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Phillip Tutor: Blackface's reprehensible legacy here in Calhoun County

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In July 1902, Calhoun County prepped for the summer’s biggest party at Oxford Lake. Round-trip trolly fare from downtown Anniston was 20 cents, which included a general admission coupon to the festivities. Reserved seats cost a nickel more.

Extra trolleys began heading south from 10th and Noble streets at 4:30 each afternoon that weekend, then ferried people back to Anniston throughout the evening. The show began at 8:30, rain or shine. The last trolly left Oxford Lake at 11.

On the bill were comedy sketch duo Charles Innes and Maud Ryan, singer M.G. Rayfield, moving pictures made by a Thomas Edison-designed kinetograph, and Ludlow Allen, a comedian vocalist.

A blackface comedian vocalist.

An advertisement in The Anniston Evening Star revealed Allen’s specialty: “New Coon and Ragtime Songs.”

Years pass. Societies advance. Race relations improve. Humans make better decisions -- sometimes. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, the latest prominent politician to have his racial offenses unearthed, has forced modern America to re-examine blackface entertainment’s prevalence in our past.

It’s not a comfortable journey, whether at Oxford Lake or the Virginia governor’s mansion. Blackface minstrelsy is shamefully embedded in the story of white America, its beginnings dating back before the Civil War when most blacks in the United States were chattel slaves and black culture held no value for the majority race. Blackface defenders were just as shameful. The shows were popular, they said. Smearing burnt cork or shoe polish on white faces and having them perform exaggerated skits mimicking the stereotypes of slave language and behavior wasn’t offensive, they said. It’s mind-boggling to think they actually believed that bunk.

Some people may have found blackface funny, but its offensiveness never was questionable. Like slavery and segregated schools and separate water fountains, it existed because white America cultivated it. Blackface sought humor in the dehumanizing of a minority race, a rendering of flesh-and-blood humans into stage props. It existed well into the 20th century because of America’s repulsive acceptance of racial humor -- and because black Americans were powerless to stop it until the civil rights movement reached full steam.

I wish I could write that Oxford Lake’s 1902 blackface show was the only one of note in Calhoun County, but I can’t. For nearly 60 years, minstrel shows and blackface performers were as common here as football games and summer heat. If widespread opposition existed, I can’t find it.

In 1901, the Noble Theater booked Perryman’s Black-Face Comedy Company, “headed by the celebrated blackface comedian Thos. Cross.”

The Lyric vaudeville theater twice in the 1920s hosted a blackface comedian named “Nig Shope.” Seriously. That was his stage name.

In 1924, the Noble Theater hired the well-known Al G. Fields Minstrels company, which featured Pete Dentzel, one of the top blackface comedians in the business. Dentzel’s picture, in full makeup, was published in The Star.

In 1937, a church in Pleasant Valley hosted a blackface minstrel named “Alabama Sweets,” and a program at Weaver School included a blackface comedian.

Blackface comedians performed at Anniston’s Elk Club in 1941.

Saks School hosted a program with blackface entertainment in 1942.

The Jacksonville High School PTA used a blackface-themed program as a fundraiser in 1950.

In 1952, the local Jaycees held a minstrel program at Anniston High School that included blackface comedy. The Star wrote, “The Jaycee Minstrel is a show produced by the community for the people of the community. It is more than a fund-raising project for the Anniston Junior Chamber of Commerce. It is an effort at community teamwork, recreation and understanding.”

Yeah, The Star actually printed that.

And then, like a faucet slowly turned off, blackface became less prevalent -- here, at least. Alabama’s schools largely ignored the Brown v. Board decisions, civil rights violence rocked Birmingham, and Anniston’s public schools didn’t fully integrate until the early 1970s. Oh, and don’t forget that in 2001 -- just 18 years ago -- a fraternity at Auburn University suspended 13 members who were photographed in blackface. Virginia’s governor, who admits to darkening his face once to impersonate Michael Jackson, is merely today’s example of this reprehensible American story.

Robin Givhan, a columnist and fashion critic at The Washington Post, wrote last week that “blackface is, in essence, a kind of fashion — one rooted in the dark, arrogant insecurity of white supremacy, one inspired by this country’s original sin — that keeps evolving year after year until each iteration is just a little bit different from the previous one. But they are all of a piece. Blackface isn’t a fad or a one-off. It’s a classic that’s embedded in the cultural vocabulary. Reimagined, modernized, stylized.”

But it’s still blackface. Offensive, inexcusable, condemnable.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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