I spent a decade poring over blackface composites from yearbooks and fraternal orders, watching cracked film footage and cataloguing more than 10,000 blackface plays at Harvard University. Those plays and Northam’s racist photo show us the centrality of amateur blackface minstrelsy to American cultural life and universities. They show how upwardly mobile white men concentrated white-supremacist political power in the century after the Civil War, using the profits of amateur blackface to build white-only institutions and using blackface performances to articulate to voters their legislative commitment to white supremacy.
They also show how persistent those power structures remain.
Though blackface was the No. 1 entertainment form throughout the United States in the 19th century, it has a particularly notable legacy in Virginia. The first globally famous minstrel troupe hailing from New York City rebranded itself as the Virginia Minstrels in 1843. Dan Emmett, the group’s founder, understood his minstrel troupe needed to project a sense of authentic, stereotypical blackness. Virginia, a state that imported enslaved Africans as a colony as early as 1619, embodied the complex relationship between blackface entertainment, slavery and American culture in a single word. The troupe did not just borrow Virginia’s brand, but shaped it: Its song “Dixie” became the unofficial Confederate anthem.
That legacy can be seen in the history of blackface at the University of Virginia, founded and designed by another Virginia governor: Thomas Jefferson. Virginia was a state built on enslaved labor, and U-Va. was no different. Beginning in 1830, the university would “hire out” enslaved people from the surrounding area. Eventually, U-Va. purchased humans like “Big Lewis” Commodore in 1832 at auction for $580, permanently separating him from his family.
Virginia’s slave empire ended when African American slaves fought for their freedom in the Civil War. After 1865, Lewis Commodore was free. But when slavery disappeared, fundraising with amateur blackface minstrel shows and city minstrel parades emerged. They featured fictionalized blackface slaves and their Klansman counterparts — a pairing on display in the Northam photo — to sustain Virginia’s infrastructure and segregated economy, as well as to inculcate new generations into a form of white supremacy associated with collegiality, school spirit and patriotism.
The era we now call Jim Crow America was named after a famous blackface minstrel character. His signature debut song “Jumpin’ Jim Crow” reached global fame in 1832, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that everyday Americans bought commercially packaged how-to minstrel blackface plays to perfect these racial stereotypes. A new era of segregation, mass culture and blackface emerged, where blackface-imitating pro-Klan movies such as “Birth of a Nation” were the go-to entertainment form for young men.
In Jim Crow’s century-long reign, a strange, visible and highly pervasive world of blackface minstrel shows took hold in nearly every city and town in the United States. Amateur blackface minstrel shows and parades were so central to civic and campus life in 20th-century America that it’s hard to find a university yearbook without a blackface image or a town that didn’t hold such a parade.
U-Va.’s love affair with — and financial reliance on — amateur blackface grew during Reconstruction. A rumor circulated throughout U-Va. that “some of the students are forming themselves into a negro minstrel troupe” to perform on campus and in the local towns in Virginia. In 1886, the official University Minstrel Troupe donated the proceeds of its minstrel show to the construction of the University of Virginia Chapel, where hundreds of couples continue to marry each year. The show, which included a “stump speech” — a stand-up comedy routine lampooning black politicians — also featured a “Berlesque of Mikado,” likely in yellowface.
Throughout the First Klan era, the U-Va. minstrel troupe “sweetly” sang in “darky dialect” to raise funds. During World War I, a university-sponsored minstrel show took place on the white steps of the Rotunda, where Lewis Commodore used to be enslaved. The school’s yearbook is named “Corks and Curls,” minstrel slang for the burned cork used to blacken faces and the curly Afro wigs that were signature costume pieces (though the yearbook officially denies that’s where the name came from), and scores of old copies highlight the prominence of blackface on campus.
Blackface was a fundraising and socialization tool for white, all-male, Christian civic organizations such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. The Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Virginia used blackface in raids to confuse victims and in comedy shows to recruit members. In 1924, as Charlottesville erected its infamous Robert E. Lee statue, the Charlottesville Elks Minstrel show ran ads ridiculing black American soldiers. They all solidified the relationship between slavery, blackface, white-supremacist political power, segregation, business and university life.
When white supremacists set U-Va.’ s lawn aglow on Aug. 11, 2017, the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that stretched between the governorships of Jefferson and Northam materialized in the plume of tiki-torch smoke. The photographs of the rally mirrored the magic-lantern slides I studied in U-Va.’s library, which depicted amateur blackface minstrel shows that were hosted by Charlottesville firefighters, and Confederate veteran parades between 1900 and 1910.
The young men who encircled counterprotesters and the statue of Jefferson in 2017 were part of an exceptionally long history of clean-cut, suburban, civic-minded, young white-supremacist groups on American college campuses celebrated for their patriotism and public service in the 20th century. Northam’s blackface yearbook spread is a small shard of an expansive and ever-present national story, one that shows how racism defined what it means to be a patriotic, successful and civically oriented white man in modern America.