UVA and the History of Race: Blackface and the Rise of a Segregated Society

UVA and the History of Race: Blackface and the Rise of a Segregated Society

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia – now entering its third century – has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. The president’s commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. Here are some of them, written by those who did the research. One in an occasional series.

 

In 1867, just over two years after the Civil War ended in defeat for the Confederacy, the University of Virginia had returned to full enrollment. Former Confederate soldiers and those too young to have fought – 490 students in all – had come back to the school. In December, the student editors of the Virginia University Magazine opined about the “humiliation of living in these days of Conventions and Freedmen’s Bureaus” and complained about “negrophilism” – their term for attempts to include African Americans in the state constitutional reform process.1

Student publications in the decades after the Civil War evinced a growing preoccupation with rationalizing what they termed “white rule” as the natural and proper state of affairs. An April 1868 article entitled “The Future Rulers of the World” posed the question: “What nation … will be the ruling power and direct the civilization of the world?”2 They answered their own question, asserting “it is plain that it will be the Caucasian race.” The editors of the issue agreed, reminding readers “we will never submit to negro rule.”3

Mythologizing about the “Lost Cause” – a post-Civil War, pro-Confederate interpretation of history – was accompanied by mocking dehumanization of African Americans through blackface minstrel shows and other stereotypes, all of which fed into a white supremacist ethos supporting the rise and continuation of the segregated state.

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UVA student publications increasingly peddled in dehumanizing characterizations of African Americans. By the early 1870s, the magazine began mentioning “negro minstrels,” “dusky minstrel” and “nagar minstrels” in fictional works imagining enslaved life before the general emancipation or mocking freed people. At the same time, scattered references to traveling theatrical “minstrel troupes” also began to appear, including one in 1872 about Joe Gaylord’s Minstrel Troupe, which visited Charlottesville, and “the pleasure-seekers of the town, were highly entertained for two evenings with the jig-dancing and stale jokes of this motley company.”4 Beginning in the 1830s in New York and spreading to most Northern and Midwestern urban areas by the 1860s, blackface minstrelsy by the 1870s was a nationally popular form of entertainment for white Americans.

By 1879, students at UVA regularly had begun putting on blackface performances. That year, the student magazine announced: “To our great joy we hear it authoritatively announced that the students will before long give another minstrel-show.”5 These theatrical groups routinely performed in blackface, which by the late 19th century “was an established theatrical practice … in which white men caricatured blacks for sport and profit. It has therefore been summed up by one observer as ‘half a century of inurement to the uses of white supremacy.’”6 White performers combined burnt ground cork with water and petroleum jelly as skin-darkening makeup for a popular culture entertainment that dehumanized African Americans and “reinforced widely held” white supremacist beliefs.7 They were indeed popular with UVA students and local whites alike: “Our minstrel-shows are by far the best entertainments ever offered to the Charlottesville public,”8 boasted a piece in an 1879 edition of the magazine.

In this 1879 edition of the student-run Virginia University Magazine, the author praised racist University minstrel shows: “Both the singing and the acting far surpass anything else we ever see here.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

In the 1880s, as blackface performance grew in popularity locally, students continued to rationalize white supremacy. One student in November 1882 argued that “the negro is not the wiser of the two races requires no great degree of insight to perceive; that the white race, for the most part Anglo-Saxon, is the wise one, appointed by divine right to rule, is known and acknowledged by all men. So, rule they will, till the end of time.”9 Only a year later, in a piece entitled “Plea for a Race Distinction in the United States,” a student reminded readers that “This country was discovered by a white man … its government made by and for white men, and, until the late unpleasantness, it remained a white man’s government.”

