USF Libraries | Special & Digital Collections | Exhibits

African American Minstrel Performers

Home of Uncle Joe

Persley, George W. Home of Uncle Joe. Cincinnati: John Church & Co., c1876.

Unlike the majority of white blackface performers in the 1800s who were born in Northern cities prior to the Civil War, most African American blackface minstrel performers were born after the Civil War and in Southern cities. However, the differences between white and African American minstrel performers do not stop there. Although the age of urban industrialization brought great opportunity for whites in America, according to Karen Sotiropoulos, “for black Americans, the 1890s ushered in a decade of shrinking possibilities, and artists and activists alike desperately sought any avenue for advancement.” African American artists saw their chance for advancement and financial security on the minstrel stage. These artists migrated out of the South and traveled to the West and New York City and formed minstrel groups who advertised their authentic blackness as a selling point to Northern audiences.

Like their white counterparts before them, they “blackened up,” sang, danced, and discussed provocative issues like sex in their shows. The structure of their performances and their removal of 19th century Victorian conventions was typical for all minstrel shows at the time. However, black minstrel performers felt the added responsibility to counter the stereotypes of black identity as laughable, primitive and overly sensual, leading them to develop a self-presentation on stage that balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary. African American blackface performers were also very aware of their off-stage public presentation and conducted themselves in a way to oppose the fictional representations of blacks they performed onstage. Their performances appealed to white audiences but also catered to the black middle class primarily because of the performers’ connection with activist organizations, publications and presentations. Black performers’ association with these groups and their popularization with white audiences allowed them to “transcend local vaudeville stages to bring their art to Broadway and beyond."