TRAVERSE CITY — As service clubs across the country prepare for their annual spring shows during Black History Month, few members can recall the time when many such shows were performed in blackface.
But as late as the 1960s and early 1970s, the minstrel shows were a mainstay of small towns and villages in rural America. The shows, which consisted of comedy, musical and dance performances, were performed by whites in black makeup playing black roles.
“It was everywhere, it was ubiquitous,” said Lisa Kemmis, museum assistant at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, where a minstrel show was held at the VFW during WWII as a fundraiser for veterans. “I don’t think there was a place it wasn’t.”
In Traverse City, Rotarians organized a two-day event consisting of comedy skits, specialty acts and a blackface chorus with vocal solos, wrote Boston University Professor Emeritus of History Joseph Boskin in his 1986 Oxford Press book “Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester.”
“Describing it as a ‘wholesome, end-of-winter laugh at ourselves’ the president of the local college sold tickets to the faculty and applied blackface for his part in the chorus. Similar shows were performed in nearby communities. In Bellaire, Michigan, the Lions presented an annual minstrel show to coincide with a screening of ‘Jolson Sings Again’ at the school gym,” Boskin wrote.
The Traverse City minstrel show began in 1942 at the Lyric Theater and raised funds for good works, said Ronald W. Sondee in his 2000 book “To Whom Much is Given,” which was underwritten by Rotary Charities of Traverse City, Inc. The shows were so popular that the Rotarians even took them on the road to neighboring towns like Manistee, Cheboygan and Boyne City.
In 1946 the show advertised an “All Male Black Face Chorus of 40 Voices.” In 1955 it featured characters named Poke Chops, Inky White and Smokey. And in 1960 the opening chorus was “Floatin’ Down to Cotton Town.”
Minstrel shows or “minstrelry” developed in the early 1830s in the Northeast states and were popular nationally for more than 100 years. They often featured songs from sheet music whose covers showed caricatures of black Americans.
“It was something that was humorous to whites but it reflected white Americans’ attitudes and beliefs of blacks: how they looked, how they spoke, how they dressed, their level of education,” Kemmis said. “The fact that it lasted so long in some rural areas speaks to how normalized those attitudes were in areas that didn’t even have African-Americans.”
Late Traverse City business owner Gretchen Votruba recalled meeting her future husband after a downtown performance.
“Bill was coming home from a Rotary Minstrel Show; he had black face and all,” Votruba said in an oral history recorded by the Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan in 2002. “I was walking home across Union Street Bridge when he stopped and gave me a ride.”
Joe Yuchasz remembers attending his first Elk Rapids Rotary Club “Black Face Show” when he was 12 or 13.
“Everybody on stage was in black face including the gal in the orchestra who played the piano,” said Yuchasz, a second-generation Rotarian and the 68-year-old club’s unofficial historian. “It wasn’t considered anti-black, it wasn’t considered making fun of blacks. It was what everyone was doing: putting on theater.”
In fact, black minstrels eventually replaced white minstrels in shows directed by whites because other opportunities for black actors were virtually non-existent, said Kemmis. They were made to blacken their faces, thereby pretending to be whites pretending to be blacks.
Eventually minstrel shows died out in favor of vaudeville and in response to racial sensitivity. Now such a show is unimaginable, said John Racine, president of the Traverse City Rotary Club.
“That is a part of our past, there’s no denying it,” he said. “I guess we and most of the rest of the country have learned and grown beyond the era when that sort of thing would be acceptable. I’m confident it was certainly never mean in its intention. I think in those days it was seen as a form of humor. You and I wouldn’t understand it but looking back through 2018 glasses a lot of things that happened in the past wouldn’t be acceptable.”