One of the great comedy acts based on the American minstrelsy tradition, but with a decidedly white face.
Thanks to YouTuber SpikeJonesEstate
Looking back at yesterday’s post on Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’, got me thinking again about minstrelsy, and the relationship of Black entertainers to their (often) white audiences. Throughout American history, Black performers were frequently able to subvert and re-frame the meanings of their entertainments. Eric Lott’s seminal book, Love and Theft, inspired me two decades ago to do some serious study of the American minstrel show, and to investigate how the minstrel show’s conventions and subversions helped write the complex story of both race oppression and resistance. Here’s an article I wrote at that time that appeared in the December 1994 edition of the journal African American Review. I’m posting it here as it appeared then, without any update or correction.
Minstrelsy before 1865 was a largely white-owned and white-performed phenomenon. There were, before 1865, few companies that had Black performers and that were Black-controlled. Robert Toll, in Blacking Up, lists only six such groups, none of which is known to have lasted more than a month. One troupe that is not on Toll’s list, and is not, as far as I know, documented elsewhere, is the Ira Aldridge Troupe, which played in Philadelphia at the Franklin Hall in Philadelphia in 1863.(1) An eyewitness account by a white reporter from the New York Clipper provides insights into the program of the company as well as the troupe’s reception by its largely Black audience (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70).
The Ira Aldridge Troupe is surely unique in the annals of minstrelsy, if only by virtue of its name, which reflects the pride and awareness the founders of the company must have had when they chose to title themselves after the Black actor who had left his homeland some 35 years before, never to return. Although long absent from the United States, Aldridge was not unknown here – his death in 1867 was reported on the front page of the Chicago Times (Marshall and Stock 334). However, during the Civil War, Aldridge’s name had a significance even larger than his acting abilities, for he had kept a close eye on the abolitionist movement in the United States, and was reported to have contributed half his earnings to the struggle for the liberation of Blacks. As an example of Aldridge’s immediate concern, when a Black family in Baltimore was captured after fleeing from slavery, Aldridge reportedly donated the money to buy the family’s freedom (Marshall and Stock 198). So it is perhaps understandable that, unlike most later Black minstrel companies, and in keeping with the dignity of its name, the Aldridge Troupe apparently did not do plantation material, although they were billed as a contraband troupe – that is, as fugitive slaves. Perhaps, too, because of their substantially Black audience, the troupe felt no need to “put on the mask.” In fact, although much of the material the group performed was standard fare, several of the company’s acts were downright subversive, as a description of the show will indicate.
Part I began with ballad singing by three members of the troupe – Miss S. Burton, Miss R. Clark, and Mr. C. Nixon. Burton sang “When the Cruel War is Over,” which, having sold over a million copies of sheet music, was the most popular sentimental song of the Civil War (Toll 110). The song describes a soldier’s farewell to his lady, the wounds he receives in battle, and his dying request for a last caress. This song, so popular with white minstrel troupes, was an example of the change in white minstrelsy that had been occurring at this time. As the war progressed, the sentimental songs telling of the destruction of Black slave families were replaced in white minstrelsy with songs telling of white suffering because of the war. In the hands of a Black performer, however, this song with its refrain “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely, Hopes and Fears how vain! / When this cruel war is over, Praying that we meet again!” must have had a different, special meaning for its Black Philadelphian audience. Since Philadelphia was one of the closest Northern cities to the slave South, it had become a major stopping point for fugitive slaves, and a frequent destination for the underground railroad, which was supported by many Black churches and secular groups in Philadelphia (Miller and Smith 570). The song’s not-so-encoded meaning clearly referred to fugitive slaves “meeting again” with their Black brothers and sisters still enslaved in the South. The imminent departure of the first troop of Black soldiers from Philadelphia added pertinence and poignancy: Soon there would be Black women seeing their true loves off to war (Du Bois 38). The Clipper reporter notes that the Black audience showed its appreciation, and Miss Burton sang an encore. However, much to the delight of the audience, but to the dismay of the reporter, Burton started to get “into a regular Methodist style, keeping up a movement with her body to the air of the song, collapsing at last into a regular camp meeting break down” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). There can be no doubt that the audience had identified itself in the song.
