Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans.
As I was doing my research, I came across this column in a 1903 edition of the Broad Ax. Entitled “Montana Society Note: Characteristic Description of a Brilliant Social Function in the Cow Country.” This article provides some intriguing insight into the perception of minstrel shows throughout history. Upon an initial skim, one might think that this is a genuine recount of an evening of entertainment at a minstrel troupe performance. Language like “roaring success” and “It was one of the most brilliant heel-and-toe stampedes ever held in this settlement” initially hint towards the success and ingenuity of a performance like this. A little bit of further exploration of the paper and its author reveals a different perspective.
The Broad Ax was a Black-owned newspaper that ran from 1853 to the early 1900s (exact date unknown). It was edited by Julius F. Taylor. Taylor was born into an enslaved family but eventually escaped enslavement towards the middle of his life. Taylor founded the paper with the goal of promoting the principles of Jefferson and Jackson — principles that he saw as exceptionally democratic.
“Hew to the line” – Taylor’s motto for the paper.
In the spirit of ‘hewing to the line,’ Taylor presents a lively and entertaining commentary on a minstrel show. As an advocate for racial equality and what he saw to be the fundamental tenets of democratic thinking fostered by both Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, he narrates a nonsensical recount of a minstrel concert. Taylor offers parodied examples of traditional minstrel characters like “Jim Crow” or “Zip Coon” in his presentation of “Fightin’ Pharaoh” and “Pap Henderson.” Further, Taylor presents some commentary in a dialect like that often heard in traditional minstrel songs: “blew in and began to prospect for a pardner,” being one example.
Taylor’s covert criticism of minstrel shows is an intriguing perspective on their historical influence and the lasting legacy that they have on the presentation of African Americans. Incorporating a daring and audacious “There was nothing special doing all night” ultimately points to a potentially shared perspective: minstrel shows weren’t as valuable and as brilliant of a social function as understood by a white audience.
A recording of “Jump Jim Crow” featuring imagery of the minstrel character, Jim Crow.
“Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, November 22, 2017. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.
Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), May 23, 1903: 3. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A13364E8FB5DF2117%40EANAAA-133663F8CD16C8C8%402416258-133657CF790050D0%402.
The Broad Ax Salt Lake City, Utah; Chicago, Ill. -19??. (Chicago, IL), Jan. 1 1895. https://www.loc.gov/item/sn84024055/.