What can white people do for Black History month? We can speak up and speak out to other white people about white supremacy culture. We have more opportunities to do this than we use. My congregation and I were afforded such an opportunity this past weekend.
In the wake of the news about Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and its Attorney General Mark Herring admitting to wearing blackface as young men, I received an email from my colleague Rev. Hank Peirce who was doing a quick Google search for information on Unitarian churches and blackface minstrel shows. It’s well known that Unitarian congregations were among the churches of many denominations that presented blackface minstrel shows as fundraisers as well as part of other civic and church celebrations. Rev. Peirce’s email was succinct. It said, “Have you seen this?” along with a link to the “Minstrel Shows” page on the www.hope1842.com website.
Sure enough, the website has a page featuring photographs and clippings of advertisements and coverage of the shows presented at Hopedale (MA) Town Hall and the Union Congregational Church. There’s also a program from a 1939 minstrel show at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, which also presented and hosted them on a regular basis.
I have explored this website previously, but due to its size, I hadn’t yet discovered this particular page. The minstrel show page includes a statement at the very bottom noting that minstrel shows were quite common right up through 1950s, but no statement about the inherent racist nature of blackface and the minstrel show. The website itself is an amazing resource for local history including a lot of material about our Unitarian congregation, but this page needed more than a straight presentation of artifacts. It needed a statement about the immorality of blackface and minstrel shows.
The site’s homepage had an email link for “Comments, suggestions, questions, and corrections,” – so I emailed.
After introducing myself, I suggested a statement be added to the page about how Minstrel Shows are racist demeaning depictions of Black people by white people. I suggested that in light of recent news, it would be a great time to acknowledge the hurt and pain caused by blackface and minstrel shows and apologize on behalf of ourselves and ancestors. I noted that as a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association our church is now committed to combating white supremacy culture in our denomination and in our society. I offered to help write such a statement.
I was very happy to receive an almost immediate reply from the site’s curator who acknowledged I was right and this part of the site has needed updating for some time. I told him I would be happy to draft or help draft a statement on minstrel shows that could be added to the top of the page.
I will be working on a more permanent statement for the site, but until that is ready the site’s curator asked to use language from my email on the site and I agreed.
Unfortunately, blackface minstrel shows were a cultural mainstay in our society and that included our Unitarian churches.
A Google search for “Unitarian churches minstrel shows” surfaces not only our Hopedale site, but a Google Books scan of a collection of the journal “The Unitarian Advance.” The March 1917 issue, in the section Western Conference News, has an item about one Detroit church –
I hope our congregation offers and publish a formal apology for our past practice of minstrel shows. It would be a great a thing to do for Black History Month, a great thing to use as teachable moment on white supremacy culture for our community, and – it’s just the right thing to do.