in how the governor acts now to ‘heal Virginia’ than how he acted thirty years ago,” and that “his own awakening in 2019 is what Virginia should judge him on.”

Opinions about blackface

While we can assume that the vast majority of white people would recognize the racism inherent in having a person in blackface posing next to someone dressed in KKK garb, in a recent poll reported in the Washington Post, only 57% of whites said blackface, in a more general context, is unacceptable, compared to 73% of black respondents. Many people defend their use of blackface for a costume, or for going to a party as a black celebrity. Neil Osborne, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the city of Medford, describes this behavior as like “a one-sided joke. White people (usually men) choosing to darken their skin using shoe polish is about the privilege to be in public displaying a joke about the dominance of white people over people with darker skin…Putting on blackface gives them ‘license’ to act in a particular manner which is often not respectful to the people they are pretending to be.”

Blackface in fashion

Also in the news recently is the Gucci black polo-neck sweater, that when pulled up over the wearer’s face, resembled blackface. While most believe the resemblance was unintentional, the fact that a major fashion leader like Gucci could produce something like this sweater, at the very least, speaks to the lack of diversity in leadership/supervisory positions, and about white people being woefully unaware of the associations and historical issues. On a positive note, Ms. Jackson spoke about major steps Gucci has taken in the wake of this major mistake to prevent offenses like this from recurring.

Ongoing racism and what white people can do

All of these incidents underscore the racism that is endemic in our society;
Mati Ligon, former Assistant Principal at McCall Middle School, noted “the mindset is still there.”

Doug Cromwell, a former Board member of the Network, urged that white people “who feel angry about the use of blackface cannot be silent. Their voices need to be heard…as a counterpoint to the racism that has been surfacing lately. By speaking up to friends and neighbors, it encourages conversation and dialogue and that in itself can have a positive ripple effect.”

If you are interested in ongoing dialogue, are considering getting involved with the Network, or would like more information about our programs, keep revisiting this website or email us.


Reference: Ellen Knight, Minstrels & Caberets—Music for Fun and Profit