Way We Were: The deplorable history of minstrel shows in Park City | ParkRecord.com

Way We Were: The deplorable history of minstrel shows in Park City

Racist performances continued into the 1960s

Dalton Gackle
Park City Museum Research Coordinator
A minstrel show in Kamas, 1948.
Park City Historical Society & Museum, Kendall Webb Collection

While actors using blackface and racialized stereotypes dates back to at least the Middle Ages, the advent of the very specific genre of American minstrelsy first appeared in the 19th century – the first known documented performance was in 1830 with a character called Jim Crow – yes, that Jim Crow.

Minstrel shows were comedy performances where white actors invented and used exaggerated stereotypes of black people to form the butt of their jokes. According to the Associated Press, “White men would darken their faces [usually with burnt cork or shoe polish] to create caricatures of black people, including large mouths, lips and eyes, woolly hair and coal-black skin. The performances would stereotype black men and women as ignorant, hypersexual, superstitious, lazy people who were prone to thievery and cowardice.” Essentially, the shows were a way for white people to laugh at and about black people and their lives, whether they were portrayed as enslaved or free. There were black minstrels who took back at least some agency in the performances but still catered to white audiences’ prejudices.

While minstrel shows originated back east, it didn’t take long for them to make their way to Utah. And by 1855, according to BYU music historian Michael Hicks, minstrel shows were so popular here that Mormons were ignoring scripture to focus on learning minstrel show songs and jokes. In 1897, one Salina man even brought a valuable calf to the door of one show, hoping to trade it for two tickets.

It wasn’t just the Mormons that loved to see or perform the minstrel shows; By 1884, the majority non-Mormon Park City saw its first show. So enamored by the genre was the Park Record that in 1885 they announced, “To write for all time is the ambition of every author. The man who originated the series of negro minstrel jokes is the only one up to date who has apparently succeeded in this endeavor.”

The minstrelsy genre enjoyed a solid peak in popularity in Park City from the 1890s through the 1910s, with shows regularly performed in town. In 1891 the Park Record reported that “as usual,” the minstrel show “drew a large and enthusiastic audience, almost every seat in the house being sold.” The house that night was not specified, but numerous Park City venues hosted these shows over time: the Park Opera, Society Hall, the Dewey Theater, Park City High School, various social clubs and several saloons and clubs.

Minstrel shows were controversial to some. Brigham Young disliked them because his followers had to appear black, and he thought black skin was God’s curse on humans with that complexion. Many abolitionists and, later, integrationists didn’t like them for their crude depictions of black people. Frederick Douglass said of them, white men “have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature … to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.” None of this sentiment was documented in Park City – only praise heaped upon the performers. The Park Record noted, too, of a Salt Lake troupe made up of “prominent” men: they “do not hesitate to put on burnt cork for the delight of their friends” in Park City.

The first Park City minstrel troupe was formed in October 1899 featuring several high profile Parkites. Later, the Elks Club, Lions Club, Woman’s Athenaeum, High School and others would form troupes or cast for regular minstrel shows. The Park Record wrote a lengthy story on an Elks show in April 1907, calling it the “Best Local Event Ever.” Sam Raddon, Park Record publisher and editor from 1884 to 1947, was not shy about publicizing his racism and disdain for black people throughout his tenure, so it’s unsurprising that the paper is chock-full of glowing praise for minstrel performances – it seems hardly a show was missed. Perhaps this means our historical record is skewed toward praise and the genre did have detractors in town, but their voices were never noted in the paper or elsewhere.

Minstrelsy declined in popularity in Park City (and across the country, generally) from the 1920s through the 1950s. The last consistent performances in Park City or nearby continued into the 1950s, though the last mention of a performance came in 1966, about a Lions Club show.

While minstrelsy died out, blackface persisted in Park City’s history and in American society at large, along with the stereotypes of minstrelsy. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture noted, “The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated.” Next week, we’ll look at blackface in Park City outside of minstrelsy.

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