by Juanita Zerda, Board President, Winchester Multicultural Network
In 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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Reference: Ellen Knight, Minstrels & Caberets—Music for Fun and Profit