Author: Kirsten Suprenant, Rivendell High School, Orford, NH
Grade Level: 11-12
Unit: Civil Rights 1954-1968
Length of lesson: One 75-minute period
- Theme: Contemporary America
- Era: The Civil Rights Movement 1954-1968
My 3-week unit on Civil Rights considers the question: What is the relationship among values, conflicts, choices and consequences? To introduce the unit, we consider the subtopic “How are African Americans perceived in the United States on the eve of the Brown vs. Board of Education Decision? To connect this subject with local history, I begin with this primary source lesson using Minstrel Show Posters, which I obtained from the Fairlee Historical Society. The images provided here include:
- Minstrel Poster large
- Minstrel Poster small
I also provide a handout entitled “Who was Jim Crow?” with other “Jim Crow” images and Jim Crow laws that existed in different states in the 1950s. This lesson is not formally assessed; rather, I use it as a way to introduce the use of primary documents, and to help students realize that negative views of African Americans were not limited to southern whites.
1750 -1843 Thousands of US entertainment productions include blackface performances.
1777 The Republic of Vermont declares its independence. The state’s constitution specifies that “all men are born equally free and independent.”
1800s Vermont plays a vital role in the Underground Railroad by helping escaped slaves make their way to freedom.
1820 Blackface minstrelsy in America begin with blackface song-and-dance routines.
1820s Thomas Rice, a white entertainer, caused a nationwide sensation by donning burnt cork to perform the song “Jump Jim Crow” on stage. This is the birth of Jim Crow.
1838 “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but as offensive as coon or darkie.
1840s Full-length minstrel shows performed by whites for whites were formalized.
1850 on Countless professional groups formed, and these barnstorming troupes reached northern New England and New York State by late 1800s. Calvin Coolidge performed in minstrel shows in his community of Plymouth Notch, VT.
1897 Kake Walk was reinstated at UVM to raise money for the university’s football team, this time as an official contest and with blackface. An immensely popular activity at Winter Carnival, the ‘walk’ is performed by teams of males in blackface, and based upon a dance slaves had been forced to perform for their masters; a originally brought north by traveling minstrel shows following the Civil War.
1920 The College of Medicine at UVM holds fast to its policy not to allow blacks to touch white patients.
1920s Blackface comes to radio: Amos n’ Andy featured two white actors impersonating contemporary black characters who were direct descendants of “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow.”
1925 Professor H.F. Perkins begins to teach eugenics at UVM
1928 Al Jolson immortalized blackface in several films, including the talking landmark “The Jazz Singer”.
1946 All-white sorority Alpha XI Delta at UVM pledges black student Crystal Lamone, and is suspended by its national organization. Dean of Women Mary Jean Simpson refuses to offer support, and the sorority is forced to disband.
1950s Amos n’ Andy moves to TV and black actors are used—but the spectacle of blacks demeaning themselves becomes unsettling, and the show is cancelled in 1953.
1952 The Kake Walk becomes so popular that Life magazine covers it.
1957 When UVM football hero Leroy Williams, Jr. who is black, tries to get a motel room for his weekend date, the girl is refused. Student protests culminate two months later in state legislation prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation. Black student William Pickens is elected president of the student body.
1960 UVM Students and faculty picket Woolworth’s on Church Street for its refusal to integrate its Southern lunch counters. Student Association condemns the picketers, but reverses its stance after pressure from Cynic editorials. Some students propose that UVM invite, with lowered tuition, Southern student demonstrators who have been expelled to attend the University. The administration refuses. 1960s Paul Moody continues to teach eugenics at UVM into the 1960s.
1964 The NAACP formally criticized the University of Vermont for the Kake Walk and the surrounding events.
1965 Kake Walk contestants for first time since 1897 do not wear blackface; a dark green face paint is worn instead.
1968 Following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a graduate assistantship in counseling at UVM is established in his name, to provide support for an African-American graduate student.
1969 Increase in racial sensitivity finally leads students to abandon the 80-year tradition of Kake Walk. There are many subsequent efforts to revive the tradition of Kake Walk, and a decade later President Lattie Coor still showed film footage from Kake Walk to nostalgic alumni, despite is publicly stated opposition to it.
1970 UVM – A few progressive administrators, such as Dean of Students Roland Patzer, increase efforts to recruit students and faculty of color. At UVM in 1970 there are six African-American students; by 1976 there are 72.
1973 The Minority Student Program (MSP) begins at UVM.
1985 UVM Student activism builds momentum against apartheid. A “shanty town” is built on the Waterman Green, and eventually the Trustees vote to divest holdings in companies doing business in South Africa within 18 months. Unfortunately, in 1993 the Trustees vote to re-invest in South Africa, even though that country still continued to oppress its black citizens.
