Local minstrel shows flourished along with racism in the first half of the 20th Century

— NBC Radio

Two white men — Freeman Gosden, left, and Charles Correll — portrayed Amos and Andy in the popular radio show that was emulated in local minstrel shows. In this 1938 publicity photo, they prepare to dig into a cake celebrating the 10th anniversary of their show, which ran until 1960.

Editor’s note: When writing about local social history, it’s important to examine the ugly parts as well as the heroic parts. In this column, Mary Ellen Johnson takes an unflinching look at a racist form of entertainment that Enterprise reports show was both unquestioned and popular as late as the 1950s.

During the 19th Century, minstrel shows were professional performances presented in theaters where paying audiences were entertained by white actors in blackface who sang, danced, and performed variety acts and comedy. Sometimes Black performers also participated.

The premise was to satirize and ridicule Black culture by imitating and exaggerating their dancing, manner of speech, supposed ignorance, and music. Today this type of performance would be considered outrageous and racist.

It simply wouldn’t be done, but until the 1960s and beyond the majority of Americans had little problem enjoying entertainment featuring this racist representation of Black Americans.

Since 1884 when it first began publication, The Altamont Enterprise has been the chief source of information about the social history of Guilderland and the surrounding towns. There are 771 references to minstrel shows in the paper’s digital index, proving minstrel shows were a highly popular and newsworthy form of entertainment, not only in Guilderland, but in all the local areas covered by the newspaper.

The last professional minstrel show to appear on Broadway in New York was in 1909. Before this time, references to minstrel shows in The Enterprise were rare. One of the paper’s earliest editions ran a short piece reprinted from some other publication titled “Actors in Burnt Cork” in which “two noted minstrels speak on different styles of fun” in what would now be unprintable racist terms.

Occasionally during these early years there was the opportunity to view touring Black performers locally. The Fullers Station correspondent reported in1889 that “a colored minstrel troupe with a donkey” had traveled through, stopping at the local one-room school to perform, noting that the people who attended agreed it was “well worth the price of admission.”

At the 1902 Altamont Fair, a “genuine colored troupe” was hired to perform “the latest Negro specialties.” A decade later, a “big colored company” put on “Way Down South in Dixie” at Altamont’s Masonic Hall, a show featuring “genuine southern scenes, dances and melodies.”

An early local exposure to a minstrel show occurred in 1894 when a group of Albany amateurs traveled to Altamont, performing at Union Hall on Maple Avenue. The evening’s proceeds were to benefit the Fresh Air Fund, beginning the tradition in this area at least, that raising money for an organization became the reason for future minstrel shows to be scheduled in the area.

When the Hamilton Union Church reported on the success in1922 of the minstrel show it put on at the old “town hall” in Guilderland Center, $83 had been taken in at the door. Obviously it had been a popular attraction.

Before 1920, there were few mentions of minstrel show performances, although the Altamont Athletic Association advertised one in 1914. As time went on, minstrel shows were noted in The Enterprise more frequently. Altamont’s Colony Club used “home talent” in 1920 for its show while a year later Guilderland Center Fire Department members were planning to perform at the old “town hall.”


Radio influence

Was the increasingly frequent mention of local groups in the 1920s putting on minstrel shows tied in with the popularity of movies and that new medium radio? Al Jolson appeared in blackface in several movies, the most famous being “The Jazz Singer,” a smash hit.

During the era’s silent movies, there was much stereotyping of Black culture in the same vein. Locally, WGY’s radio programs were listed weekly in The Enterprise. For the week of May 18, 1922 listed among the station’s offerings were:

— Introducing Some Darktown Humor;

— Georgia Minstrel Boys;

— Male Quartette: I Wish I Was in Dixie; and

— Humorous Dialogue: William Jackson & Washington Lee.

After going on the air in 1928 “Amos ’n’ Andy” quickly became the nation’s favorite radio comedy with two white actors playing two African-American men who had moved from the country to Chicago to start the Fresh Air Taxi Co. It lasted until the early days of TV in 1953.

Many white Americans saw nothing wrong in these comic characterizations of the Black community because racism was so prevalent in American life during these decades.

During the next three decades, groups from all over Guilderland and other area towns volunteered their time and talent to produce minstrel shows to amuse their neighbors and at the same time raise funds for their organizations. Several local churches, fire departments, clubs, and civic groups got into the act, sometimes giving repeat performances in different locations.

The minstrel show as a community activity and entertainment flourished until the civil rights movement and changing attitudes made this kind of performance untenable.


Three-part form

The Enterprise articles announcing upcoming minstrel shows almost always placed the advance publicity on the front page. In the publicity notices, terms were mentioned such as endmen and olios, unfamiliar to later generations.

The Altamont Entertainers Guild presented a minstrel show and olio in 1948. The audience applauded and laughed loudly at the endmen’s jokes and antics. A 1946 production put on by the Altamont Fire Company featured endmen named “Charcoal, Debris, Embers and Smokey.” Others in the cast included “Amos, Andy, Bones, Evelina, Heliotrope, Mandy, Rastus, Sambo and Violet,” all singing old-time musical numbers.

There was a three-part form to traditional minstrel shows. First, the full ensemble sat in a semicircle with Mr. Interlocutor in the center and blackface comedians at either end. These were the endmen who spoke in colloquial Black speech while Mr. Interlocutor used an exaggerated, elegant pattern of diction, both getting the comedy rolling.

After an intermission, the olio followed with a variety of songs and acts and a speech by one of the endmen poking fun at the issues and political figures that could be personalized to fit the community.

After a second intermission, there was another piece with the two endmen playing two Black buffoons, a country bumpkin type and a city slicker know-it-all who is easily tricked.

Local groups of differing sizes and talents may have followed their own pattern, but the basic element of characterizing Black culture remained the same. Many traditional minstrel songs reflected the image.

Some went all the way back to Stephen Foster’s melodies, while other were like the 1890s hit about a Black woman unable to choose between two suitors entitled “All C**** Look Alike To Me.”

A 1930 production put on by the Altamont Lady Minstrels not only had a cake walk contest, but songs by a sextet made up of “Turpentina, Vasolina, Listerina, Benzina, Gasolina and Energina.”


Friends on stage

The great attraction to the public was seeing their friends and neighbors in the cast and figuring out “who is who” was noted when the Goodfellowship Minstrels announced their show to be performed at Altamont’s Masonic Hall, promising it to “Be the Hit of the Season” in 1924.

Often it wasn’t that the comedy itself was all that hilarious, but the incongruous situation of a church elder, proper matron, or local businessman doing the nonsense involved.

The Guilderland Center Fire Department’s 1953 minstrel show with a cast of 40 assured the prospective audience “When you see Clyde S……. doing a ballet with Ormond B…. you will have tears rolling down your cheeks,” both men being well known in the community at that time.

This particular show was performed two nights in Guilderland Center, after which it was announced, “the Center Dixie Minstrels to Hit the Road,” giving two additional performances of two nights each in other locations.

Were these shows popular? A 1934 headline promoting an upcoming minstrel show said it all: “Advance Sale of Tickets Indicates a Capacity House.”

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement and growing sensitivity about the treatment of America’s Black population led to the end of the local minstrel show.

Today, reading this description of the traditional minstrel shows performed in our own town makes us cringe, but it surely illustrates how this facet of racism was part of the fabric of life during the first half of the 20th Century.  No longer acceptable, minstrel shows have been relegated to our past social and racial history.