Race & Racism at the University of Richmond

Glee Clubs - Minstrelsy & Negro Spirituals

Glee Clubs & Minstrelsy

Coming from 18th Century England, the term “Glee Club” referred to a group of men singing parlor songs, folk songs, and other short simple songs of the like in close harmony with one another and normally without accompaniment (Princeton Glee Club). Early American glee clubs arose on the basis of this model. Growing over time in size, at their foundation, glee clubs have remained largely the same, with certain qualities such as the use of short simple melodies, and singing in close harmony without accompaniment withstanding throughout time, existing as a prevalent part of glee clubs today.

One of the largest changes we have seen, however, is in the kinds of music glee clubs sing. “Ranging from the 15th to the 21st Century, from the most solemnly sacred to the most provocatively profane,” in the 20th century specifically, glee clubs were infamous for calling on minstrelsy as a form of entertainment (Princeton Glee Club). An American form of entertainment developed in the late 19th century, minstrelsy consisted of dancing, music, and comedy, and was mainly performed by white people in blackface. In this context, “blackface” refers to the makeup used by a non-black performer playing a black role. Given the typically comedic or musical nature of the role, or usually a tie both, “minstrel” and “minstrelsy” is considered extremely offensive; in turn, referring to the performance of actors using either of these expressions refers to the performance of actors, usually appearing in blackface, who conformed to and made fun of negative stereotypes associated with black people.

Though not typical of all glee clubs or performances, the Richmond College Glee Club specifically was known to engage in this type of performance, often between 1932 and 1938. With both minstrelsy and blackface performances appearing on Richmond’s campus in the early 1900s, the use of both in glee clubs became a normalized instrument of show.

Here, at the intersection of minstrelsy and glee clubs, Negro spirituals meet. In an effort to fully understand the nature of both in the context of glee clubs and performance, one must turn to the following section, working towards a understanding of Negro Spirituals.

Glee Clubs & Negro Spirituals

Negro spirituals are religious songs sung by slaves in the United States during the era of slavery. The songs describe the hardships and suffering that slaves endured on the plantations. Many Negro spirituals consist of a “call and response” chant and long, drawn-out melodies. Prohibited by their masters, slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages and were forced to convert to Christianity. They used the words they knew to translate biblical information into songs. After slavery was abolished in 1865, Negro spirituals were sung in black churches by the congregation as a form of praise and worship.

Though not all glee clubs sang Negro spirituals, some college glee clubs did sing them during the early to late 20th century. The University’s Richmond College Glee Club sang Negro spirituals during many of their performances, from the 1920s into the 1970s. Because it was not extremely common for glee clubs to sing Negro spirituals during their performances, it is interesting to think about why the Richmond College Glee Club sang them so often. As can be seen in the earlier part of this section, Negro spirituals have direct roots in black history, specifically the history of slavery. Many Negro spirituals written by slaves were about their suffering, and how they were determined to overcome it with the help and strength of God. Because of Negro spirituals’ meanings and the direct connection to slavery, the performance of them by the Richmond College Glee Club is extremely problematic, as they were an all-white group. The Glee Club performed these songs for entertainment, and received much support from the University community. By performing these Negro spirituals for entertainment, the Glee Club erased the spirituals’ importance and connection to slavery. The fact that this all-white organization was permitted to sing Negro spirituals for entertainment suggests that the University was content with asserting white dominance to participate in the erasure of black history on the campus.

Glee Clubs - Minstrelsy & Negro Spirituals