Echoing the dehumanization of blackface performance, the student continued: “Since then four million negroes have been made citizens, and as the experiment demonstrates, they are unable to appreciate citizenship, and lamentably fail to exercise this great prerogative aright.”10 The magazine’s editors in April 1884 also highly recommended (1874 UVA Law alumnus) Thomas Nelson Page’s “Marse Chan,” a fictional Lost Cause story of a faithful former slave “In Ole Virginia” which they described as a “touching little story of Virginia life in ante-bellum days, as told by an old negro.”11 Just over a year later, the magazine published “The Darkeyad, a heroical poem, celebrating the never-to-be-forgotten events of the late dread conflict of the races.” This longform poem imagined an ongoing war between students and African Americans, ultimately promising that “rage now fills the student breast, their thirst for vengeance knows no rest.”12 Blackface performance, rationalizations for white rule, Lost Cause mythologizing and prose dehumanization of African Americans went hand-in-hand.

The central role blackface performance played in student life became even clearer in 1888 when students began publishing a yearbook. The yearbook name, Corks and Curls, referenced UVA student terminology for classroom and examination performance that dated back at least to the 1840s. In the local UVA parlance, “corking” was when a student did not know the answer when called upon in class or did poorly on an examination – “Perhaps our fellow-students can better understand our feelings when we say, ‘we never felt as if we never could be corked.” “Curling” was unexpectedly answering correctly in class, delivering a first-rate oration, or acing an exam, as student William Ramsey described: “The final examinations are nearly upon us … but I am trying to ‘curl’ and if I fail it will be because I don’t know the thing.”13

The University’s yearbook, Corks and Curls, published many photos of students in blackface, stretching well into the 20th century. (Images courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

By the late 1880s, however, the choice of the yearbook name “Corks and Curls” almost certainly functioned as a double entendre referencing blackface minstrel performance, white supremacy and Lost Cause mythologizing. Ernest Stires, the yearbook editor credited with naming the yearbook, was himself a member of the Glee Club, which regularly performed in blackface across the country. The inaugural edition of the yearbook created a fanciful story about the title, imagining a naming contest. The fictional student who won the imagined contest, Leander Fogg, received a chromolithograph – an expensive colored image – of Henry Martin, a freedman who worked as a janitor and bellringer at the University. There almost certainly were no chromolithographs produced in Charlottesville in the 1880s and definitely not one depicting Henry Martin. Instead, the “prize” was all about race. To students at that time, Martin was thought of as the “faithful slave,” both a Lost Cause character and a minstrel archetype. They understood Henry Martin as their own “Marse Chan.” The contest winner also received two moot court ballots. The moot court regularly engaged in theatrical performances of legal cases, especially those that touched on the law of slavery or the emerging body of law codifying white rule. Those mock trial events routinely involved students performing in blackface.14

UVA students took part in a commonplace performance of white supremacy through their use of blackface imagery. Blackface became so popular with white communities because it “produced a form of racism that meshed well with the modern racial state … by linking racism with pleasure” at the turn of the 20th century.15 Minstrel cartoons, racist jokes and photographs of actors performing in blackface saturate the UVA yearbooks from the first issue in 1888 until about 1940. In these publications and performances, students dehumanized black individuals by projecting white supremacist notions about blackness. They depicted African Americans as grotesque, comical, bizarre and unfit for civilization. The pervasive nature of blackface at UVA, in Virginia and more broadly in the United States helped maintain and perpetuate white rule.

In 1906, UVA alum NeVill G. Henshaw (class of 1898) wrote “The Visiting Girl,” a “comic opera” for The Arcadians, a UVA drama club.16 The play follows Thomas Jefferson’s ghost as he returns to the University with his cousin Richard Jefferson and also his enslaved man Pompey. The character of Pompey served as a mechanism for Henshaw to depict the minstrel stereotype of the faithful slave. The “faithful slave” was also a stock character in Lost Cause mythologizing about the Civil War. Through Pompey’s character, Henshaw also commented on African Americans in post-Reconstruction Charlottesville without taking away from his main focus – the white characters.