1991 The last blackface minstrel show in VT was produced in Tunbridge.
Local Level Historical Background
Based on what I’ve read so far, minstrel shows were among the most popular types of stage shows throughout the 19th century; in many rural locations they continued until late in the 20th century. This type of entertainment began on a large scale in the 1840s and depicted the traditional and sentimental view of southern slavery. White actors donned black face paint and represented blacks as “na?ve buffoons who sang and danced the days away, gobbling chitlins, stealing the occasional watermelon and expressing their inexplicable love for ‘ol massuh’.” (Kenrick 1)
Through minstrel shows, “Jim Crow” becomes a central figure representing blacks in America. Later on Jim Crow becomes the term for the “complex system of racial laws and customs in the South that enabled white social, legal, and political domination of blacks.” (Kenrick 2)
Minstrel shows traveled throughout the country, including New Hampshire and Vermont. The last recorded minstrel show in Vermont was in Tunbridge in 1991. (Hurley-Glowa 2) Writer Susan Hurley-Glowa wrote in Voices that minstrel shows were not just about demeaning blacks and in some cases they did not mean to convey any racist intent through the performances. Hurley-Glowa refers to musicologist Charles Hamm who further studied minstrel shows. “Hamm suggests that the survivals of blackface minstrelsy in Vermont are the last cry of a threatened subculture that strongly identifies with the past and clings to nostalgic notions of nineteenth-century morality and mentality” (Hurley-Glowa 2)
Hamm also recognized that Vermont had very few people of color and “community people described the show as part of a tradition: it was family and community oriented, involving people of all ages and professions; it raised money for local scholarships; it was good homespun entertainment that allowed townspeople to laugh at themselves. …According to them, the shows were not about “making fun of blacks,” they were just the style of musical comedy that suited them best.” (Hurley-Glowa 2) The most prominent example of blackface entertainment was UVM’s Kake Walk, a long tradition that ended in 1969.
- I photographed the Posters at the Fairlee Historical Society. I printed the photos on 8×10 photo paper. I also saved the images on computer so I can project them onto a large screen for the class to see.
- I use two posters for the opener for the Civil Rights Unit. Using my laptop and the projector, I project the image of the larger poster with reference to Fairlee on the big screen in my classroom and have students start to “look” at it. After they have observed the image, we will use question/answer to discuss what the students see.
- What sort of object is this? How do you know?
- What do you see in this object? Point it out specifically.
- What are the main colors used? Why do you think these colors might have been used?
- What symbols are used in the poster?
- Are the symbols clear, memorable, dramatic? Describe specifically
- What do the symbols represent? How do you know?
- What are the verbal messages on the poster? Are there any words we don’t know the meaning of?
- Who do you think is the intended audience of the poster? How do you know?
- Was this work created recently or long ago? How can you tell?
- What do we know was going on historically during this period?
- How does this poster reflect the time period?
- What does the poster tell us about the culture in which it was created?
As a class we will go through the above questions/answers/discussion about the poster. This also provides students with a model of how to critically “look” at a poster or other historical artifact. Students will begin to raise more in-depth questions about what minstrel shows were and why they were happening in Fairlee, VT.
- When we feel as though we’ve “looked” enough at the poster, we move on to further discussion of the African American caricature in the middle of the poster. I give them more in-depth background information about the origins of Jim Crow and minstrel shows and what that represented in the 19th and 20th centuries, using teacher notes and class discussion.
- I give students a handout titled “Who was Jim Crow?” with other “Jim Crow” images and Jim Crow laws that existed in different states in the 1950s for them to view, discuss and take notes on.
- By the end of the lesson, I expect students to have an understanding of Jim Crow laws and the view white Americans had of African Americans in the early 1950s. I expect students to realize that the negative views of African Americans by whites were not just limited to the southern United States.
Unit Content Standards
NCHS Era 7 3A: Students understand social tensions and their consequences.
NCHS Era 9 4A: Students understand the struggle for racial equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
VT Standard 6.1 Uses of Evidence and Data
VT Standard 6.3 Analyzing Knowledge
VT Standard 6.12 Human Rights
This lesson was not formally assessed.
Timeline and local historical background information are taken directly from the following sources:
“1609 – 1988 Early History” Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. The University of Vermont. http://www.www.uvm.edu/~aaeo/diversity/racialdiversityi/?Page=1609_1988.html (8/28/05).
Hurley-Glowa, Susan “The Survival of the Blackface Minstrel in the Adriondack Foothills” Voices: The Journal Of New York Folklore vol 30 Fall-Winter 2004. New York Folklore Society (8/28/05).
Kenrick, John A History of the Musical – Minstrel Shows Part I
Kenrick, John A History of the Musical – Minstrel Shows Part II
Pilgrim, David. Who Was Jim Crow? The Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University, 2000. http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/who.htm (8/30/05).