The Beatles fought racism from a Key West motel. (See keysweekly.com) We all can fight racism. While we celebrate Key West as “One Human Family,” we must not forget the island’s history of “un-human family” behavior, lest history repeat itself. Love Me Do is a weekly feature that invites readers to learn about the past and reflect on how their own actions and attitudes today might be viewed in the future.
There was a time when white people in Key West donned blackface and lampooned African Americans as dim-witted, lazy and superstitious. Minstrel shows were performed across America through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and helped perpetuate racism in Key West and around the nation.
“Minstrel” originates from the Latin “ministerialis,” meaning “servant.” A May 22, 1933, article in the local daily newspaper promoted the “Merry Makers Minstrel show,” saying, “Don’t miss Bugs Warner in his Ku Klux Klan song. This is going to be a hit. Ed Gray’s portrayal of the colored person in the ‘Coontown Wedding’ is worth the price of a whole row of front seats.”
A search of the newspaper’s daily issues between 1926 and 1954, available from the Library of Congress, finds that minstrel shows are mentioned 292 times. That’s 28 times a year.
Civic organizations usually produced the plays to raise money for charitable causes, but at what expense?
Some Key West minstrel shows advertised children’s matinees. St. Joseph’s School held a “Benefit Children” minstrel show in 1952. Children who attended that Key West minstrel show matinee are in their 60s today. From an early age, they learned racism is OK.
Minstrel shows polarized our community, instilled stereotypes and taught a generation of Key West citizens that whites hold the highest social status. Frederick Douglass reacted to blackface performers in 1848, saying they were “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
Key West was part of this un-human family for more than 100 years after Douglass told the world it was unacceptable.