Visiting Girl, authored by UVA alumnus NeVill G. Henshaw, perpetuated the myth of the “faithful slave.” (Images courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

Throughout the play, Henshaw utilizes the naïve and dedicated slave caricature of Pompey to draw comparisons to what he views as the problems with black society in Charlottesville in 1907. During the play, Pompey reports back to Jefferson about what he finds exploring the black neighborhoods in Charlottesville. Initially, Pompey believes that the world has improved without slavery. The first time Pompey returns to the stage, he explains that he has met an African American man named Ezekil Brown, a janitor working for one of the University’s fraternities. Brown had shown Pompey around and invited him to a bazaar happening in Vinegar Hill, a center of black community in town. As Pompey is leaving, however, a white student warns him to be careful: “He [Ezekil] may take your money but he will never take your life.”17 For Henshaw and the audience, the joke is clear – that Ezekil, himself a criminal and hustler, must be armed when taking Pompey to Vinegar Hill, a black neighborhood plagued by crime and violence. In the play Ezekil represents the minstrel stereotype of African American men as dishonest criminals. Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill appearing as the locus of the local failure of black freedom and citizenship surely confirmed the white audience’s racism.

Located near downtown, Vinegar Hill was a predominantly African American community in Charlottesville. The city razed it in 1965 as part of an urban renewal plan, displacing its residents. (Photo by Russell Payne, c. 1963. Courtesy of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society)

Henshaw’s play also introduces another minstrel character on stage: Flo, a living African American servant, is offered up by her white boss as a companion for Pompey as he heads to the Vinegar Hill bazaar. When Pompey returns from the bazaar “walking slowly and sadly wearing a suit of students clothes too small for him and a variegated appearance,” Henshaw highlights multiple stereotypes all at once – Pompey claims Flo ran off with someone else when they arrived, pointing to her sexual promiscuity as a Jezebel (a stock minstrel show character), a group of black men took advantage of Pompey during a dice game and stole all of his belongings, and Ezekil stole a white student’s clothing from a fraternity house for Pompey to wear.18 Pompey concludes by saying that his initial reaction to a new society without slavery was wrong – that he did not think the world had improved at all, that “twont be long before hits the edge and tumbles off into nuffin.”19 Here, Pompey functions as both the faithful slave and comical buffoon, while the other men function as examples of black criminality.

The Arcadians performed “The Visiting Girl” to rave reviews wherever they performed, including at several alumni events across the region. The show was hailed as “just the kind of production which appeals to the college man.”20 The same drama club produced another Henshaw play, “King of Kong,” that they performed in blackface during the 1909-10 school year. The Arcadians performed in many spaces, including at Cabell Hall and the Charlottesville Theatre, located along West Main Street in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood. They also took the show on the road, performing “The Visiting Girl” and “King of Kong” regionally in Petersburg, Richmond, Norfolk, Roanoke, Staunton and Washington, D.C., as well as in several cities in other states.

Old Cabell Hall, seen here in a modern photo, was the likely venue for minstrel shows, including some performed by UVA students. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Other student groups, including the University Glee Club, also regularly performed in blackface. In 1917, the Glee Club performed “Oh Julius!” with actors in blackface. As a regular part of their performances, the Glee Club would don blackface as the “Janitor Quartet” and sing minstrel tunes, including “Massas in the Cold, Cold Ground,” which featured these lyrics: “Massa made de darkeys love him,/Cayse he was so kind,/Now dey sadly weep above him,/Mourning cayse he leave dem behind.” The Glee Club even put on a revival of the 1907 Arcadians production of “The Visiting Girl” in the 1920-21 theater season. The Glee Club also performed regionally and in radio broadcasts such as one in 1936 that included minstrel songs.21 They continued to perform “Negro Spirituals” through the 1930s.

Contemporary news headlines show that these old models of racist expression did not disappear at the University in the middle of the 20th century. They remained a recurring theme in social events, if not printed regularly in student publications as they had been in earlier years. Fraternities and sororities continued to hold parties honoring an imagined “plantation” past steeped in Lost Cause mythologizing for decades. In 1959 and again in 1971, staged protest lynchings-in-effigy that included blackface appear in student publications. As recently as 2002, a costume party at the University involved students appearing in blackface. Other forms of racial or ethnic stereotyping and cultural appropriation have occurred as recently as the beginning of the 2019 spring semester, when images circulated depicting students inappropriately wearing Native American and other attire. These serve as a powerful reminder that modes of expression rooted in older white supremacist ways of thinking persist even today.

