I was recently watching Ken Burns’ Jazz for some odd reason. The first half of the episode (that’s as far as I’ve got) provided a really interesting genealogy, albeit brief, of black musical history in the 19th century. I was particularly struck by the statement in regards to minstrel shows, the deliberate musical and comedy stage show that involved predominantly white actors putting on black make-up and playing as Blacks, that they happened everywhere in the United States. This began my own curiosity of exploring my new city and university’s history regarding race. I do so not to demonize Pullman or Washington State University (WSU), but to understand the historical complexities and importance that such places have in the kinds of academic work I do. Additionally, Pullman and WSU are not exception to these kind of racial histories, but rather have their own nuanced narratives that intersect with other local, regional, and national issues. So, did Pullman/WSU have minstrel shows? Yes.
In doing some cursory research, I found two different newspaper clippings regarding minstrel shows, their performance in Pullman, and WSU student involvement. In November 1909, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported on a touring minstrel show coming to Pullman. The show involved the student orchestra, as well as students trying out for the school’s glee club. What is particularly notable is the monetary benefit that the WSU orchestra received from the performance of minstrel show.
The other clipping comes from November 1918. Like the clipping from 1909, WSU’s Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C) were centrally involved in the performance of the minstrel shows. S.A.T.C’s genealogical off-shoot, the WSU ROTC can be seen throughout campus, as well as ads on local radio stations. It is also evident from this clipping that Pullman’s minstrel performers also performed regionally.
Pullman/WSU’s history of minstrel performances, via these two newspaper clippings, is significant given the racial make-up of Pullman and, historically, WSU. Today, Pullman is predominantly White in its racial make-up, likewise, WSU in 1909 and 1918 would have also been primarily made up of White students. These were White students taking up the roles as overtly racist charactures of Blacks–and they were proud of it. Both articles give space to note the quality of the Blackface performers and their level of talent. ‘Playing Black’ was part of building skills for WSU’s music students in the early 20th century. These performances additionally served to financially benefit the school’s programs and extracurricular organizations.
This history of minstrelsy in Pullman is notable for its rural location, in contrast to other larger cities and their history of minstrel performances. It is also a crucial piece in understanding the racial baggage of my current university, as well as the participation of national cultural politics at the regional level.
If you have any further details regarding minstrel performances in Pullman, WSU, or the Palouse area, leave details in the comments.
Links to original archives and/or links:
S.A.T.C Minstrels Score: http://kaga.wsulibs.wsu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/clipping_II&CISOPTR=46692&CISOBOX=1&REC=5
Spokane Daily Chronicle: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19091106&id=qL5XAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EfQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6786,603458