The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, politicians wore blackface. It used to be all-American ‘fun.’

Minstrel shows were once so mainstream that even presidents watched them.

Then-New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (left), a Republican, and then-New York Gov. Al Smith (right), a Democrat, with three state judges dressed in blackface at an Elks Charity Fund minstrel show in New York in 1935. (New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Both Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) of Virginia have admitted that they wore blackface as students in the 1980s in imitations of famous African Americans. News broke  Thursday that the Virginia Senate majority leader, Tommy Norment (R), was an editor of a 1968 college yearbook filled with blackface photos.  

Will yet more photos emerge of rowdy blackface frat parties and politicians’ youthful participation in amateur minstrel shows? The answer is almost certainly yes. More politicians probably took part than we will ever know.

Blackface is as American as the ruling class. Throughout the 20th century, all-male fraternal orders, schools, federal agencies and the U.S. military collectively institutionalized the practice. Watching blackface performances was a common pastime for U.S. presidents from both parties. “Blacking up” was seen as an expression of cultural heritage and patriotism throughout Jim Crow America — an era named after a famous blackface stock character — and up until the civil rights movement. Even now, one recent poll by YouGov found, only 58 percent of Americans oppose the practice.

As an expert in the history of amateur blackface minstrelsy, I was not surprised to see that a young Northam had a photo showing a man in blackface and someone dressed as a Klansman on his page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. 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 — collecting and preserving discarded programs, scrapbooks, photographs and blackface how-to guides from library sales, antique auctions and abandoned boxes outside foreclosed homes. 

The reaction to the news out of Virginia shows how deeply the history of blackface has been buried, along with the practice. Once central to American popular culture, minstrelsy became taboo after African American activists fought against it in the 1960s and 1970s. But the truth is that it’s hard to look anywhere without seeing its vestiges.

Blackface originated in Northern cities in the 1830s, but it quickly became popular in Virginia. Dan Emmett, the founder of the first globally famous minstrel troupe hailing from New York City, rebranded it as the Virginia Minstrels in 1843 in an attempt to claim a plantation pedigree for blackface music and dance. Virginia, which had imported enslaved Africans as early as 1619, embodied the complex relationship between blackface entertainment, slavery and American culture. The troupe did not just borrow Virginia’s brand but actively shaped it — its song “Dixie” became the unofficial Confederate anthem.

Black history is U.S. history — but some of my students don’t want to hear it

The state’s flagship university, the University of Virginia (where Herring’s performance took place), embraced blackface enthusiastically, especially once the Civil War meant that the school could no longer rely on income from hiring out enslaved people it owned to work on nearby plantations. Starting during Reconstruction, U-Va. made blackface a part of its fundraising strategy. In 1886 or 1887, the official University Minstrel Troupe donated the proceeds of its show to the construction of the university chapel, where 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,” probably in yellowface.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) spoke about blackface and the scandals in Virginia's democratic leadership on Feb. 7. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

For decades, the U-Va. minstrel troupe “sweetly” sang in “darky dialect,” as their programs put it, to raise funds. During World War I, a university-sponsored minstrel show took place on the steps of the Rotunda. 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.

The practice was popular beyond the university, too. The Ku Klux Klan in Virginia used blackface in raids to confuse victims, and the Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy deployed it in comedy shows to recruit members. In 1924, as Charlottesville erected its infamous Robert E. Lee statue, the Charlottesville Elks ran ads promoting their minstrel show and ridiculing black American soldiers. The group’s shows featured fictionalized blackface slaves and their Klansman counterparts — a pairing on display in the Northam photo.

Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong.

As late as 1974, the annual Charlottesville Lions Club minstrel show was still so popular, it was recommended in travel guidebooks. In November 2002, U-Va. made national headlines when three students arrived at a Halloween fraternity party in blackface.

Virginia’s enthusiastic embrace of minstrelsy is not unique. After the Civil War, amateur blackface spread quickly in the North and West. Everyday Americans bought commercially packaged “how-to” plays to perform racial stereotypes at home. By the turn of the 20th century, pro-Klan movies with blackface scenes such as “The Birth of a Nation” were standard consumer fare.

Perhaps the biggest single organization behind the spread of blackface was founded in 1868 in New York City: the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (the BPOE or the Elks Club), originally called the Jolly Corks and commonly referred to as “the burnt cork brotherhood” in homage to its minstrel founders. (These days, the Elks, like the U-Va. yearbook, say the name has nothing to do with blackface — though many of the men involved in the name’s ostensible origin story were famous blackface performers.) By the mid-20th century, the Elks Club was the largest fraternal group in the nation. It eventually became a segregated, all-male, anti-communist business and political network reliant on blackface fundraising to finance thousands of lodges that served as hubs for political organizing, patriotic social events and civic education.

By the 1960s, the Elks could count Presidents Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy among their brotherhood, not to mention numerous generals and senators. Other Elks included presidential candidate Barry Goldwater; House speakers Tip O’Neill, Carl Albert, John McCormack, Sam Rayburn and Tom Foley; Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren; and more than 60 state governors.

