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- George Modlin's Segregated University of Richmond
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Minstrelsy and blackface performances were common forms of entertainment on Richmond’s campus in the early 1900s. Articles in the Collegian covered campus minstrel shows, and even in one documented instance, a benefit show.
For the purpose of this exhibit, "blackface" refers to the makeup used by a non-black performer playing a black role. The role played is typically comedic or musical and usually is considered offensive. Likewise, "minstrel" and "minstrelsy" refer to the performance of actors, usually appearing in blackface, who conformed to and made fun of negative stereotypes associated with black Americans.
Minstrelsy was a popular amusement in the extracurricular lives of students at Richmond well into the 1920s. Many more articles than highlighted in this exhibit advertised Richmond and Westhampton College minstrel productions.
The inclusion of a photograph of students in blackface says much about its acceptance on campus during the early 1900s. The normalcy of blackface-evidenced by its place in the University's yearbook- adds to the culture of white supremacy on campus. Even though University of Richmond students were predominantly white, the University also employed black staff, some of whom appeared in yearbook pictures as well. Blackface was a means to "dumb down" white actors who put on a mask in order to perform in what was considered a joke production-not real art. When white Richmond College or Westhampton College students put on blackface, they upheld societal notions of white supremacy and systematically oppressed African Americans on campus.
This 1924 yearbook page offers a short history of the Minstrel Club on campus, citing its beginnings in 1915. The club allowed all University students to perform in minstrel shows, making it a prominent club during that time. The ease with which students at the University of Richmond could participate in or watch minstrel shows suggests that it was a common form of entertainment on campus, and an even more common aspect of student life in the early 1900s.
Minstrel performances were popular on-campus events in which white students would perform skits, songs, and dances in blackface, portraying African Americans as comical, dim-witted, and uneducated. This page from the yearbook lists the white students who were a a part of the Minstrel Association, a Westhampton Club that often put on performances for entertainment and charity benefits. This organization was recognized as a part of the clubs on campus, indicating the accepted nature of such performances. Blackface, a common theme in minstrel performances, and "negro dialect" were methods white students used to secure their white supremacy and characterize African Americans as crude and uncultured.
This Collegian article recounts a "benefit" minstrel show put on by Westhampton College students where all proceeds from ticket sales were donated. The fact that students could use minstrelsy and blackface to further other University or student activities shows how disposable black people and culture were to whites at the time.