Brantford's Black History
Brantford's History Of Minstrelsy
The topic of Blackface Minstrelsy in Canada is one that continues to gain attention by researchers of Black and Canadian history. The minstrel show, as it came to be known, was a recreation of life on a southern plantation. These shows started in the United States as early as the 1830s and were performed by white actors who painted their faces black with burnt cork or shoe polish. These performances were exaggerated racial parodies created by the white population for their enjoyment. It is from these early minstrel shows that the character Jim Crow was born.
By the 1850s, these travelling minstrel groups arrived in Brantford to perform. By this time, Frederick Douglass had already voiced his disdain for the practice, noting in The North Star in 1848, ““the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens”.
In the 1850s and 1860s, minstrel groups performed in Brantford at Kerby Hall at the Kerby House Hotel as well as Ker’s Music Hall that was formerly on Colborne Street downtown. The earliest performances included a parade by minstrel group through the downtown before arriving at the venue for their minstrel show. From the 1850s through to the 1930s, old editions of the Brantford Expositor indicate that minstrel shows in Brantford were a fairly regular occurrence.
Later shows in Brantford in the 1870s and 1880s were held at the Stratford Opera House (former location of Ker’s Music Hall) and Palmer Hall (former Kerby Hall). In 1923, a minstrel show was held at the Ontario Institute for the Blind. Some of the later minstrel groups were comprised of Black members, rather than whites, and were billed as being “authentic minstrels”.
Often Black minstrels would still darken their faces with cork or polish to create the exaggerated caricatures of the white minstrels. Black participation in the minstrel shows has been viewed over time as an act of agency on behalf of the Black community.
While the minstrel show was widespread across North America, it is worthwhile to reflect on how these shows would have been received by Brantford’s early Black community. Our research to date indicates that the Kerby House Hotel and Palmer House were known places of employment for the early Black community in Brantford. It makes one wonder how these shows were received by the local community.