…or How a Vermonter Brought His Girlfriend to a Minstrel ShowBy Mark R. Moore, Vermont Associate at Danville Historical House Beside the two ticket stubs that lie before me on the desk are two locks of hair. One is longer, thick and satiny with a slight curl. The other is wispy and of a rougher texture.
Like many things at Historical House, a glance at the surface of what one encounters does not reveal the facts. Instead, these items are more like a multi-faceted diamond, a kaleidoscope of thoughts and conclusions that change with the slightest turn. The facts must be evaluated against the partial evidence that we have before us as well as our knowledge of the past, placed in context of the present. Add to that the knowledge we gather from outside sources, and it will balance our first gut reactions.
Consider my response to the two ticket stubs, numbered 31 and 32, tucked into a diary along with the locks of hair owned by Herbert Stanton of North Danville, Vermont. The diary is dated 1904, and the balcony tickets are dated Friday Evening, March 23, 1906, for a performance of the Jubilee Minstrels at the Music Hall in Saint Johnsbury.
The first conclusion seems easy enough. Since no record is found in several years of the diaries of Herbert and Homer, his brother, that they have been out together in side-by-side seats, I can guess they were occupied by Herbert and Florence Johnson, a certified teacher, who would later become Herbert’s wife.
Next, let’s tackle the entertainment they saw on that Friday night. It involves some “gut guessing” based on knowledge of the past. A little Internet research brings up William H. West, who ran his Big Minstrel Jubilee troupe. According to a poster from the early 1900s, the show featured white performers using burnt cork or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips. Undoubtedly, this show featured skits and the singing of “genuine” Negro tunes and dances. Beginning in 1831, and lasting into the middle of the last century, there were over 700 minstrel show companies and performers.
This type of entertainment existed in Danville up until at least the 1950s. A photo by local historian, Tennie Toussaint, records two such entertainers in blackface. Winona Gadapee and Betty Calkins, local residents, remember performing in such minstrel shows in school. Susan Hurley-Glowa, Assistant Professor of Music at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, decries these shows, stating that “the survival of blackface minstrels in Vermont are the last cry of a threatened subculture that strongly identifies with the past and clings to nostalgic notices of nineteenth century morality and mentality.” The last recorded minstrel show in Vermont took place in Tunbridge in 1991.
But musicologist Charles Hamm counters that harsh evaluation by recognizing Vermont had very few people of color and “community people described the show as a part of a tradition: it was family and community oriented, involving people of all ages and professions; it raised money for local scholarships; it was good homespun entertainment that allowed the townspeople to laugh at themselves…According to them, the shows were not about ‘making fun of blacks,’ they were just the style of musical comedy that suited them best.”
Most likely, Herbert and Florence saw one of the blackface minstrel shows. If the show had been in 1872, though, they would have seen an extraordinary group that actually performed in St. Johnsbury–the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, an all-black University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Jubilee Singers took their name from the year of jubilee, described in the 25th Chapter of Leviticus, in which the slaves were set free every 50 years. During their second tour, late in the l9th century, the troupe is reported to have performed at the White House, Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and for European royalty. Their efforts raised $150,000 for the University. The troupe included a full range of voices: soprano, contralto, tenor and bass as well as piano, organ and guitar. The Jubilee Singers still perform today.
Regardless of which show they saw, they were most likely treated to a night that featured Steven Foster songs and spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” What motivated Herbert to place the locks of his wispy hair and Florence’s curls together with the ticket stubs in the diary? Were their spirits uplifted after listening to the Jubilee Minstrels, enticing the couple to cut and place their locks together for us to find over a hundred years later? Vows would not be exchanged for two years. Yet Florence’s tender Leap Year Proposal (See North Star Monthly February 10, 2011) was two years earlier! Wasn’t it time for a romantic gesture from him? A trinket? A token of affection?
A lock of a fair noblewoman’s hair as a keepsake of aristocratic affection dates far back in history through the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Baroque and Victorian eras. Kept in doublets, cuirasses, hatbands, lockets and in rings by love-struck swains, few have come down to us. The unique affection of these two Vermonters, aristocratic in nature, is clear through this tender sign of their feelings for each other.
Pictures and data can fool us, but this actual demonstration of depth of feeling and sincerity leaves us wondering. After comparing fading diaries, formal photos, locks of hair and informal written letters, we find a sense of the humanness of Herbert and Florence.
Today, we may have pictures that we don’t want to exist, because they tell too much to the viewer or show an awkward moment. We may have videos that force us to relive some past pain. We have e-mails, Twitter and text messages that we can erase, pressing the delete key, rather than to expose our progeny to our past. But we should realize that we are all complete human beings, warts and all, and what is seen by us as a major flaw in 2011 might be seen by a future historian in 2111 as a slight stumble.
In our struggle to be politically correct, we may become as straight-laced to those who come after us as the people who had to pose for several minutes in a head brace for the photographer of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, we can hope that the essence of our humanity remains, like the locks that Herbert and Florence left us.
To view a photo album associated with this article, click here.
This article was first published in the March, 2011, issue of the North Star Monthly.