No politician who was a member could feign ignorance of the Elks’ strong connections to white supremacy, reinforced by their vote in 1970 to maintain their order as racially exclusive. Nor could they be unaware of the Elks’ use of blackface minstrelsy, since learning that history was part of the organization’s initiation process. And there is no evidence that any of these politicians spoke out against amateur blackface minstrel shows within their organizations.

President Woodrow Wilson celebrated his success at the Paris Peace Conference ending World War I by enjoying an amateur minstrel show aboard the USS George Washington, where a white crew member made up in blackface and drag as “Mammy” sat in Wilson’s lap and threw “her” arms around him while caressing his chin. When amateur minstrel George H. O’Connor died in 1946, his obituary in the New York Times called him the “Minstrel to Presidents.” O’Connor cherished a card slipped to him by a waiter after one of these events; Roosevelt had written, “Dear George, like old wine, you get better as the years roll on.” News footage from 1928 shows President-elect Herbert Hoover and his wife laughing, clapping and shaking the hands of U.S. Navy sailors dressed in blackface onboard the USS Maryland. And in the 1943 musical “This Is the Army,” a fresh-faced Ronald Reagan helps direct an all-Army minstrel number called “Mandy” while in his uniform, for a fictional Roosevelt seated in the audience. 

100 times a white actor played someone who wasn’t white

One of clearest examples of the relationship between American politicians and amateur blackface is the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington, which a century ago might as well have been called the annual White House minstrel show. At the Gridiron Club, Theodore Roosevelt beamed when Lew Dockstader, an Elks minstrel celebrity, shuffled onstage in blackface impersonating an African American from Tuskegee University. Newly inaugurated President William Howard Taft took his front-row seat in 1909 at what one newspaper hailed as America’s “national minstrel show” and an “all-star burnt-cork aggregation.” Perhaps the most disturbing show was in 1921, when President Warren G. Harding and the Cabinet got an “unexpected thrill when a Ku Klux Klan demonstration took place” during the dinner, as the Baltimore Sun reported it. A “group of clansmen in hooded garb, riding hobby horses, rushed upon the scene. Out went the lights, leaving only a spotlight to illuminate the ghostly visitation.” They impersonated a raid. They “seized and dragged the two shivering victims to the front” to mock interrogate them onstage.

During Jim Crow’s century-long reign, this strange, visible and highly pervasive world of blackface minstrelsy took hold in nearly every city and town in the United States. California hosted more amateur blackface shows per capita than any other state in the post-Civil War period. The shows and parades were so central to civic and campus life that it is difficult to find a university yearbook from the first half of the 20th century without a blackface image. 

It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people

Amateur blackface minstrelsy served the U.S. government as something akin to an official culture. A child might be required to play a minstrel in school, where curriculums derived from state guides featured plays and music selected by the Works Progress Administration. As a young man, he might perform in and watch blackface while serving in the armed forces. The military was led by prominent Elks members, and it taught Americans to embody stereotypical blackness and transmitted racist proslavery antebellum culture in the form of Stephen Foster songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and “Old Folks at Home.” Such government-sponsored racism persisted in some forms through the Nixon administration. When he returned home, he would enter a university — on the G.I. Bill — where blackface was again a ritualized cultural expectation of white manhood. Finally, as a businessman, he would join fraternal orders that perpetuated the cycle.

How did this monstrous, mass-commercialized empire of amateur blackface minstrelsy end? And why have you never heard about any of this before?

The answer has to do with a largely forgotten civil rights victory spearheaded by black mothers in the 1950s and 1960s. These women, typically black Rosie the Riveters married to veterans who believed in the “Double Victory” campaign — freedom at home and abroad — stood on the front lines of school desegregation. Once those walls had been breached, they were horrified to discover that the music, poems, literature and plays to which their children were exposed were forms of amateur blackface minstrelsy. They ran a national media campaign and filed legal cases to ban blackface performance, dress-up, and texts from schools and government institutions.

Ironically, these courageous and determined mothers who envisioned a better world for their children were so successful at driving blackface out of the mainstream that schools now rarely (if ever) teach its history — which is why so many Americans are uninformed about how the practice persisted and why it is so offensive and hurtful to African Americans. It also might suggest why we now see blackface hip-hop parties on college campuses; younger generations do not understand the lineage they resurrect when donning blackface, because it is never discussed in their history classes. 

The defiant return of repressed racism in Northam’s yearbook spread represents only a small shard of a dark, expansive and ever-present national story, one that shows how deeply intertwined the history of our country and our political leadership has been with amateur blackface minstrelsy. Long before the recent scandals, “blacking up” helped define for many leading Americans what it meant to be a man.

Twitter: @DigitalHistory_

Read more from Outlook:

The troubling history behind Ralph Northam’s blackface Klan photo

The long history behind the racist attacks on Serena Williams

‘The Birth of a Nation’: The most racist movie ever made

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter