A Dark Comedy: The History of Blackface in Minstrel Shows

Written by Sam Marks

Content warning: This article contains discussion of racism, prejudice, and racist imagery.

Airing from 1958 to 1978, The Black and White Minstrel Show was a widely watched BBC television series. My father recalled watching the program with his family frequently while growing up in the suburbs of London. During this hour-long light entertainment show, musicians, singers, and dancers showcased their talents as they performed American minstrel and country songs. However, not everything The Black and White Minstrel Show adapted from the US was musical. A key feature of the show was its use of blackface.  

The duration of The Minstrel Show’s run saw various minstrel bands with several white musicians wearing blackface and mimicked stereotypes of African Americans for their sets. While the show received criticism and calls for it to be canceled due to its racist portrayals, its time on the air coincided with the US Civil Rights Movement, which fought against the exact behavior displayed on The Black and White Minstrel Show. In 1967, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination called for the show to be canceled, leading to the BBC attempting to run the show without blackface.  

However, this unsuccessful attempt saw The Minstrel Show return in full color after one season of absence. The show was finally cancelled in 1978 after the BBC reduced various programming. The final season of the show was the only one where musicians did not appear in blackface. Since then, Professor David Hendy has gone on to call the Minstrel Show “the BBC’s most glaring failure to understand the damage it could do when it traded in outdated stereotypes”. Yet, this was not the perception of most viewers at the time. After all, the Minstrel Show aired at the same time that Golliwogs, a popular children’s character that had stereotypical Black attributes, were being collected by school children as a way of winning prizes. 

The Black and White Minstrel Show was not an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence for British society at the time. It was an entertainment show that relied on racist tropes which the audience failed to adequately consider as racist. However, the tame intentions of show writer George Mitchell were built on systemically racist structures that stretched back centuries before The Minstrel Show first aired.  


Since 1619, there has been clear and present documentation of African slaves being imported to the North American British colonies. Across the North American colonies, particularly in the South, great plantation industries were built upon the enslavement of Africans. Taken from their homes and shipped across the Atlantic via the Middle Passage, those who survived the inhuman journey were given a new name and put to brutal, back-breaking work. With a new labor force arriving in and remaining in the American colonies after independence, the existence and suppression of Africans began to be justified in the developing American culture.  

“Jump Jim Crow” was a song and dance routine popularized in the 1830s by American performer Thomas D. Rice. Rice relied on blackface and stereotypical African American vernacular to build his fame and fortune while performing alongside minstrel bands. He performed in blackface in over 100 shows across the United States and was regularly met with sold-out theatres and demands for encores. These performances were so popular that he gained an international reputation and performed in Liverpool and London. Rice’s prominence earned him the moniker “the father of American minstrelsy”. “Jim Crow” was so popular that it became a derogatory term for African Americans, and the Jim Crow character Rice adapted and popularized would come to outlive him. But it would be some time before the exact nature of Rice’s satirical performances would be applied to African Americans more generally.  

In 1859, journalist Mortimer Thomson, known by his pseudonym QK Philander Doesticks, travelled from New York City to Savannah, Georgia. At the time, Savannah was a prosperous seaport that was central to shipping slave-grown cotton. Thomson was there on behalf of the New York Tribune to observe what is now known as the Great Slave Auction: the sale of approximately 436 enslaved Africans over the course of two days. This auction was presided over by local plantation owner Pierce Mease Butler. Butler had advertised the auction well, saying how the enslaved people were “accustomed to the culture of rice and provisions”, and that “among them [were] a number of good mechanics and house servants.” Through the dehumanizing process that saw these men, women, and children commodified into slaves, it was good advertising that successfully sold them. African slaves were marketed as reliable, trustworthy, good-natured, hardworking, strong, and of good character despite their perceived inferiority to the white race. These portrayals of African Americans that Thomson noted and published were the exact opposite of the Jim Crow stereotype.  

Advertisement for the Great Slave Auction

After the American Civil War, slavery was abolished across the country and auctions, such as the one that took place in Savannah in 1859, ceased. Many wealthy plantation owners such as Butler found themselves unable to adapt to the free-labor economy, crippling southern economic power. As the southern United States was ravaged by a war that destroyed their way of life culturally and economically, there was a need to rationalize the shattering defeat. Southern pride and spirit had been lambasted by a war which had completely overthrown the social order of a plantation society. Now African Americans lived freely (although not equally for a century after the abolition of slavery) among the white southern population. Suddenly, they were no longer dehumanized as commodities, and they were no longer considered useful to the southern King Cotton economic machine.  

From the Civil War onwards, African Americans were stereotyped as idiotic, childlike, weak, drunk, dirty, criminalistic, scheming, conniving, and barbaric. Their reliability was gone in the eyes of the white plantation establishment now that they could no longer enslave them legally. African Americans were vilified in society and systemically oppressed by a series of Black Codes in southern states following the Reconstruction period, which saw the former Confederacy rejoin the Union. Throughout all this prejudice, one name resurged to finalize the change in African American stereotypes permanently: Jim Crow.  

While minstrel shows declined in popularity from the Civil War onwards, the character of Jim Crow remained such a cultural icon that a series of segregationist laws were named after him. The “Jim Crow Laws” were a series of laws passed by southern state legislatures to restrict the political and economic freedoms of African Americans. The character of Jim Crow shaped a collective understanding of how African Americans were to be seen in the American south under various of state governments. Jim Crow was a witty, nimble trickster who fit the narrative the former Confederacy needed to justify their defeat in the Civil War. The minstrel band which sang “Jim Crow Jump” became an icon synonymous with American racial segregation. Black people were turned into a spectacle by white performers who capitalized off the stereotypes associated with slaves. Even outside of the former Confederacy, the American public was infatuated with entertainment based on African American stereotypes that traced their roots back to the Civil War. 

In the 1900s, as film was beginning to take off, two of the highest grossing American films used minstrelsy or engaged in harmful stereotypes of African Americans rooted in such shows. The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film so notable it was the first film ever screened at the White House under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, took Jim Crow off the stage and onto the big screen. It depicted a valorous Ku Klux Klan who defended southern towns from unintelligent, violent, and sexually aggressive Black men (who were white actors in blackface). This film was the highest grossing film worldwide until it was replaced in 1939 by another Jim Crow film, Gone with the Wind.  Gone with the Wind (1939) is so famous in the history of film that, if adjusted for inflation, it still remains the top grossing film of all time. This epic romance displays how the defeat of the Confederacy destroyed the plantation lifestyle and the social class which benefitted from it. It was the first film for which an African American actress won an Oscar for her role, going to Hattie McDaniel for playing the maid Mammy. Despite this achievement, McDaniel was still not allowed to attend the premiere of the film due to segregationist laws and policies.  

While neither of these films contained minstrel routines, the source material of witty, nimble, tricksters were now applied to new formats that developed out of minstrelsy. They spread globally due to the technical and international prominence of the United States in the media industry. Due to popular films like these, minstrelsy persisted and was readapted internationally. American racial stereotypes spread around the world and penetrated different countries and societies, including Britain, leading to the creation of programs like The Black and White Minstrel Show. 

The Black and White Minstrel Show was just one show in a long line of Jim Crow-esque media forms. But the recentness and longevity of the show emphasizes that, even though slavery had been abolished for one hundred years in the United States and the Civil Rights movement was ongoing, audiences were still numb or willfully ignorant to the racist aspects of these performances. The perplexing fascination of Western societies with stereotypical portrayals of Black people has remained the long-lasting consequence of the Atlantic slave trade on the world.  


Bartlett, Bruce. Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past. St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2008. 

Bryan, Joseph. “Sale of Slaves,” The Savannah Republican, February 8, 1859. February 8, 1859. The Savannah Republican (newspaper), Savannah, Georgia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1859_Great_Slave_Auction_ad.jpg. 

Doesticks, Q. K. Philander. What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? Great Auction Sale of Slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d & 3d, 1859. A Sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s Journal. [n.p.], 1863. http://archive.org/details/whatbecameofslav00does. 

Giles Oakley. The Devil’s Music. Da Capo Press, 1997. http://archive.org/details/devilsmusichisto00oakl_0. 

Gone with the Wind. Drama, Romance, War. Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1940. 

Lang, Robert, McLellan Lincoln Collection (Brown University) RPB, and Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays (Brown University). Reference Works. RPB. The Birth of a Nation : D.W. Griffith, Director. New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 1994. http://archive.org/details/isbn_9780813520278. 

Monroe, Kristopher. “The Weeping Time.” The Atlantic, July 10, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/the-weeping-time/374159/. 

Smith, Adam. “‘Offensive’ Golliwog Pictured on Wall of Fish and Chip Shop.” Metro (blog), January 10, 2019. https://metro.co.uk/2019/01/10/offensive-golliwog-pictured-on-wall-of-fish-and-chip-shop-8322775/. 

The Birth of a Nation. Drama, War. David W. Griffith Corp., Epoch Producing Corporation, 1915. 

The Black and White Minstrel Show. Music. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1958. 

Watkins, Mel. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Edited by Brooks McNamara, James V. Hatch, and Annemarie Bean. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996. 

Watts, Jill. Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. Illustrated edition. Amistad, 2007. 

Featured Image Credits:  

Actor Thomas D. Rice Dancing as “Jim Crow.” 1836. This image is available from the New York Public Library’s Digital Library under the digital ID 5366881: digitalgallery.nypl.org → digitalcollections.nypl.org (permalink). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jim_Crow_in_1836_art_-_NYPL_5366881_(cropped).jpg

Arnold, Karen. Vintage Golliwog Soft Toy. March 15, 2016. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=44002&picture=vintage-peluche-golliwog&large=1. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vintage-golliwog-soft-toy.jpg

Bryan, Joseph. “Sale of Slaves,” The Savannah Republican, February 8, 1859. February 8, 1859. The Savannah Republican (newspaper), Savannah, Georgia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1859_Great_Slave_Auction_ad.jpg

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: