The "Black Minstrelsy" in Scotland

Extracted from an article by Eric J Graham

The history of the Black Minstrelsy in Scotland aims to provide an insight into Scotland’s historical relationship with racism. Minstrelsy was an ‘American’ form of theatrical entertainment based on derogatory racial depictions.

Popular in the US, Black Minstrelsy shows also toured in the UK. In Scotland shows were performed in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Paisley and Edinburgh. The great emancipation campaigner Frederick Douglass, whilst visiting Scotland, denounced them as ‘rooted in racist bigotry’.

The racial stereotypes depicted in these images associate Black people with low intelligence and buffoonery. During the 19th century these associations originated in the white man’s characterisation of plantation and free slaves. The caricatures took such a firm hold on the imagination that often white audiences went on to expect any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to the stereotypes.

Whilst these images and advertisements are shocking to many of us today, we should not be complacent in thinking that racial myths and stereotypes no longer exist. We hope this exhibition and images will prompt discussion around how far we have moved with regards to racial equality; and what more we need to do to build a truly anti-racist Scotland.

On the 10th June 1839 the ‘father of American Minstrels’ Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice – made his first appearance on the stage of the Adelphi Theatre in Broughton Street, Edinburgh. Rice, a white comic actor from New York, had been an overnight sensation. ‘Black faced’ with burnt cork and oil, dressed in rags and with his toes sticking out of old boots, his manic buffoonery centred around his signature tune ‘Jump Jim Crow’. His show with singing and manic dancing was recognised as the blueprint for racial myths and stereotypes that carried on throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Black Minstrelsy

Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice’s one man show ran for eight nights in Edinburgh before he returned to America. He left behind the demeaning racial labels that became part of the accepted Scottish lexicon such as ‘darky’, ‘coon’, ‘nigger’.

Rice’s act is now universally recognised as the pre-curser of the ‘Black Face’ show. The first of these is the Virginia Minstrels who arrive from New York Bowery district of Manhattan. The line up was a set formula followed by others, of the fiddler and banjo player seated in the centre with the two ‘end men’ Bones and Tambo. The humour peaked with the ‘stump’ speech by Bones and Tambo who engage in ludicrous dialogue, mispronouncing terms and using gags and puns reinforcing the negative image of Black people being racially unequal to the white Scottish audience.

The ‘Bones’ player by William S Mount (1856). One of the first images to represent an African American not as a comic character.
He clicked the bones at high speed to provide the percussion to the Black Minstrel Show act.

In the 1840s, the ‘Black Face’ acts from America multiply in numbers. Most famously the Christy Minstrels. Who introduced the latest caricature Zip Coon the urban ‘dandy’. In flashy dress he sneers at his country cousins, the Jim Crow’s, while bungling his own attempts to appear sophisticated. His song ‘old zip coon’ was sung in Scottish Primary schools in the 1950s.

The Black Minstrelsy develops into a more monstrous and longer show. This poster is for the Adelphi Theatre in Edinburgh and ran for over month. The term ‘Buffalo Gals’ is a derogatory reference to female African hair being likened to the head of an American Bison. All actors and singers are white males ‘blacked up'.

One of the early victims of the Black Minstrel acts was the Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. Who arrived in Glasgow from America in 1824 and enrolled at Glasgow University were he won a gold medal for Latin Composition before training to be an actor. Theatre critics in Glasgow and Edinburgh consistently criticised his performances stating his ‘vulgar foreign accent’ and his ‘thick lips’ were reasons he should not be playing classic Shakespeare roles. His attempt to break into the London theatre world playing Othello was short cut by the critics and theatre owners as they did not want a Black man seen to be ‘pawing’ a white Desdemona.

