by Anna Louise Bates, PhD, Church Historian
At a time when racial tensions run high in our communities, Christians are called to a heightened level of sensitivity to images in popular culture. Racially charged television shows, comic performances and commercials, though popular as recently as the 1990s, now come under intense scrutiny and appear infrequently. This is a positive sign. This has not always been the case, though. I learned an important lesson while perusing historical documents for our reputedly progressive and forward-looking United Methodist Church.
I came across two programs, dated 1951 and 1952, that stopped me cold. The programs, mimeographed on faded red and yellow cardstock with stapled crumbling newsprint pages, bore hand drawn images of white-gloved big-lipped smiling individuals with bowties. I recognized them instantly as minstrel show characters; figures from arcane racial productions that I associated with the post-Civil War American South during the rise of Jim Crowism.
I sat there for several seconds staring at them, trying hard to process what they meant. The New Paltz United Methodist Church with its rainbow flag and legacy of women pastors is among the most progressive in the region. In the years since my arrival in New York in the Fall of 2004 I have seen this church rally behind LGBTQI members and clergy, feed the homeless, and support mission efforts all over the world. Studying the church’s history, I found that it welcomed African American members during years when New Paltz remained reclusively white and middle class. Church records dating to the 1890s evidenced annual contributions to a Black College Fund, and the church offered multiple programs on race and equality over the years. Why, then, was I holding in my hands evidence of deeply insulting racism that demeaned and ridiculed African American people?
The two programs described in detail performances arranged according to the style of amateur minstrel shows. The 1951 cast included an Interlocutor (George Wicks) and End Men (Ernie Ahlberg, Harry Ahlberg, Doug Alverson and Cliff VanValkenburgh), accompanied by a chorus and several novelty acts. Songs included “Ah Wed Three Hundred Pounds,” “Walking My Baby Back Home,” “Here in my Heart” and “Swanee.” (The Men and Women of the New Paltz Methodist Church 1951) The 1952 program was similar, and included the pastor, The Rev. Willett Porter, performing a trumpet solo. The entire church contributed to the events in some way: “All members of the New Paltz Church have assisted if only through their friendly concern and well wishes.” (The Men and Women of the New Paltz Methodist Church 1952)
Articles in the Kingston Daily Freeman advertised the shows. “The Methodist Minstrel show is underway,” said the Freeman in 1952. “Last year the minstrel was held two nights. This year there is talk of expanding to three evenings because of the large crowds.” (Kingston Daily Freeman 1952) Ten days later, the Freeman updated the story: “The old time minstrel to be presented by the Methodist Church will have George Wicks as interlocutor. The end-men will be Doug Alverson, Clifford VanValkenburgh, Ernie and Harry Ahlberg. Special features will be Roger Thorpe, instrumentalist, Patty Burke, Tap Dancer, and a white quartet. A mixed chorus of church members will fill the stage. Mrs. Gertrude Upright will be at the piano. Bob Litt on the bass fiddle and the Rev. Mr. Porter on the clarinet. Tickets are on sale at Doug’s Auto Service. The dates are Nov. 13 and 14. Curtain time is 8:15 p.m.” (The Kingston Daily Freeman 1952)
There is a reason why I chose to name names in this article. The participants in these shows were members and contributors to the church and its programs. The New Paltz Methodist Church was a member of one of the most progressive Conferences in the denomination. The pastors of the church during the 1950s had reputations for social justice advocacy. Pastor Lee
Hampton Ball (1948-1950) edited the MFSA’s Social Questions Bulletin throughout the 1950s and 60s, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960s. “Whether the cause was the Vietnam war, women’s liberation or gay rights, Lee was able to see the justice issue clearly and to respond without equivocation or rationalization.” (The United Methodist Church 1987). Willett Porter, pastor from 1951-64, had a similarly progressive reputation, serving in various social justice positions, including the Bowery Mission Ministries Board and the New York Methodist Student Movement. (United Methodist Church 2016) And yet despite his stellar humanitarian reputation, Porter played trumpet in at least two Methodist Minstrel shows, in 1951 and 1952. Casts for later shows are not available, but it is likely that Porter participated in all the shows until the final one in 1959. Curiously, though, Porter also encouraged members of his
community to attend the film, Broken Mask, which had earned a “Golden Reel Award as the Best Religious Film of the Year.” Broken Mask is about race relations experienced by two college
student, one white and one black. (Imdb.com 2019) “It is a message we all need to hear and see,” said Porter to The Kingston Daily Freeman, for we all wear certain masks which ought to be
broken.” (The Kingston Daily Freeman 1958)
So, why were these progressive Christians performing minstrel shows? I learned that the minstrel shows at the New Paltz Methodist Church were not unique. A search for the term “minstrel”
from the years 1949-1960 in the Kingston Daily Freeman returns 1,055 hits. It seems these shows were remarkably popular during these years. References to the New Paltz shows appear, as well as ads for shows in various area churches and public service venues. And the shows were not unique to male adults. “Lutheran Youth Group to Give Minstrel Show Pre-Lenten Tradition” announces a show at the Church of the Redeemer on Monday, March 1, 1954, noting that the event “…has become a tradition.” (Freeman 1954)
Multiple minstrel shows punctuated local entertainment venues during the first half of the twentieth century. Gladys DuBois reminisced about the shows she and her husband attended during the 1950s:
“… by far the most popular entertainment of the time was the minstrel show. Local amateur entertainers performed at the college auditorium. They would sit in a row of chairs at the front of the stage and warm up the audience with jokes addressed to “Mr. Bones” and others. Singing and dancing followed as the blackface players entertained farmers and students alike for the entire evening.” (Beuf 2007, 4) Peter Beuf, author of the story about Gladys Dubois, explained the apparent racism of the minstrel shows apologetically. “Gardiner was no different from other towns in the northeastern United States before the civil rights movement: blacks were tolerated but viewed with suspicion. It is difficult for someone from a younger generation to see minstrel shows as a benign form of entertainment, but in Gladys’s time it was just another event.” (Beuf 2007, 4-5)
That means, as recently as 2007 news that minstrel shows appeared frequently in the area, and drew large crowds, was not taken seriously. It was a different time. Are we to conclude that, because it was the 1950s, racism was not only tolerable but entertaining? What does this mean for our church today? There are no easy answers. Perhaps my writing this article about historical documents that shocked me to the realization that my church participated in racist minstrel shows, in fact reveled in them, calls us to examine more closely the things we find amusing and entertaining. Are elements of racism still evident in the television shows, films, and social media that entertain us daily? Perhaps we need to examine our entertainment and how it aligns with our faith much more closely.