The Virginia Minstrels

po_Minstrels-VirginiaThe minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface or, especially after the Civil War, black people in blackface.

Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy,buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. The minstrel show began with brief burlesques and comic entr’actes in the early 1830s and emerged as a full-fledged form in the next decade. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.

Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was at the core of the rise of an American music industry, and for several decades it provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects; on the other, it afforded white Americans a singular and broad awareness of what some whites considered significant aspects of black-American culture to be.

The Virginia Minstrels or Virginia Serenaders was a group of 19th century American entertainers known for helping to invent the entertainment form known as the minstrel show. Led by Dan Emmett, the original lineup consisted of Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower.

After a successful try-out in the billiard parlor of the Branch Hotel on New York City’s Bowery, the group is said to have premiered to a paying audience nearby at the Chatham Theatre, probably on January 31, 1843. They followed with a brief run at the Bowery Amphitheater in early February before an expanded schedule of venues.

Unlike earlier blackface acts that featured solo singers or dancers, the Virginia Minstrels appeared as a group in blackface and what would become iconic costumes and performed more elaborate shows. In March 1843 they appeared in Welch’s Olympic Circus as part of an equestrian act. Although they primarily appeared within a larger schedule of entertainment in their earliest months, they surely were the first minstrels to also be hired to perform by themselves at smaller venues.

Among other things, they are credited with the songs “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Old Dan Tucker”, which passed into American folk culture.