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What you need to know about Philly's long, shameful history of blackface

There's a lot of Philadelphia history to be proud of - and then there are some stories we tend to push under the rug. Christian DuComb's new book is about those kinds of stories.

Mummers, including dudes in blackface, sit around the pole of a street sign during the parade in 1946.
Mummers, including dudes in blackface, sit around the pole of a street sign during the parade in 1946.Read moreGeorge D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

There’s a lot of Philadelphia history to be proud of — and then there are some stories we tend to push under the rug. Christian DuComb’s new book? It’s about those kinds of stories.

Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia (University of Michigan Press) documents a long, complicated arts and theater history in this city. It includes blackface minstrel shows that played at dedicated minstrel theaters — and even at the Walnut Street Theatre — featuring characters like Jim Crow. It explores the widely circulated etchings of "Life in Philadelphia" depicting offensive racial caricatures. And it examines the Mummers, from their origins as men who would black up on Christmas Eve and roam the streets, getting drunk and rowdy as they demanded money from wealthy residents, to the acts of impersonation and appropriation that continue today, more than 50 years after the city banned blackface in the parade.

DuComb, 38, a professor at Colgate University, became a Mummers superfan while living in South Philadelphia. He even joined a brigade, the Vaudevillains. He spoke with us about this history, and why Philadelphia still struggles with it today.

What's your fascination with the Mummers?

I first encountered the Mummers when I rented a rowhouse near Seventh and Wharton, in the glow of the neon from the Pat's and Geno's signs. I was walking around and saw this crazy parade coming up Broad Street. As someone interested in theater history, I thought, 'This is a living archive of a lot of theatrical traditions I thought were pretty much dead and gone: the minstrel wench, the string bands that were a feature of the minstrel show.' I was interested in how this parade came to be, and how these traditions subsisted in the Mummers parade when they've died off in most of the rest of American theatrical culture.

Why's the history of blackface so strong in Philly? And can Mummers ever be separated from this minstrel past?

As practices of racial impersonation began to develop in this continent, Philadelphia was one of the places where they really took root, where older European traditions of folk blackface and early modern Atlantic traditions of racial impersonation collided. Philadelphia had this infatuation with minstrelsy — and that infatuation spilled over into the Mummers Parade, and is still visible today. It's not necessarily a history Mummers are even aware of. I don't think the parade will ever overcome its racism by ignoring that. It's more likely to overcome its racism by having an honest and robust discussion.

You write about black Mummers groups. What happened to them?

What I found out, going through records in the basement of the Mummers Museum, is almost every year through 1929 there were between one and three African American mummers groups. They almost always scored very low. The museum doesn't have judges' notes going that far back, and newspaper reports tended to focus on performances that scored better. So it's hard to recover why they didn't do well. It's a fairly safe assumption to say racism had something to do it. After 1929, you don't see African American participation in the parade for a quite a while, with the exception of paid accompanists. That probably had to do with the Depression, and with the frustration of being scored so low by the judges and performing alongside whites in blackface year after year.

There's also a forgotten, potentially homoerotic or homophobic, history of wenches.

Historically, there was another character that performed along with a wench: a dude. You'd have these pairs of men, one dressed like a dandy with a long cane, the other as a wench, both in blackface. There was definitely something homoerotic there. One explanation for the dudes vanishing was the ban on blackface. An equally compelling explanation is a ban on long canes. The things that made a dude a dude — blackface, long cane — were banned, and that character went extinct.

Now, wenches are the fastest-growing, if not the only growing, part of the parade. I look at the performances and I do see misogyny and homophobia and racism, but I also see people banding together and having a really good time. I write about the wench sit-in in 1995 in front of City Hall because of the arrest of Froggy Carr's captain and the confiscation of their beer truck. On one hand, wenches are excluding by impersonation women, openly gay people, and minorities. On the other, they do provide a model for effective popular protest.

How does the Mummers anthem, "O! Dem Golden Slippers," fit in with this history?

The essential thing to know about the song, which many Mummers know, is that it was composed by James Bland, who was black. There's an account in Patricia Anne Masters' book about a group of Mummers going on an annual pilgrimage to pay tribute to Bland's grave, an indication that the history of the parade is interracial. The lyrics are offensive. But the song itself is a parody of the minstrel show, and of the black spiritual. Bland was appropriating stereotypes to turn them on their head. He's one example of an African American performer at the end of the 19th century who performed in blackface. These figures were making fun of white minstrels, who were making fun of blacks.

You find Mumming to be an act of transgression — but in the best way.

The Mummers Parade couldn't have emerged in a city that didn't already have a long, rich history of carnivalesque, subversive street performance bubbling up from below and encroaching on official culture. In some ways, the city's decision to make the parade an official event — what a brilliant form of social control! They took all these rowdy performances and said, 'Instead of performing under cover at night and beating up your neighbors, why don't you make yourself look pretty and compete for prizes where we can see you — and have police monitor the event?' It hasn't destroyed the elements of subversion. But it took these neighborhood events that could be quite dangerous and turned them into something the city could advertise in tourist brochures.