Negro Minstrelsy

"Negro Minstrelsy: Its Starting Place Traced Back Over Sixty Years, Arranged and Compiled from the Best Authorities,” (From an article written by Charles White, New York Clipper*, April 28, 1860).  

Minstrelsy  for the past seventeen years has been steadily improving, until we now  see it firmly established among our standard amusements and sought after  as much as the opera or drama; in fact, in some respects, far  out-rivaling either in point of patronage. Although this species of  entertainment is often discussed, and the merits of the different  artists connected therewith criticized, yet the origin, or any  pretension thereto, has never been clearly explained (except by the  present writer some time since), for two very great reasons. First,  because no individual ever interest himself so much as to seek or trace  out the foundation or starting place; and secondly, if he had, his  labors would have proved fruitless, for who can tell when and where the  Negro first introduced the banjo (for it is from that instrument we  begin to get at the notes of Ethiopian minstrelsy).  

Such being  the case, it would be in vain to attempt to ascertain how long, when,  and where the Negro, or African, first manufactured or introduced the  gourd banjo, which instrument, no doubt, has been in existence nearly as  long as that race of people. Consequently, it is impossible to get at  its origin from that source. The point then is this: who first made  pretensions to imitate the colored race or introduce their quaint and  humorous character to the public? Some, I know, will doubt, and others  will claim their knowledge in the matter as indisputable. Suffice it to  say, that this subject will be picked all to atoms, and after the storm  is over it will return to its present truthful shape again, as facts  indelible.  

The writer does not go so far back for dates, or even  assert anything in this brief description of minstrelsy, but what can be  vouched for and identified as facts by actual printed documents of each  and every assertion herein made, which documents have ever been  preserved with great care until the present time; and now feeling  desirous of giving a more general publicity to the same, he does so with  no selfish motive or partiality, but with a view of enlightening the  minds of the curious, and showing those in the profession the path which  their predecessors have traveled, and what has been done towards the  elevation of minstrelsy, which amusement, in the writer’s estimation,  will in a few years far eclipse all its former improvements, and become  an indispensable entertainment, claiming for its support in vocal,  instrumental, and physical force, the best talent in the theatrical  line. For already has the minstrel introduced his merry afterpiece, with  all its appropriate costume, scenery, and music; burlesques upon  burlesques have since appeared in rapid succession; operas have also  been introduced; and, in fact, artists of merit in former days now seek  in vain for positions in minstrel companies.   

Many  suppose that negro minstrelsy originated about twenty-three or  twenty-five years ago, or in the days of Barney Burns, Enam Dickinson,  Tom Bleakly, George Washington Dixon, T. D. Rice, Leicester, John Smith,  Joe Sweeney, &c., who all had their own peculiar style in singing  and dancing, individually; some with the banjo, and some without it;  others having for their principal attraction only some simple Negro  melody, such as “Coal Black Rose,” “Such a Getting Up Stairs,” “Gumbo  Chaff,” “Sitting on a Rail,” “Jim Crow,” and one or two others of less  popularity. I will now give a short description of a few prominent  performers who succeeded the parties just alluded to and became vastly  popular, particularly in this city. These were Dick Pelham, James  Sandford, Frank Brower, and others, to whom I shall allude in the  following order viz.: 1838---Jim Sandford played the Black Door Keeper  or Ticket Taker, at the Franklin Theatre, Chatham Street, N.Y.  