Ira Aldridge with the help of the Edinburgh Entrepreneur William Murray, attempted to change the audiences perception of Black actors. They thought they could get white audiences in Scottish music halls to be more sympathetic to Black actors by offering a mixed programme of short extracts. He played classic Shakespearean characters to showcase his thespian capabilities, while on the same programme delivering sketches based on the well-known Black Minstrelsy characters such as ‘Jumping Jim Crow’. He always finished his show singing ‘The Negro Hunt or Opossum up a gum tree’ a song with obvious emancipationist sentiment.

The great American emancipationist and fugitive slave Frederick Douglass arrived in Scotland in 1845 to engage in the struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Scottish people over the matter of continuing slavery in the southern states of America. He came to Scotland as part of a wave of American speakers to challenge the newly formed breakaway Free Church of Scotland who had taken money from Slave holding Presbyterians in the southern states. The campaign slogan was ‘send back the money’.

He remarks that he found no racial prejudice in Scotland. He stated ‘… no insults to encounter here. No prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth – I am treated as a man and as an equal brother’. He leaves after spending 2 years touring Britain mostly in Scotland.

Frederick Douglass returns to Scotland in 1859 as the American Civil war was approaching. He is here to drum up support for President Lincoln in the face of widespread support for the south in Scotland. His comments on his second visit is soured by finding racial bigotry on Scotland’s streets. He later blamed the Black Minstrel shows for introducing racism and all the derogatory terminology that was now part of the Scottish lexicon.

On his second visit he stated ‘the Virginia Minstrels, Christies Minstrels or any of the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature in which to make money, and pandered to the corrupt tastes of fellow white citizens’.

Sarah Renond was a Black college graduate who arrived in Scotland as Frederick Douglass was leaving for the last time. Her mission was to shock the wavering white middle classes of Scotland to support Lincoln in the impending American Civil war by relating the extent of sexual abuse of enslaved Black female at the hands of the white owners. This hardened public sentiment against the excesses of the crude Black Minstrelsy and the portrayal of ‘Buffalo Gals’.

The Black Minstrelsy changes to gain more respectability. During the second half of the 19th century, the new Minstrel shows discarded the most excessive racial elements of their comic routines, to be replaced by more sophisticated dress such as black dinner suits and white gloves but always ‘Black Faced’.

Uncle Toms Cabin written by Hariett Beecher Stowe told the story of the heroic suffering of a Black family facing segregation and the prospect of re-enslavement was an international sensation. Over 1.5 million copies were sold in the first year. It was only a matter of time before the moral tale reached the theatres. This play ran alongside the Black Minstrelsy extravaganzas and aided the switch in popular taste towards music and dance and discarded the crude humour that had been the hallmark of the original ‘Black Faced’ troupes.

While public sentiment was changing towards supporting Lincoln and the North, sections of Scotland’s ruling elite grasped the opportunity to enrich themselves in supplying the south with blockade running vessels and war ships. This split is also evident in the music hall acts.

The middle classes patronising the new upmarket ‘Mammoth Black Face’ acts who appeared in dinner jackets and white gloves ‘swanee style’ routines. The working classes remain loyal to the original ‘Jumpin Jim Crow’ acts In smaller venues and pubs dresses as the previous image shows.

One by product of the ‘Black Face’ era was the publication in Glasgow of the ‘stump’ speeches with their outrageous spoof dialogues between the characters Bones and Tambo from the original Black Minstrelsy formula.

The Black and White Minstrel Show had a TV audience of 16 million and was considered the height of good quality light entertainment during the 1960s and 70s.
It was the creation of Falkirk born impresario George Mitchel and based on an earlier tradition of the Black Minstrelsy music hall shows. The show ran for 16 years and was
considered the best European light entertainment show. Winning the Golden Rose at the Montreau Film and Television awards.

In the 1970s people complained that the shows perpetuated racial stereotypes based on American slavery. When the show stopped ‘blacking up’ due to these complaints, the audience plummeted and the show was axed.

The Black Minstrel Shows were played throughout Scotland right up to the first world War. This advertisement is from a show in Stornoway.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter?

Keep updated with all our news!