The next act was a farce called “The Irishman and the Stranger,” with a Mr. Brown playing a character called Pat O’Callahan and a Mr. Jones playing the Stranger. The Clipper reporter refers to it as a “truly laughable affair, the ‘Irish nagur’ mixing up a rich Irish brogue promiscuously with the sweet nigger accent” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). Perhaps the Aldridge Troupe’s audience got its biggest satisfaction, however, from the role reversal inherent in the piece: Since the beginning of minstrelsy, minstrels of Irish heritage such as Dan Bryant and Richard Hooley had been caricaturing Black men – now it was the turn of Black men to caricature the Irish. Tensions between the two groups were running particularly high during this period, a tension that was to culminate in occurrences such as the New York City and Boston draft riots less than a month later, during which primarily Irish rioters ran through the streets attacking Black people (Zinn 230-31). The previous twenty-five years in Philadelphia had seen a considerable deterioration of the political and economic position of Blacks: They had been completely disenfranchised by the Pennsylvania constitution in 1838, so that they could no longer vote, and by the 1850s they had lost their predominance in many semi-skilled and unskilled occupations to the Irish. What is more, despite increasing industrialization, Blacks were excluded from the factory jobs that the Irish immigrants filled (Hershberg 112, 117). So the Aldridge audience must have gotten special enjoyment from Brown’s representation of an Irishman so crude that his coat buttons were made of crackers.
Race and ethnicity were never far from the thoughts of the spectators even during the seemingly innocuous acrobatic act that followed. As Mr. J. Purnell stood on his head on top of a seven-foot pole, Black members of the audience shouted out with pride, “Ooh! Go way white man – look at ’em, look at ’em” and “Whar’s yer Pickayune Butlers now?”(2)
After some comic songs and dances, the troupe continued with a dramatic performance that brought race once more into focus. A thriller called “The Red Man of the Forest; or the Oath” starred Mr. P. Jones as the Red Man of the title, and Mr. S. P. Brown as the evil Duke Aphonza. Toward the end of the play, Red Man captures the (white) Duke; the actor playing the Duke, however, evidently had not “whitened up” for the part; and, as a result, when the Indian confronted him saying, “Let the pale face beware,” the house exploded in laughter and chatter, calling to the dark-skinned actor to dip his head in a barrel of flour. But one observer, at least, was able to see beyond the actor’s actual color. Voicing a hidden subtext of the piece, the theatregoer shouted out, “Go it, Injun – give dat pale face a smash in dat mouf of his’n.”
The hostility of some of the Black audience members toward whites should not be surprising, despite the reputation that Philadelphia had for abolitionist activity. For if Philadelphia was a center of anti-slavery activity, it was also a hotbed of discrimination. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia” (qtd. in Weigley 165). Black Philadelphians at the time were still barred from street cars, could not attend white elementary schools, were not allowed to attend any public high schools, and had been subject to the effects of so many riots during the 1840s that the growth rate of their population throughout that decade was a scant 0.36% (Du Bois 38, 40, 88).
Given this history, it is interesting to note that the audience was not completely Black. According to the Clipper account, while the hall was nearly filled with Black audience members, one bench in front, reserved for whites, was occupied by “a dozen or two of pale faces.” The Clipper reporter noted the clear difference in the behavior of the two segments of the audience:
The whites were orderly in their demeanor, always laughing in the right places, and applauding at the proper time; but the blacks behaved very bad, making all sorts of fun of the performers, and openly criticizing everything that was done. (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70)
Not even the infamously rowdy New York Bowery Theatre audiences were this bad according to the reporter: “A more incorrigible set of cusses we never saw; they beat our Bowery gods all to pieces” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). It is interesting to note the reporter’s presumption in judging the “right places” to laugh and applaud. However, the reporter’s bland assessment of the white audience does not impart much insight. There is no way of knowing, for example, whether the responses of the white audience were racist, since such responses presumably could be subsumed by the reporter under the category of “laughing in the right places.” But clearly the majority of the Black audience knew what was thought funny, and pertinent. In fact, the reporter admits that he could not make head or tail of the plot of “The Red Man of the Forest,” although he concedes the Blacks around him seemed to understand it thoroughly – even if, as he claims, each had a different version of the piece.
