Long before the future leaders of America were moonwalking with shoe polish smeared on their cheeks, the first blackface minstrels took to the stage in the early 19th century. Beginning in the decades leading up to the Civil War, troupes of white men, women, and children darkened their faces with burnt cork and traveled the country performing caricatures of blackness through songs, dances, and skits. These performances, arising out of Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, and other cities along the Ohio River, became one of America’s first distinct art forms and its most popular genre of public entertainment.
From the beginning, minstrelsy attracted criticism for its racist portrayals of African Americans. Frederick Douglass decried blackface performers as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” In venues where black artists were often banned from performing and black audiences, if they were admitted at all, were forced to occupy segregated sections, white entertainers in blackface furthered the same paternalistic and degrading stereotypes that plantation owners and politicians advanced to justify slavery, and helped create a racist symbology that came to represent generations of prejudice. Shows featured a cast of recurring characters: the clownish slave Jim Crow; the obsequious, maternal Mammy; the hypersexualized wench Lucy Long; the arrogant dandy Zip Coon; the lazy, childish Sambo. Some of these archetypes continue to surface in the present day.