While most people might associate minstrelsy with racism and oppression, it rose in popularity with the movement to abolish slavery. It may seem strange and ironic that abolitionists helped popularize blackface performance and black stereotypes, but minstrelsy tapped into a much wider audience than anti-slavery pamphlets, books, or speeches. Starting in 1832, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice took his Jim Crow act from New York to London, kicking off a craze for minstrel song and dance. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic seized upon this new format, including burnt-cork blackface, to promote the end of slavery. In one of Rice’s songs, the master of a slave named “Gombo Chaff” went to Hell after he died, where he was forced to perform the menial tasks he assigned to his slaves.
Part of the draw of minstrel shows was the opportunity for white urban audiences to get a glimpse of purportedly genuine African American life, behavior, singing and dancing that took place on rural plantations. Songs supporting abolition emphasized the suffering of slaves rather than contentment on the plantation. However, there was a condescending edge to the abolitionists’ call to pity slaves.
By the end of the Civil War, the wave of popular minstrelsy ebbed away. While minstrel troupes still performed and sheet music still sold, it would never attain its popularity of the antebellum days. Still, minstrelsy and its influence lived far beyond its initial blush of popularity – and the abolitionist movement.