Exactly who were the audience members? We have a few clues to go on. Franklin Hall was not a legitimate theatre, since contemporary advertisements imply that it was being used as a dance hall at times.(3) It was located on Spruce Street, just off of Second Street, in the heart of the Fifth Ward of Philadelphia in the Southwark district. The Fifth Ward accommodated the largest concentration of Blacks in Philadelphia at the time – according to the 1860 census, 5,229 Blacks out of a total ward population of 24,792. Although this ratio may not seem great when compared to say, the modern-day Harlem of New York City, it must be remembered that in 1860 there were only 22,185 Blacks in Philadelphia out of a total population of 565,529, for a proportion of only 4% (Weigley 159). So a theatre located in the Fifth Ward could easily attract a predominately Black audience. The neighboring Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Wards were also populated with relatively high percentages of Black inhabitants, so it is reasonable to believe that the theatre may have drawn audiences from these wards as well.
The presence of some two dozen whites at Franklin Hall can be explained by the 80 percent white population of the Fifth Ward. The Clipper reporter recounts that one of the acts was interrupted by a young Black boy who had “espied the white trash” and called out “Three cheers for the Shiffler hose!” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). Clearly the reporter’s characterization of the whites as “white trash” allows us to place them as working-class, but the reference to the “Shiffler hose” allows an even more narrow identification. The Shiffler Hose was one of the ubiquitous volunteer fire companies so popular in urban centers during the mid-nineteenth century. These fire companies functioned more like gangs than service organizations. There were intense turf wars among the companies, sometimes involving beatings, firearms, arson, even murder. Some companies like the Moyamensing Hose made alliances with notorious gangs such as the Killers. The fire companies not only fought over turf but were often divided along ethnic and political lines as well. The Shiffler Hose was infamous for its violent anti-Catholic sentiments.(4) The young boy in the theatre, however, was evidently incorrect in his identification, because as soon as he called out, someone else responded, “Shet up yer mouf! Dem’s de Wiccacoe fellas – free cheers for de Wiccy.” The Weccacoe Hose company, one of the Shiffler company’s most hated enemies, was aligned with a gang called the Bouncers; they were Democrats and mainly Irish Catholics, in contrast to the Shiffler’s American Republican Party allegiance and “nativist” American composition.(5) The headquarters of the Weccacoe was at Catherine and Front Streets, less than a mile away from Franklin Hall. Clearly the Black members of the audience were familiar with the faces of the “Wiccy,” and had interacted with them outside the theatre. The Irish of the Fifth Ward, like the Blacks, constituted a significant but less than majority proportion of the ethnic composition of the ward: 4,381, or 18 percent, were Irish. This was a relatively high concentration of Irish for the city, since no ward was more than 28 percent Irish. Thus, both the Blacks and the Irish of the Fifth Ward found themselves to be large minorities outnumbered by the larger nativist population of the ward (Warner 139). Eric Lott, in his recent book Love and Theft, suggests that, despite the constant conflicts between Irish and Black throughout the country, the shared class niche also resulted in interracial friendships and even marriages (Lott 95).
