History Corner

Stories from our Church History

Blackface Minstrel Shows in the New Paltz Methodist Church

February 2021
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 I learned an important lesson while perusing historical documents for our reputedly progressive and forward-looking United Methodist Church.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.

Methodism Arrives in New Paltz

“The world would come to an end…”

by Anna Louise Bates, PhD, Church Historian
August 2020

How and why did the first Methodist preachers come to New Paltz?  The Rev. Elijah Woolsey, a Methodist circuit rider who preached in New Paltz in 1801, kept a journal and wrote a memoir about his life.  His memoir describes how his father, Revolutionary War veteran Captain John Woolsey, invited the first Methodist preachers to the towns of Marlborough and New Paltz in 1786.  Elijah recalled a conversation between his father, a trustee of the Presbyterian Church in Marlborough, and his mother, that he overheard when he was a young teenager. (Coles, 1845)  Elijah’s father claimed that the Presbyterian trustees were “out of humor” because they could not keep their minister any longer. “He … told them [the trustees],” recalled young Elijah, “… that there were sixty or seventy Methodist preachers in New-Jersey, and that they were great preachers ….”   Remembering his father’s apparent enthusiasm during that conversation, he reflected: “Having read in the Scriptures that the gospel of the kingdom must be preached in all the world for a witness, and then shall the end come, I thought that those preachers were great and good men, and that they had begun at the southern extremity of the world, and were making their way to the north, and when they gained the northern extremity, the world would come to an end.”

Sometime after Captain Woolsey’s conversation with his wife, he invited Methodist preachers, who were working on a circuit emanating from New Jersey, to come and preach in Marlborough, located near the Hudson River, approximately twelve miles southeast of New Paltz.  Methodist classes formed in and around that area and travelling circuit preachers made Marlborough a regular stop on the newly  formed East Jersey Circuit. 

Regarding New Paltz, Captain Woolsey’s daughter, Phoebe, married Hendricus Deyo, a descendant of one of New Paltz’s oldest families.  We are not sure whether Captain Woolsey suggested that Methodist preachers visit his daughter’s family in New Paltz, or whether daughter Phoebe, or her husband, asked for them.  We know that they came, though, and that the world did not end, even after the Methodists expanded their preaching far north of New Paltz, into Canada and other places.

Fulton Cox – African American Methodist and a New Paltz Icon

By Anna Louise Bates, Church Historian 
November 2020

Four years ago, Laura Gust and Brianna Switzer,  two senior history students from Empire State College, completed an internship that involved sorting boxes of historical documents at New Paltz United Methodist Church.  In that process, they came across a faded, brittle newspaper that required special care to unfold without destroying.  Thankfully, they worked under the tutelage of Pastor Bette Sohm, an experienced historical preservationist and archivist.  Laura and Brianna copied and preserved the document, and it currently lives in an archival
quality box in the church library.            

The newspaper pages are from the New Paltz Independent, dated June 15, 1894.  The paper contains a story entitled “An Example of Two Ex-Slaves:” 

Sometime during the late Civil War or soon after, there came to New Paltz a man who had been a slave in the South. He found work among the farmers and got some money together and bought a small place.  He then sent for his wife, and on her arrival, they were regularly married and went into house-keeping. When they went to their home, they invited a number of their friends to a house-warming.  This they had in the form of a prayer meeting.  They were both pious, and this act shows great thoughtfulness on their part, and affords a good example for persons of other races who have had better opportunities to follow.  Fulton Cox, the husband, died in 1888, and left a will in which he provided that his wife should have the full use of the property, and, after her death if there was anything left it should go to the Methodist Episcopal Church, of New Paltz.  About a year ago his widow died, and after settling up the estate of legacy of about $600. comes to the church.  The church officers have placed a tablet in the vestibule of the church in memory of these worthy persons.  This money is to be invested, and the interest is to be used for the support of the minister.  In this way it will be a perpetual benefit to the church, and also a perpetual memento of them through all time.           

The Independent 1894

This article raises two important questions:  Why did Fulton Cox bequeath his estate to the New Paltz Methodist Episcopal Church, and what became of the Fulton Cox fund?        

Fulton Cox and his wife, Jane, lived in New Paltz in a house that Fulton built on Pencil Hill during two federal censuses, those of 1870 and 1880. Fulton’s birth place is listed as South Carolina, suggesting that he was born a slave in that state. Jane Cox was born in Virginia.  (Fulton and Jane were slaves in Virginia later on)  Fulton is listed as “farm laborer” in both censuses, and Jane’s occupation as “keeps house.”  Neither Fulton nor Jane could read, but apparently Jane could write. Fulton’s property value is listed as $800.00.  He is the only Black person of the seven listed who owned any property.  There is also a column in this census labeled “denied voting,” which Fulton Cox was not.  So, he was listed as a voter.  None of the seven Black people listed were “denied voting.”  The same goes for thirteen listed in the 1880 census. (Bureau 1870) (Bureau 1880) 

As a farm laborer, Fulton suffered several injuries as a result of the dangerous work that he did.  In 1882, while chopping wood, “…the axe slipped and struck the fleshy part of his hand, making an ugly wound, which will unfit Fulton for work for a week or two.” (New Paltz Times 1882)  In January 1886 , “while riding in a wagon … holding up a stove, accidentally fell out.  In falling Mr. Cox received quite severe injuries, from which he was confined to the house.” (New Paltz Times 1886) Later that year, he “…had one of his feet badly smashed at the time Abm. D. Relyea’s team fell off of Pencil Hill.” (New Paltz Times 1886).    

Fulton was atiKve politically.  Besides voting, he ran for Supervisor in 1887, but received only one vote. (New Paltz Times 1887)  He attended both the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, and his funeral procession in 1885. (New Paltz Times 1873) (New Paltz Times 1885)          

Despite his inability to read or write, Fulton clearly cared much about education.  He is listed among donors of items to the New Paltz Normal School several times, usually donating a slate. He also visited Dr. H.M. Bauscher, the former 
principal of the New Paltz Academy, after he retired and moved to Clifton Point, Long Island in 1882, although his connection to Dr. Bauscher is not clear. (New Paltz Times 1882)    

Fulton and Jane Cox’s connection to the Methodist Episcopal Church is made clear in the notes of the church’s Seekers Sunday School Class dated September 27, 1949.   Apparently,         
there was an annual fund-raiser to enhance the Fulton Cox fund.  The notes relate that the Coxes sat in the last pew in the old church,” and Fulton once said he would “be worth more to the church after I am dead.” (Seekers Club 1949) Indeed, by the terms of Fulton’s will, his house and the property it stood on became the property of the New Paltz Methodist Church upon Jane Cox’s death. (billiongraves.com n.d.) The house and its contents were sold at auction, and a fund created at the church.  It is not clear what became of the Fulton Cox fund.  It possibly became part of another fund, such as the Black College Fund, but this is not certain. 

What is clear, though, is that Fulton and Jane Cox  were committed Methodists.  While church records do not record the date they joined the congregation, it is possible that the church was served by various circuit riders during the Coxes early days in New Paltz.  The “old church” referenced by The Seekers was erected in 1881. That he willed his estate to the church speaks to     
his faithfulness to his denomination, and his church community.  It is my hope that the church will trace the Fulton Cox fund, and continue its tribute to this remarkable Methodist family.