I came across my first article about a minstrel performance in South Dakota while researching the history of women’s suffrage, because an amateur performance in Mitchell had an act where a young woman in blackface did a “stump speech” act about suffrage…
The history of racism in America is a national story. Even with a low Black population in most of South Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white communities in South Dakota were still active participants in racist structures, including in entertainment.
South Dakota audiences watched professional minstrel troupes on their vaudeville circuit tours. South Dakota communities also held amateur minstrel shows in “burnt cork” blackface make-up— both as pure entertainment, as well as fundraisers for schools, churches, or other charitable causes. Sometimes guest directors were brought to lead local amateurs’ performances. Local “home talent” was generally white, but some news items from Rapid City and Yankton made it sound like there were very occasionally local Black residents that formed performance troupes. There were also Black performers who traveled in minstrel shows at the time—actors, comedians, and musicians often faced with a range of bad options for jobs available to them in the decades between slavery and the Civil Rights movement. A number of the visiting troupes from the South, or out-of-state at least, were comprised of Black performers. Many of those troupes were managed by white men.
For the following, I searched South Dakota newspapers from 1860-1923 in the papers available digitally through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site for the terms: “burnt cork,” “blackface,” “black face” (hundreds of results but mostly not in relation to actual minstrel performances, just the words in other use), “blacked up” “minstrelsy,” and “minstrel” (for which there were hundreds and hundreds of results). And this was with only a select number of newspapers available so far on the site… I also caught two articles from 1929 about another event while I was looking at microfilm of a Vermillion newspaper for a different project. All that said, search operations and human error being what they are, I can’t claim this is a fully comprehensive list.
The news items summarized and cited below detail a thread of this history. Most of the newspaper commentary was about the quality of the talent, the size of the audience, and the newness or staleness of the ‘jokes.’ I saw no indication of objection to such racism in the name of entertainment. There was one pastor who preached against minstrel shows, but probably more for their low-brow reputation than because of racial injustice.
There was some stomach-churning racism demonstrated in these articles and advertisements. And racial prejudice against people of African descent was occasionally joined by prejudice against women, American Indians, Chinese-Americans, and Arab people [See for instance: Custer Weekly Chronicle (SD), April 21, 1900 and Black Hills Union and Western Stock Review (Rapid City SD), March 3, 1905]. All part of a long history of insulting, and often lazy, stereotypes being used as novelty entertainment, and it’s not something we’ve outgrown entirely.
I have included some (but not all) of the clippings and quotes, which often used racist terminology (though I ‘bleeped’ some…). A number of the ads had actual photographs, and some had particularly racist illustrations—such as in the Saturday News (Watertown SD), May 22, 1913 and in the 1915 special supplement of the News. I have a few clippings of advertisements included. I also sometimes made a parenthetical note by links that included others.
Because this is something of a ‘data dump’ post, it’s not a detailed analysis of the phenomenon, but I think it is a demonstration of its embeddedness in South Dakota history. Just scroll down and back quick — There was more than you thought, right? If there are readers who find this helpful for more analytical research and/or a public history project, I’d love to hear about it.
For some general American history of minstrel shows and blackface performance: