In a recent edition of the Buckeye, an entry from “Archbold’s Memorable Past” in 1946 noted that “an ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ troupe visited Archbold” and “was a happy reminder of days long ago when ‘Uncle Tom’ troupes made regular visits.”
This seemingly innocent memory carries deeper historical significance and context.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” refers to the 1852 book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which highlighted the brutality of U.S. slavery.
While the original narrative sympathized with enslaved black people and promoted abolition, pro-slavery supporters distorted the narrative to create traveling “Tom shows.”
These shows depicted black people as unintelligent, animal-like, and deserving of enslavement.
Tom shows borrowed from the genre of minstrelsy, where mostly white actors wearing blackface sang and danced to exploit and denigrate black people and their culture.
It might be easier to dismiss Tom shows as part of a forgotten past, but their history informs our present.
We cannot think of them as harmless entertainment.
The height of Tom and minstrel show popularity came after the end of the Civil War and slavery, during an intense era of domestic white supremacist terrorism in the U.S.
The turn of the 20th century saw the rise of the KKK and increased lynchings of black people across the country, North and South.
The dehumanization of black people in minstrelsy gave license to those who wanted to kill and oppress black Americans.
And minstrelsy indeed reached a wide audience. It lasted as entertainment from the 1830s until, as recorded in the Buckeye, the 1950s.
This is longer than TV and movies have been accessible to most Americans, and minstrelsy’s legacy persists in those mediums as well.
If we think that racial injustice hasn’t existed in small town Northwest Ohio, maybe we’re not looking hard enough.