For  the next two or three years very many aspirants for colored fame made  their debut with faces blacked. Prior to the organization of the first  regular minstrel company, January, 1842, the following parties appeared  in public---Charles Jenkins and G. W. Pelham, at American Museum,  January, 1842; Frank Diamond, Whitlock, and Tom Booth, at Arcade Garden,  255 Bleecker Street, January, 1842; Dick Pelham, Master Chestnut, Dick  Van Bremen, and Joe Sweeney at Bowery Amphitheatre, 37 Bowery, January,  1842; Frank Diamond and Whitlock, at Chatham Theatre, April, 1842; John  Smith, T. Coleman, Chestnut and Hoffman, at Bowery Amphitheatre for  Smith’ benefit, June, 1842; John Diamond and Whitlock, at American  Museum, December, 1842; Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Master Pierce, Jimmy  O’Connell, Frank Diamond and Mestayer (all dancers but Mestayer),  Franklin Theatre (Dan Emmett and Master Pierce were performing the same  time at the Bowery Amphitheatre), December 29, 1842; Dan Emmett and  Frank Brower, at the Bowery Amphitheatre, where, and at which time the  idea of a minstrel company was put in motion by the following persons,  viz.: Dan Emmett., Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock, and Dick Pelham, who  all immediately went into a thorough course of rehearsals at the  boarding house of Emmett, No. 37 Catharine Street, kept by one Mrs.  Brooks.  

They were all diligent in their labors and it did not  take long to acquire the scanty versatility necessary in those days for a  cork professor to delight his patrons. The idea was original; but I  might deserve censure in applying it to any one of the number, and have  therefore distributed the honor among the party. The cause of their  organization was simply to make up a combination of Negro stuff for one  night only, which was expressly for the benefit of Pelham, who at that  time was dancing between the pieces at the Chatham Theatre. 


