On a recent Saturday afternoon in the Brooklyn Collection, I found something in our Ephemera Collection that startled me. I was going through folders that focus on Clubs in Brooklyn. Some of them still exist today, like the Montauk Club of Park Slope. Many of the folders include programs of performances held at one club or another. One word jumped out at me as I looked at programs that were dated well into the 20th century: "Minstrel." It was almost like going through an old trunk full of treasures in the family attic and finding out some secret that has been hidden for years among old dresses and glassware and report cards. But however uncomfortable they make us, it is important that these documents survive. To censor or discard unsavory items would be to deny the very real and difficult legacy they leave us with today.
So what other resources do we have about Brooklyn minstrels?
In 1887, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article called A Wandering Minstrel: Brooklyn History of a Popular Amusement. The article begins by lamenting that Brooklyn seemed to be lacking a permanent minstrel house. Minstrel troupes began performing in Brooklyn as early as 1849, while Manhattan saw professional shows starting in 1843. The first venue to produce a minstrel show in Brooklyn was the old Brooklyn Museum located at the corner of Orange and Fulton Streets. Hyde & Behman's Theater, Bunnels Museum and Theater and the Park Theater were also known to host minstrel shows and several companies and troupes, such as Bailey & Austin, Hooley's Minstrels, and the Criterion Minstrels, entertained audiences well into the 1920s. An interview with "Jack" Herman (not sure why his first name is in quotes, but this is how the Eagle printed it) conducted in 1887 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle shows how much Brooklynites enjoyed minstrel shows. After performing with Hooley's Minstrels in Brooklyn, Herman would race out to catch the last horse car. If the audience called for encores of his performance, he would at times, catch the horse car while still in costume. He remembers:
"If the audience like my songs well enough to have them repeated, I was compelled to hastily snatch a coat, dash downstairs and chase my car...My blackened face, stage clothes, attracted no little attention in the car, and I was obliged to sing or in other ways amuse the passengers during the long and tedious ride to East New York."
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle carried many stories about professional minstrel troupes as well as amateur minstrel performances. This headline refers to thirteen young women of the Clermont Social Club who "blacked up for sweet charity's sake last night and gave a first rate minstrel performance," in 1894. The ladies did not reveal to anyone what they were doing and even refused to have their names printed in the paper. The reporter gives vivid descriptions of rehearsals, the performance, and at one point declares that even the mothers of the young women would not recognize their own daughters. Nearly 900 people attended the charity event, which raised $200 for the needy in their ward. The full article can be found by clicking on the headline.
Social club members produced minstrel shows well into the 1950s. Members would dress up and perform songs and jokes to the amusement of other club members and their families. The image displayed at the beginning of the post and the image below show an example of a program from the Mizpah Club, Mizpah Lodge No. 738 F. and A. M. The performance in 1925 was the first minstrel show performed by the members.
Social clubs produced minstrel shows as late as the 1960s. This photo of the Young Folks Club of the Fort Hamilton Presbyterian Church performing the play "The Shmoboat," was taken by an Eagle photographer in 1953.
Minstrel performances died out with Civil Rights as managers of theaters in New York found that audiences had little tolerance for the shows' racist portrayals of African Americans. The legacy of minstrel shows has crept out even in recent political debates. In 2006, the New York City council voted to name the corner of 51st Street and Broadway in Manhattan Al Jolson Way. Al Jolson was an actor most famously known for performing in blackface. The city council and proponents opted to look at Jolson's whole career, rather than just the negative portion that critics examined. Just over a year later, the council refused to name a street in Brooklyn after Sonny Carson, the late controversial Brooklyn community leader and activist who fought against police brutality and for local control of New York City schools, but also encouraged the boycott of Korean owned groceries in Beford-Stuyvesant. Council member Charles Barron argued that not to name a street after Carson, when Al Jolson Way had been approved, showed bias. The council made its decision by citing Carson as a "divisive figure in New York City history". Both men have a complicated relationship to issues of race and racism and needless to say, the controversy will continue.