The Minstrel Show: A brief historical survey

Who exactly started singing songs on stage with a black face is difficult to tell. Probably it was Lewis Hallam, who did an imitation of a drunken darkie during a performance of the play "The Padlock" in 1769.(1) After this, minstrel songs were regularly inserted into theatre programs or given at the circus. Up to 1842 minstrel songs were mainly performed by some famous artists like George Washington Dixon or Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice. Rice created his own dance style, which allegedly was inspired by an old, black and limping stable hand that he watched somewhere in the South. This dance, that became famous under the name "Jim Crow Dance", was always closely connected with his name and he had to perform it everywhere he appeared. This way ‘Jim Crow’ became the first stereotyped character of the minstrel show.

But soon "Jim Crow" was also used outside of the minstrel context. Beginning in 1875 several states passed laws that separated blacks and whites in everyday life. They were called Jim Crow laws. In 1896 the Supreme Court confirmed these laws and declared "that the Fourteenth Amendment did not forbid racial separation, provided that separate facilities were equal."(2) Today the name "Jim Crow" is a metaphor for racial discrimination. But still minstrel songs were only short interludes in variety shows or in the circus.

It was in 1843, when Dan Emmett founded the Virginia Minstrels, that the minstrel show as a full evening entertainment came into existence. Almost at the same time the Christy Minstrels, founded by E.P. Christy, began to perform. They were the ones who finally established the stereotyped pattern that was used all through the booming years of minstrelsy. These two groups were the leading minstrel performers of minstrelsy’s golden age that lasted until 1870. Even throughout the hard years of the Civil War the minstrel show was very popular. After the war the first blacks began to join the minstrel troupes that grew bigger and bigger. But this steady growth and the diminishing importance of blackface acts were some of the reasons for the decline in the late seventies, and around 1900 almost no troupe was left.

(1) "Minstrel Show" , in: Richard Moody (ed.), Dramas from the American Theatre 1762-1909. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, p. 475.
(2) Franklin, John Hope. An Illustrated History of Black Americans. New York, Time Life Books, 1970, p. 59.


  © 2022 by Jochen Scheytt

Jochen Scheytt
is a teacher, pianist, composer, arranger and author. He teaches at the State University of Music and the Performing Arts Stuttgart and at the Schlossgymnasium in Kirchheim unter Teck.