Minstrel Show in Fargo
This week in 1896, an African-American community organization in Fargo called the H.P.C. Lodge put on a private minstrel show at the Hayes amusement hall. The December 19 edition of The World, a newspaper from Minneapolis that served and reported on the Black community, announced the event in its Fargo society column, saying: “The H.P.C. lodge will give a grand private minstrels show at the Hayes amusement hall and a good time is looked for...”
Its program included clog dancing, a stump speech of “improved telephone,” and songs such as “Coming Through the Rye,” “The Church Across the Way,” “Standing On the Corner Didn't Mean No Harm,” “You Better Warm Your Feet,” and “Regular Active Gal.”
It also included two songs with titles that we won’t repeat here, because they’re now considered racial slurs. One of these songs, sung by master of ceremonies George Hayes, probably while playing his guitar, was a popular hit from 1896 written by famous Black vaudeville performer Ernest Hogan. According to historian J. Stanley Lemons, “The song became a fighting tune in New York City; Blacks considered it insulting for a white person to sing it or whistle it.” Hogan died in 1905. He had been bitterly attacked by most of the Black intelligentsia for the song, and said he was sorry he “had ever written the thing.”
Likewise, while the NAACP successfully lobbied CBS to cancel the “Amos 'n' Andy” show in 1953, Black opinion was hardly unanimous. Actress Ernestine Wade, who played Sapphire Stevens in “Amos 'n' Andy” on radio and television, recalled in 1973 that it was a happy experience, saying: “I know there were those who were offended by it, but I still have people stop me on the street to tell me how much they enjoyed it. And many of those people are Black members of the NAACP.”
Minstrel shows would provoke a variety of cultural ambivalence that could lead The World newspaper to lament the existence of minstrel shows while also printing advertisements for them.
In Fargo of 1896, the H.P.C. Lodge hosted such a show by Black people for Black people. We won't tell you what George Hayes sang. Rest assured that it was profane.
Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel
The following two literary references show that the HPC minstrel show would have happened between December 19 and December 26 in 1896.
“FARGO NOTES”, The World (also called “The Negro World”), Minneapolis, 19 December 1896, page 3, column 3. (Found at the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub, Minnesota Historical Society)
“One of the most pleasing features of the H. P. C. minstrel, was the solo, sung by Miss Alberta Fort entitled, There will come a time, which was omitted from the program last week.”
“FARGO NOTES”, The World, Minneapolis, 26 December 1896, page 2, column 6.
“Black Stereotypes as Reflected in Popular Culture, 1880-1920”, by J. Stanley Lemons, American Quarterly, v. 29, n. 1, Spring 1977, Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 106-107.
“Mr. Geo. Hayes is quite an artist with the guitar.”
“Fargo, N.D., News”, The Wisconsin Afro-American, Milwaukee, 20 August 1892, page 1, column 3. (Found in Miscellaneous Negro Newspapers)
Gerald Nachman, “Raised on Radio” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), p. 289-293. (The exact quote from Ernestine Wade is on page 291.)
“And now we are to have another colored minstrel show at the Opera House next week. It is a pity that the colored people cannot find something better in which to employ their talents. If the play-going public would occasionally allow these troupes to play to empty benches, when they come here, instead of giving them full houses, it would go a long way toward ridding us of the nuisance.”
Editorial, 2 April 1881, Sentinel (Trenton, NJ), page 3, column 1.
The aversion of the Trenton Sentinel's editor toward minstrel shows apparently did not keep the newspaper from advertising minstrel shows in its pages.
“DONNELLY'S MASTODON Minstrels and Variety Co.” (advertisement), 21 May 1881, Sentinel (Trenton, NJ), page 2, column 3.
“PROFESSORS Granger, or Regnarg, & Caldwell in their GREAT PSYCHIC MINSTREL SHOW” (advertisement), 17 December 1881, Sentinel (Trenton, NJ), page 3, column 4.
“AMUSEMENTS: Hague's Minstrels at the Opera House” (notice), 25 March 1882, Sentinel (Trenton, NJ), page 3, column 1.
Another example of cultural ambivalence toward racial stereotyping is when the Cartoon Network canceled rebroadcasts of “Speedy Gonzales” cartoons in 1999 because of their racial stereotyping, only to reverse itself in 2002 after pressure from the League of United Latin American Citizens. Despite – or perhaps because – of the racial stereotype, this plucky cartoon mouse has become a folk hero among Mexican Americans in California.
Gustavo Arellano, “Column: Why do so many Mexican Americans defend Speedy Gonzales?”, Los Angeles Times, 17 March 2021.