During the 19th and early 20th centuries, musical and theatrical performances such as minstrel shows and vaudeville were an accepted form of entertainment amongst the dominant white culture of the U.S. However, their popularity came at the expense of marginalized populations, mainly enslaved people and, after the Civil War, freed Black people. The stereotypes generated from these forms of entertainment persist today. Evidence of events at Kalamazoo College involving white performers in blackface and redface - the application of make-up to give the appearance of Black or Indigenous peoples - dates back to 1889. The proof is preserved in the College Archives in print photographs, student photo albums, yearbooks, and the student newspaper. Although troubling, these events are part of the college’s history and should be presented for all students, faculty, staff, and alumni to reflect upon. Displaying this collection of images is in no way a celebration of them.
In January of 1920, the Junior Class held a carnival to raise money for the annual yearbook. At the carnival, members of the Century Forum literary society performed Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This photo of the cast shows five men sitting in front wearing blackface. An article in the student newspaper The Index referred to it as "Julius Caesar, Up-to-Date." Another article mentions that the Century Forum "changed Shakespeare's immortal tragedy 'Julius Caesar,' to fit into a side-show at the carnival." Modernizing a Shakespeare play to include racial parody is an example of how racial stereotyping was used as a form of entertainment for white audiences in the early 20th century.
The winner of the 1988 Airband performance, a lip sync and choreography competition, was a group performing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Diana Ross and The Supremes. The male performers wear dresses and wigs and at least one appears to have applied makeup to darken his skin. No evidence has been found in the student newspaper The Index to indicate that there was any controversy on campus related to blackface performers at the 1988 Airband competition.
The 1988 Airband performance, a competition where individuals or groups lip synced and choreographed performances of musical artists, included a production of The Jackson 5's song "A-B-C, Easy as 1-2-3." The performers appear to be in blackface and wearing wigs in imitation of the members of The Jackson 5, all of whom were Black. This photo originally appeared in the February 11, 1988 issue of The Index. No evidence can be found in The Index of there being any concern about the appropriateness of a blackface performance on campus.
The note attached to this photo reads “Euro Costume Meeting June 1889 (?). Standing: Lena Powers, Mae Phelps, Mame Hopkins, Ida Cook, Waugh (W. Va.). [Middle row:] Ritta Smith, Birdsall, Potters (Alma), M. Cook, Elizabeth Tunison (Magill), Rena Richards. [Front row:] Waugh (W. Va), Julia Kellogg (Montana), Nene Patterson, Emma Chesney, Ongola Clough (Mrs. Arthur Curtis. These were Colonial Costumes – really very nice – Gola’s was green and white striped silk, Elizabeth Tunison’s – a vivid light purple – both costumes a century old. Julia Kellogg’s was pale blue silk gauze with satin stripe – Rena’s – handsome black flowered silk. Two were gentlemen. Hair powdered: I think this follows a New England Dinner spread in the stately old lower building – Mrs. Magill.”
This photo from the album of Lydia Buttolph, Class of 1916, is captioned “Mechanical dolls – at Y.W.C.A. new girl’s party, Sept. 1913.” Six unidentified women dressed as dolls stand in front of Bowen Hall. While five of the women are dressed as female dolls, one is dressed as a boy wearing shorts and a large tie. One of the women wears a head scarf and blackface in a stereotyped caricature of a Black doll.