Editor's Note: Established in the Spring of 2018, the research team of the President's Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation began documenting racist imagery in student and university publications as one of its first tasks. Soon after the blackface controversies broke in the national media, Rhae Lynn Barnes, a leading subject matter expert and Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University, came to UVA and contributed to this important conversation. Those interested in learning more about this subject should look for her forthcoming book "Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface." 

For more on Professor Barnes’ work on this subject see: 

Rhae Lynn Barnes, “Baseball. Apple Pie. Blackface.” The Washington Post, February 10, 2019. Front page of “Outlook.” [Sunday Print Edition].

Rhae Lynn Barnes, “Yes, Politicians Wore Blackface. It Used to be All-American ‘Fun’: Minstrel Shows Were Once So Mainstream That Even Presidents Watched Them.” The Washington Post, February 8, 2019. [Digital]

Rhae Lynn Barnes, “The Troubling History Behind Ralph Northam’s Blackface Klan Photo: How Blackface Shaped Virginia Politics and Culture for More than a Century” The Washington Post, February 2, 2019. [Digital] 

“A Dangerous Unselfishness”: Understanding the Long History of Amateur Blackface Minstrelsy at the University of Virginia,” for Special Collections & the Office of Diversity and Equity, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, April 15, 2019.

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Notes

1. “Editor’s Drawer,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 1, December 1867, p. 45.

2. “The Future Rulers of the World,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 5, April 1868, p. 211.

3. “Editor’s Drawer,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 5, April 1868, p. 239.

4. “Athletic Sports,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 5-6, Feb-March 1869, p. 282; “Collegiana,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. X, No. 4, January 1872, p. 215; “Editor’s Table,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. XII, No. 4, January 1874, p. 267; “Collegiana,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. XI, No. 4, January 1873, p. 215.

5. “Collegiana,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, February 1879, p. 305.

6. Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 3.

7. William John Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 1.

8. “Collegiana,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, February 1879, p. 306.

9. “The New Time: From Amid the Shadows of the Old. In Two Parts—Part I,” Virginia University Magazine, New Series Vol. XII, No. 1, November 1882, p. 80.

10. “Plea for a Race Distinction in the United States, Virginia University Magazine, New Series, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, October 1883, p. 19.

11. “Collegiana,” Virginia University Magazine, New Series, Vol. XIII, No. 7, April 1884, p. 433.

12. “The Darkeyad,” Virginia University Magazine, New Series, New Series, Vol. XXIV, No. 8, p. 482-484.

13. “Editor’s Table,” Jefferson Monument Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 8, May 1850, p. 262; Virginia University Magazine, January 1870, p. 41 and 48. See also William Ramsey Letter to Father, undated, University of Virginia Special Collections Library (Ramsey was a student from 1883-1887).

14. University of Virginia  Corks and Curls, 1888, p. 11-12.

15. Brian Roberts, Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 20.

16. https://giving.virginia.edu/lawnandrange/lawn-directory/  Henshaw, N. G.

17. Nevil Gratiot Henshaw The visiting girl, 1907, Accession #8426, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. Visiting Girl Manuscript, p. 17.

18. Nevil Gratiot Henshaw The visiting girl, 1907, Accession #8426, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. Visiting Girl Manuscript, p. 22.

19. Nevil Gratiot Henshaw The visiting girl, 1907, Accession #8426, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. Visiting Girl Manuscript, p. 22.

20. “Arcadians Trip Huge Success,” College Topics, February 13, 1907.

21. Edward N. Main to the Director of UVA Glee Club, 01 March 1936 in Papers of the University Glee Club 1920-1961 Special Collections

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