Historians, Halloween and Race at New Paltz Methodist Church

November 2021
by Anna Louise Bates, PhD, Church Historian

In 2020, I published a story in the church newsletter about blackface minstrel shows performed by members of our church during the 1950s.  The article was based upon primary documents; in this case, programs from the 1951 and 52 shows.  The programs evidenced deep racial insensitivity among our congregation, including at least one pastor, The Reverend Willett Porter, and other high-ranking members.   This writing is a follow-up to that piece.  My purpose is to give readers a glimpse of what the work of a church historian is like.  We dig through boxes of old documents seeking fodder for our narratives. 

An interesting set of notes kept by an entity called the “Double Forty Club” provides a snapshot of our church during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.  Although the membership changed over time, it was intended as a club for older church members, specifically, couples more than forty years old.  Most of the club’s activities were admirable.  They hosted dinners, sales to raise funds and provided gifts and donations for various occasions such as weddings and bridal showers. 

Browsing their minutes, I found a description of one disturbing event.  The club hosted a Halloween party on October 31, 1940.  A deliberately anonymous description of the participants read as follows:

The hall was appropriately decorated with corn stalks, pumpkins, and candles … The old witch was there, also Farmer Brown and his milkmaid, the darky in his frock coat, a very enthusiastic fisherman all ready to reel in a big trout, the man about town in his white flannels and a gypsy who had stopped in on her way through town. … Games were played, including bobbing for apples after which the committee served pumpkin pie, popcorn, cider, and coffee. 

Sounds like a delightful and gay affair, except for one thing.  A “darky?”  We are not told who wore that costume, but the implications are obvious.  “Old Darky” was a stock minstrel show character:  A black-faced Uncle Tom in a frilly coat.  Do I need to explain how crassly insulting this is of African Americans?  I think not.

I will share, though, the significance of the document.  When I wrote the piece about minstrel shows, I had only two programs to work from.  I found a few articles in archival newspapers announcing those two shows, and a couple of other shows in the 1950s.  The Double Forty document provides evidence of minstrel shows at least a decade before the ones in the 1950s.

All of the minstrel show documents document our congregation’s insensitivity to racial issues, and to African Americans in general.  Now, at a time when we see daily evidence of racial strife in our country, we are called once again to examine our actions carefully.  It would be easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, “wow, we have come so far!”  But have we?  This is a time for some deep soul-searching.  However much good we do as a church, we need to ask ourselves whether we turn a blind eye to suffering in darker corners.  Do no harm.  Do good.  Stay in love with God.  Ours is not an easy path.