Another thing that the volunteer firemen had in common with the Blacks in the neighborhood was a lack of property. Although in 1850 one-third to one-half of the property in the nearby districts of Moyamensing and Gray’s Ferry were owned by Irishmen (Clark 137), the journeymen who made up the membership of the volunteer fire companies “owned no real property” (Laurie 76). As for the Blacks, an 1848 census showed only 28 homeowners in the entire district of Southwark (Du Bois 288). So despite the fierce racial antagonisms prevalent between the Irish and the Blacks, the firemen of Southwark and the Black theatregoers did share some common class concerns, and perhaps it was this aspect of commonality, along with their geographic proximity, that allowed them to attend the low-priced performance together. The fact that the whites sat at a bench reserved for them in the front of the theatre may have been sufficient acknowledgment of white-skin privilege to satisfy their racial standards. Their privileged position signaled that, though the audience was filled with Blacks and the performers were Black, this was still Wiccy turf.
We can see, then, how each part of the minstrel audience made its own meaning out of the performance, in collaboration with the performers and other members of the audience. As with white minstrelsy, readings of the racial subtext by the audience were an important part of the experience. The history of minstrelsy is also the history of the piracy and distortion of Black culture by whites. The Ira Aldridge Troupe attempted to pirate that piracy, and, in collaboration with its audience, turn minstrelsy to its own ends. In an ironic twist, the reporter for the Clipper had a final suggestion for white performers. Speaking of the Aldridge Troupe, he invited his readers to plunder this newest manifestation of Black culture once more. In an enthusiastic endorsement, the reporter proclaimed that “we should like some of our [white] minstrel friends to see one of these performances. They would profit by it.” And indeed, as history shows, they did.
1. It is hard to verify whether the Aldridge Troupe was a professional, rather than an amateur, company given the vagaries of making a living in show business, especially for Blacks, during this period. However, a few factors point strongly in the direction of professional intention. First, the fact that a white reporter from New York City was present indicates a larger than local fame; second, the complexity of some of the acts, especially the acrobatics, indicates a performance that was not just thrown together overnight, but required long hours of practice; third, Harry Craig, who is reported as being the head of the troupe’s orchestral trio, is listed in the 1860 edition of Cohen’s Philadelphia, Pa. City Directory as being a musician by trade. Finally, the presence of a mixed Black and white audience indicates that the performance probably was not sponsored by a church or fraternal organization.
2. The mention of “Pickayune Butler” probably refers to John “Picayune” Butler, one of the very few nationally known Black entertainers of the period. He was famous for his banjo playing and introduced a popular song called “Picayune Butler’s Come to Town” (Southern). Another intriguing, though less likely, possible reference is to Pierce Butler, a wealthy white slaveowner, once married to the famous actress Fanny Kemble, who took up residence among the elite of Philadelphia. During the outbreak of the War, Butler went south to oversee his Georgia plantation, and while there probably took an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. On his return to Philadelphia in August of 1862, he was arrested by federal authorities without benefit of habeas corpus for his pro-slavery sentiments (Dusinberre 128).
3. See, for example, the Public Ledger for 21 May 1863.
4. For a fascinating account of the volunteer fire companies of Philadelphia, see Laurie (71-87).
5. Of course, what Philadelphians called nativist American does not refer to American Indians but rather to those Protestants descended from English immigrants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were strongly opposed to the waves of nineteenth-century immigration.
Clark, Dennis J. “The Philadelphia Irish: Persistent Presence.” Davis and Hailer 135-54.
Davis, Allan F., and Mark H. Haller, ads. The Peoples of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1973.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro. 1899. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967.
Dusinberre, William. Civil War Issues in Philadelphia 1856-1865. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1965.
Hershberg, Theodore. “Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia.” Davis and Hailer 111-34.
Laurie, Bruce. “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s.” Davis and Hailer 71-87.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1958.
Miller, Randall M., and John David Smith, eds. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport: Greenwood, 1988.
“Negro Minstrelsy.” New York Clipper 13 June 1863: 70.
Southern, Eileen, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Westport: Greenwood, 1982.
Toll, Robert. Blacking Up. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.
Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Private City. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1968.
Weigley, Russell F. “A Peaceful City: Public Order in Philadelphia from Consolidation through the Civil War.” Davis and Hailer 155-74.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980. New York: Harper, 1990.