Race & Racism at the University of Richmond

Problematic Performances

From 1932-1938, the performances of minstrel shows and Negro spirituals by the University’s Richmond College Glee Club were extremely popular and received much support amongst the campus community. Through these performances, not only were stereotypes of black people perpetuated, but the history and importance of Negro spirituals were virtually diminished. These performances by the Glee Club, and the influence by Charles Troxell, strongly suggest a problematic view of race, specifically in regards to white dominance and the oppression of black people.

In this article, the author talks about the Richmond College Glee Club's successful three-day concert tour that took places in cities around Virginia. The Richmond College Glee Club's performances included skits, saxophone pieces, and the singing of classical songs as well as Negro spirituals. The glee club was led by Charles Troxell. This article raises questions about why the Richmond College Glee Club, an all-white organization, was excited to perform Negro spirituals. It could be possible that the leader of the Richmond College Glee Club, Charles Troxell, had an influence on the various songs that they performed. He had ties to famous black entertainers, such as famous African American tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, which provides an opportunity to make connections between his working relationships and his influences on the glee club. In the article, the author describes the parts of the performance as “attractions,” “excellent work,” and a “fine type of presentation.” The description of Negro spirituals as “attractions” blatantly displays how the performance of the songs by an all-white organization diminishes the history and importance of the songs. The praise of the performance as “excellent work” and a “fine type of presentation” suggests that the University did not truly care about the problematic nature of the Glee Club performing Negro spirituals. Because of their white privilege, they did not have to care about how offensive this performance was. This shows one aspect of how the University viewed race during this time, specifically through the lens of musical performances.

This is not the only instance of the Glee Club putting on performances with problematic content. A few months later in this same year, the University was so delighted with the success of the concert tour that it gave the Glee Club permission to put on more performances all over the state of Virginia, expanding from the few cities where the Glee Club performed on their three-day tour. Though they did not specify which cities, the University made it clear that they would be able to have more performances, which would include minstrel shows. The minstrel shows happened to be one of the aspects of the future performances that the Glee Club, as well as its leader Charles Troxell, was most excited about, showing how race was viewed by students and faculty at the time. The article discusses the plans that the Richmond College Glee Club, led by Charles Troxell, had for the school year. The Richmond College Glee Club planned to perform concerts throughout the state of Virginia and were very excited to put together and perform a minstrel show. Minstrel shows are a form of entertainment that include songs, dances, and dialogue usually performed by white actors in blackface. During this time, minstrel shows were very prominent not only in general popular culture, but also at the University of Richmond. The Richmond College Glee Club performed minstrel shows at the University, as well as all around the area of Richmond and surrounding areas, for many years. Minstrel shows, though blatantly racist, were quite typical during this time. This raises questions about how race was viewed at the University, and if any of the same views that existed then still exist in the University’s community now. 

Even after the Glee Club program was enlarged in the fall of 1933, the University and the Glee Club did not believe this was enough. In the fall of 1934, the Glee Club held an entire fall tour, which began in December. The progression of the support and success of the Glee Club and its performances of minstrel shows and Negro spirituals suggests the problematic nature of the University’s views on race. Not only was the University permitting the Glee Club to put on extremely racist performances, but it was strongly encouraging it, as we can see through the continuous expansion of the Glee Club and its program and tours. In this article, the author discusses the opening of the Richmond College Glee Club's Fall tour. Sponsored by the Parent-Teachers' Association of the Bowling Green High School, the recital opened with the delivery of two groups of songs. Followed by the new Spider Quartet, the article details the program will conclude with a group of minstrel songs sung by the entire club, including "De Sandman," "The Yaller Gal that Winked at Me," and a medley of songs from Tidewater Virginia Colleges. In this scenario the Glee Club takes the assertion of white dominance yet another step further than in some of the other examples; as we know songs like “The Yaller Gal that Winked at Me,” and “De Sandman,” to be at the cornerstone of minstrelsy. During this tour, they performed many more minstrel shows and Negro spirituals than in their smaller tours and performances before. Through the expansion and support of the Glee Club's performances and tours, we see how the University viewed race, specifically black people, during this time.

Problematic Performances