 Their  rehearsals were sufficiently encouraging to satisfy them that they had  indeed found a novelty. They styled themselves the Virginia Minstrels,  made their debut at the above mentioned place (this was early in  February, 1843), and were received with deafening plaudits! During the  same week they played one night for the benefit of Mr. John Tryon, then  manager of the Bowery Amphitheatre. Their performances here met with  astonishing success, so much so that they were secured by Messrs. Welch  and Rockwell, than managers of the Park Theatre, at which place they  performed two weeks in conjunction with the great dancer, John Diamond.  This was about the middle of February, 1843; and after this they  proceeded to Boston, where they played six weeks with wonderful success.  They then returned to New York and performed three nights for manager  Simpson at the Park Theatre. Having now fairly introduced their novelty  and expecting every day to meet with opposition here in Yankee land,  they determined on a trip to England, where all idea of rivalry was out  of the question, for a time at least.   Accordingly, with Mr.  George B. Wooldridge at their head, they immediately embarked for  Europe. Hence arose the various minstrel companies that are now in  existence. On the arrival of the Virginia Minstrels in Europe, they  immediately gave two concerts in Liverpool. From thence they proceeded  to the Adelphi Theatre, London, at which place they performed six weeks  in connection with Professor Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North.  After this engagement, owing to some misunderstanding, Mr. Richard  Pelham left the company. The balance organized in connection with Joe  Sweeney, who had then just arrived in the country; and in this way they  traveled through Ireland and Scotland for six months with success. The  company then disbanded and Whitlock returned to America. The others soon  followed him, with the exception of Pelham, who has remained in England  up to the present time.   Another company arrived in Europe from  Boston, known as the Ring and Parker Minstrels. They performed in  Liverpool and Bolton, while the Virginia Minstrels were playing in  London. One of the members of the company personated the character of  “Lucy Long,” which, evidently, must have been original with them. This  rival party afterwards performed at the Garrick Street Theatre, London.  They arrived in Liverpool in three or four weeks after the Virginia  Minstrels, having organized in Boston at the time the Virginia Minstrels  were playing there.   On the return of the Virginia Minstrels to  America, they found, as they had anticipated, minstrel companies in  abundance all over the country. Band after band was organized, almost  every day, with various titles, and many of them passed away almost as  suddenly as an April shower. A vast improvement, however, had been made  in minstrel business, notwithstanding its short existence.   We  now arrive at a period in our little history which is still free in the  memory of all who were connected with this profession seventeen or  eighteen years ago. I will now name the prominent companies only, that  have been regularly organized and met with success since the  commencement of Ethiopian minstrelsy up to the present time. It is  necessary to mention, however, that in the year 1842 at Vauxhall Garden,  New York, under the proprietorship of Mr. P. T. Barnum, the renowned  John Diamond first created a great sensation; shortly after, however,  owing to some difficulty, Mr. Barnum dispensed with the original John  Diamond and secured another person in the same business by the name of  Frank Lynch, who was placarded and styled the “Great Diamond.” He was an  extraordinary dancer, and afterwards became a very prominent member of  his profession.   The originators and inventors of minstrelsy  consisted of Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and Richard  Pelham, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels. The next company  presenting themselves to the notice of the public was known as the  Kentucky Minstrels, composed of Frank Lynch, T. G. Booth, H. Mestayer  and Richardson. Some time after their organization, they disbanded; but  reorganized under the same title and performed at Vauxhall Garden, etc.,  with the following persons: William Whitlock, T, G. Booth, Barney  Williams, and C. White. The next company were the Ring and Parker  Minstrels; and, next on the list, the Congo Minstrels, now known as  Buckley’s New Orleans Serenaders.” They performed at the Chatham  Theatre. The Original Christy Minstrels were the next company,  consisting of E. P. Christy, George N. Christy, L. Durand, and T.  Vaughn. This company organized in Buffalo and traveled principally  through the Southern and Western country. They first called themselves  the Virginia Minstrels. Soon after their organization, Enam Dickinson  and Zeke Bachus were added to the company; and they then assumed the  title of Christy’s Minstrels. They first appeared in this city at  Palmo’s Opera House (late Burton’s Theatre), 1846. On their second  appearance in New York, they performed at the Alhambra, Broadway near  Prince Street; and from thence to the Society Library (now Appleton’s  Building), and afterwards at Mechanics Hall, 472 Broadway, at which  place they permanently remained from March 1847 to July 1854.   During  the short time that minstrelsy had been in operation, great improvement  had been made in a company known as the Ethiopian Serenaders. They  organized in Boston, came to New York, and performed with immense  success at the Chatham Theatre. They consisted of Frank Germon, M.  Stanwood, Tony Winnemore, Quinn, and others. Soon after they remodeled  their band and sailed for Europe with Mr. J. Dumbolton as their agent.  They then consisted of F. Germon, G. Harrington, M. Stanwood, G. Pelham,  and W. White. This was the company that proved so successful at Palmo’s  Opera House. While in London, they performed at the St. James Theatre  and so great was the demand to see them that they gave morning  performances and were frequently solicited to give their entertainments  at the private mansions of the highest nobility.   During the  success of the Ethiopian Serenaders in Europe, they were called to  Arundel Castle by special command of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. For  this they each received a splendid crest ring as a token of her  appreciation. Some time after their return to America, Mr. Dumbolton,  the manager, made an addition to his band and crossed the Atlantic  again, taking with him Mr. J. A. Wells and Jerry Bryant.   The next  company of note organized in Philadelphia and styled themselves the  Virginia Serenaders, consisting of James Sandford, Cool White, Richard  Myers, Robert Edwards, &c., &c. They also performed at the  Chatham Theatre in this city; also at Boston and all the principal towns  and cities East. They were successful and created a great sensation  wherever they appeared. Mr. G. B. Wooldridge at that time was their  agent.   Next we have another very clever company known as the  Harmoneans, consisting of L. V. Crosby, Frank Lynch, Pike, Powers,  &c., &c. They organized in Boston and traveled principally  through the Eastern states with very great success for a long time. 



