Minstrelsy and Blackface at UW–Madison

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to understand why minstrelsy and Blackface were a popular form of entertainment at UW–Madison in the early 20th century.

Students will be able to understand the relationship between student organizations/Greek life with minstrel shows, Blackface, and racism on UW–Madison’s campus.

Students will be able to understand that minstrelsy and Blackface did not end in the early 20th century and continue to plague universities.

Sources and Readings

Recommended Primary Sources:

1920 Engineering Minstrel Show Program and Review: Read the Program Here & Read the Review Here

 This is a program, description, and review of UW–Madison’s Engineering program’s minstrel show in 1920. The program tells who performed the show, the musical numbers, and a racist caricature on the cover. The description is an article detailing the background of the show’s production and contains a review too.

History of the Engineering Minstrel Show: Read the Source Here

This is an article about a history of minstrelsy performed by Engineering students at UW–Madison. The article describes that the shows started in the early 1900s and saw a revival in the later part of the decade, despite student interest. The author also explains why the Engineering department hosted it and how it became an integral part of their program.

Blackface Themed Party: Read the Article Here

This is a Daily Cardinal article describing a Blackface party that was scheduled for April 1951 at Delta Kappa Epsilon. The party would feature “impersonations” of famous Black people and was billed as a “social session.”

Recommended Readings:

Chapter 2 “Nooses, Sheets, and Blackface: White Racial Anxiety and Black Student Presence at Six Midwest Flagship Universities, 1882-1937 by Richard Breaux. In Ed. Marybeth Gasman., and Roger Geiger. Higher Education for African Americans Before the Civil Rights Era, 1900-1964.  (New York: Routledge, 2012.) Find the Book Here

UW Madison Public History Blog: “Successful Beyond Expectation:” Blackface, Minstrelsy, and Racist Entertainment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. By Kacie Lucchini Butcher. Read the Blog Post Here

Additional Primary Sources:

“Racial Snobbery Article” in the Daily Cardinal May 23, 1951: Read the Article Here 

This is an article written by Robert Capener, who expresses his frustration with racial insensitivity and racism abroad. Capener explains how racist shows and performances abroad were not well received and that the changing global relations should foster the need for Americans to promote racial tolerance.

Photos from Yearbook 1910 – Minstrel Page & Yearbook 1907 – Minstrel Parade: View 1910 Yearbook Here and View 1907 Yearbook Here

These are images from the 1907 and 1910 yearbooks related to “minstrel” activities from the school of Engineering. The 1907 is a series of photos from the “minstrel parade,” while the photo from 1910 is the minstrel show performers. 

Additional/Alternative Readings:

Selected chapters from Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Read the Book Here

“Chapter 6: White Skins, Black Masks: Minstrelsy and White Working Class Formation before the Civil War.” In David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class New Edition (New York: Verso, 2007). Read the Book Here

Why blackface remains popular on college campuses” In the Washington Post by Randa Tawil. Read the Article Here

Discussion and Questions

Primary Source Discussion Questions

1920 Engineering Minstrel Show Program and Review:

  • Based on the “Musical Numbers” titles, what do these songs seem to be focused on? Why are these song titles significant and harmful?
  • Why was the show important to the engineers and the university?
  • How was the show received?

History of the Engineering Minstrel Show:

  • Why did the engineering students put on a minstrel show?
  • How do you see the linkage of being an engineering student with minstrelsy?
  • Why was the minstrel show not performed for a few years? Do you think a lack of attendance could have had anything to do with this, why or why not?

Blackface Themed Party:

  •  Why would someone hold a Blackface party?
  •  Why was Blackface so harmful to Black people?
  • Do you notice a relationship between university affiliated organizations and Blackface on campus? What is that relationship?

Reading Discussion Questions

  • What were some of the reasons that white students participated in Blackface parties?
  • What were white peoples’ perceptions of Black students before and after they started attending Midwestern universities? How did it change or remain the same?  
  • How did Black Greek Life challenge white fraternities? What were some potential consequences for Black students if they joined these organizations?

Discussion Norms: These are based on Walter Parker, Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life, 138-9

  •   Do not raise hands
  • Address one another, not the discussion leader
  •  Invite others into the conversation
  •  Cite and/or reference the texts to support your texts
  • Base response in the reading/sources
  • Listen to and build on others’ comments
  •  Critically Agree and Disagree

For more ideas about structuring discussion and asking good questions, see The Discussion Project

Source Citations

1920 Engineering Minstrel Show Program: Program for the 1920 Engineers’ Minstrel Performance, Memorabilia Collection, Series I 4/13, 1920 Folder, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

1920 Engineering Minstrel Show Review: Wilson Trueblood, “The Engineers’ Minstrels of 1920,” Wisconsin Engineer, December 1920, Vol. 25, No. 3, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

History of the Engineering Minstrel Show: Wilson Trueblood, “Editorials – Minstrel Show,” Wisconsin Engineer, February 1910, Vol. 14, No. 2, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

Blackface Themed Party: “Parties Feature Bowery Ship, Blackface Themes,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 28, 1951, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

“Racial Snobbery Article” in the Daily Cardinal May 23, 1951: Robert Capener, “On the Soap Box: America Must Call a Halt to Racial Snobbery,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), May 23, 1951, UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

Photos from Yearbook 1910: University of Wisconsin–Madison, Badger Yearbook Vol. 24 (1910), UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.

Photos from Yearbook 1907 – Minstrel Parade: University of Wisconsin–Madison, Badger Yearbook Vol. 21 (1907), UW–Madison Archives, UW–Madison Libraries.