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West Chester University’s history of blackface

Photo via West Chester University Serpentine Yearbook, 1935.

Recently, Virginia governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have admitted to wearing blackface at college parties and have since been called on by the NAACP and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to step down from office. In an interview published by Democracy Now!, associate professor and political scientist Kahlilah Brown-Dean describes the act of wearing blackface as “domestic terrorism,” and an act all too familiar with those who live in the south.

“We need to start having real conversations and actions about blackface, about racial imagery,” she said in the interview. “This isn’t just a Virginia problem. This is a national problem.”

Echoing the words of Brown-Dean, this was, at one point, a West Chester University problem too.

She emphasized the dangers of the assumptions that racism only occurs in the south. “People in the South may be more vocal about their views. They may be more direct in that. But we should not think that this kind of racial ignorance and racial animus is beholden to Southern boundaries.”

The evidence of racism in America can be traced through means beyond laws and policy. Though we can look at court decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that legalized “separate but equal” facilities for African-Americans and legislation preventing African-Americans from voting, evidence of racism could be found throughout American culture, including the entertainment industry.

Emerging in the 19th century, a popular form of entertainment known as “minstrel” performances quickly gained attention in the United States. Sketches such as “Oh, Susanna!” were comedic depictions that included white performers acting out caricatures of African-Americans. Often utilizing “blackface,” where performers would paint their skin black and exaggerate parts of their mouths and noses, these shows have a history of dehumanization and harmful stereotyping of African-Americans.

Starting in the 19th century, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice popularized the act of blackface and minstrelsy with a performance of the popular slave song “Jump Jim Crow.” In 1843, a group called the “Virginia Minstrels” popularized the act of comedy, singing and dancing in blackface. By 1844, the group had grown in popularity and traveled the country to perform for large crowds, their songs and dances continually portraying caricatures of African-Americans. Through the early 20th century, this genre became a national form of entertainment through mediums such as the opera. University theatre and dance groups – including performing groups at West Chester University – also took part in putting on these shows for audiences during the early 20th century.

In an issue published by the student newspaper Quad Angles on Jan. 23, 1934, writers described a sophomore class performance of several songs and dances, one being described as “a short, swiftly moving black-face comedy.” In 1935, the newspaper reported on a minstrel show performed by the West Chester Chapter of Tall Cedars of Lebanon. On April 21, 1944, the Quad Angles reported on the Girls Glee Club conducting a performance including songs from the popular minstrel show “Oh, Susanna.” Local yearbook photos at the time showed that the cast was almost entirely white. Later in the year on July 31, the paper detailed a local chapel performer named Samuel Graves, also called a “Modern Minstrel,” for his performances.

For the full transcript of Brown-Dean’s interview, Democracy Now!’s website. Students are encouraged to visit the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion if they feel they have witnessed or been the victim of racism or discrimination. 

If you are aware of more recent incidents and feel comfortable sharing,  reach out to The Quad. 

Sam Walsh is a third-year student majoring in special education and English with a minor in Autism studies.

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