We  now arrive at the true position of White’s Serenaders. They organized  in 1846 and consisted of C. White, R. White, F. Stanton, W. Smith, H.  Neil, and Master Juba. They performed at White’s Melodeon, White’s  Varieties, and White’s Opera House, all in the Bowery. They remained  here, continually playing, for a space of eleven years—a longer active  permanency than ever attained by any similar exhibition; during which  time, and at which places, many of the present prominent performers  graduated under the favorable auspices of Mr. White’s establishments.   I  shall now record the names of the Sable Harmonists, whom I certainly  class as among the best. I am unable to name the exact time of their  organization but am almost positive it was in the early part of 1846.  They traveled principally through the Southern and Western country. The  band consisted of Messrs. Plumer, Archer, J. Farrell, W. Roark, Nelson  Kneas, J. Murphy, &c., &c. They performed for a short time at  the Minerva Rooms, Broadway, in this city, November, 1847. Now we come  to the starting place of the Original Campbell Minstrels, who were  brought together in June, 1847, by a gentleman named Mr. John Campbell,  who at that time was the proprietor of a restaurant corner of Bayard  Street and the Bowery, in this city. The company, all complete,  consisted of W. B. Donaldson, Jerry Bryant, John Rea, James Carter,  Harry Mestayer, and David Raymond. Shortly after its organization, Mr.  Rea withdrew from the company and joined the Original Christy’s  Minstrels. Soon after, Mr. Donaldson resigned and the now deceased and  much lamented Luke West took his place. They were playing at the  American Museum at the time.   Next we come to a company known as  the Sable Brothers, consisting of Messrs. Evans, Turpin, Cleveland,  &c., &c. They performed at Convention Hall in Wooster Street and  afterwards appeared at Barnum’s American Museum. The time of their  organization is not known but I am under the impression that they  succeeded the Campbells.   From this point, my qualified friends  will coincide with me in placing the remaining companies in rotation as  follows: the “Nightingale Serenaders,” formerly known as Kunkel’s  Minstrels; Sandford’s Opera Troupe, still in operation; Sliter’s Empire  Minstrels, Washington Uterpians, Ordway’s Aeolians, Pierce’s Minstrels,  at the Olympic; Fellows’ Minstrels, Horn & White’s Opera Troupe,  Kimberly’s Campbell Minstrels, Norris’ Campbell Minstrels, New York  Serenaders, California, 1850; Raynor’s Serenaders, California, 1850,  afterwards appeared in Australia, 1852; Murphy, West & Peel’s  Campbell Minstrels, 1852; Backus’ Minstrels, California, 1853; George  Christy’s & Wood’s Minstrels, at 444 Broadway, 1854; Perham’s  Burlesque Opera Troupe, 1854; Pierce and Raynor’s Christy’s Minstrels,  now in Europe, 1856; Bryant’s Minstrels, at Mechanics Hall, 472  Broadway, February 22, 1857; Rumsey & Newcomb’s Campbell Minstrels,  April 28, 1857; Morris Brothers, Pell & Huntley’s Minstrels, 1857;  Fox & War- den’s Campbell Minstrels,” now in Europe, 1859; Mrs.  Matt. Peel’s Campbell’s Minstrels, 1859; Hooley & Campbell’s (late  George Christy’s) Minstrels, January 30, 1860; Converse’s Campbell  Minstrels, March 12, 1860.   Before concluding these remarks, I  will again repeat that it is impossible at this late day to tell who  first set the “ball rolling” in negro minstrel business. No one has any  idea of its existence beyond the time above mentioned. I would, however,  say that individual Negro business was done in character sixty-one  years ago at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston. I have in my possession  the actual newspaper which gives this information; and for the  gratification of the profession particularly, will give a duplicate of  the advertisement relative to the fact as it appeared in Russell’s  Boston Gazette dated December 30, 1799, which journal, at that time, was  the largest in America. The following performance took place on the  night in question: “Orinoko, or the Royal Slave” was the first piece and  at the end of Act II, “Song of the Negro Boy in Character” by Mr.  Grawpner; after which, a pantomime called “Gil Blas, or the Cave of the  Robbers”; the whole to conclude with a Representation of A Spanish Fair.  It is also underlined at the bottom of same bill that “the Theatre will  be hung with mourning.” This was the month and year that Washington  died—hence the cause of mourning. The newspaper from which I gather  these important facts is also in deep mourning for the same lamentable  cause. Thus ends the explanation of negro minstrelsy up to the present  time, 1860. I could make the subject somewhat more lengthy by  introducing many outside particulars, but as my intention was merely to  give a brief sketch of my profession, I trust those who peruse it will  look at it as such only.   *The New York Clipper, also known as  The Clipper, was a weekly entertainment newspaper published in New York  City from 1853 to 1924. Ref: New York Clipper 

1852 Reproduction Minstrel Stage at Columbia SHP California

1852 Reproduction Minstrel Stage at Columbia SHP California