Reflection and Conclusions
Content Warning: This webpage includes readings, media, and discussion around topics of racism, blackface, racial violence, racial stereotypes, racial slurs, and other racist traditions. We acknowledge that this content may be difficult. We encourage you to care for your safety and well-being. If you would like to see a map of Black minstrel troupe tours, click here.
In evaluating the prevalence of black minstrel troupe performances across the United States, perhaps one of the most important takeaways is that the impact of Black performers on American performance culture which is often masked by white power. Even in our limited time for research and data collection, we saw differences in the locations where minstrel troupes were performing and how much they were charging, which may have been influenced by racist policies and ideas. For example, George Callender (the first owner of an all-black touring minstrel troupe) fared much better than many other Black owned minstrel troupes at the time, even though Black minstrel troupes were in high demand. As stated by Ellis Cashmore in The Black Culture Industry, “Despite at least 27 other black owned competitors owned and run by blacks, Callendar’s company maintained its position as the leading show.” Because of their success – which was at least partly rooted in Callender’s whiteness – Callender’s company was able to tour on the East Coast where performing was more efficient and more lucrative. Our maps support this conclusion.
A related trend illustrated by our maps is the difference in performance locations between Black and white-owned minstrel troupes. Though Lew Johnson’s and Hick’s and Sawyer’s minstrels also toured on the East coast, they occupy the Western U.S. which was seemingly untouched by white owned minstrel troupes (although more data collection might indicate otherwise). According to Cashmore, both Lew Johnson and Charles Hicks were effectively shut out of big cities for competing with white minstrel troupes and so had to venture elsewhere, even traveling overseas in Hicks’s case. Our maps show extensive performances of Lew Johnson’s minstrels in settled parts of California where Black minstrel troupes had unusual opportunities. Lynn Hudson in Entertaining Citizenship: Masculinity and Minstrelsy in Post-Emancipation San Francisco writes that San Francisco and surrounding areas were unique in their allowance of social mobility for Black males, though still limited. This was disconcerting to white people, and so “One way to neutralize this threat took place on stage, in the nation’s first and most popular form of mass entertainment, the minstrel show.” Thus, some of the highest demand for minstrelsy, specifically including Black performers, was in California. Further research could capitalize on the correlation between legislation increasing the rights of Black people and the prevalence of minstrel performances in that jurisdiction.
Considering the prevalence of blackface minstrelsy in American popular culture today, we would like you to use this data to form your own opinions on its influence. We hope we have provided you with material that will prompt further research and new discoveries within the expansive – and expanding – field we call American music.