"Negro Minstrelsy: Its Starting Place Traced Back Over Sixty Years, Arranged and Compiled from the Best Authorities,”
From an article written by Charles White, New York Clipper*, April 28, 1860.
Minstrelsy for the past seventeen years has been steadily improving, until we now see it firmly established among our standard amusements and sought after as much as the opera or drama; in fact, in some respects, far out-rivaling either in point of patronage. Although this species of entertainment is often discussed, and the merits of the different artists connected therewith criticized, yet the origin, or any pretension thereto, has never been clearly explained (except by the present writer some time since), for two very great reasons. First, because no individual ever interest himself so much as to seek or trace out the foundation or starting place; and secondly, if he had, his labors would have proved fruitless, for who can tell when and where the Negro first introduced the banjo (for it is from that instrument we begin to get at the notes of Ethiopian minstrelsy).
Such being the case, it would be in vain to attempt to ascertain how long, when, and where the Negro, or African, first manufactured or introduced the gourd banjo, which instrument, no doubt, has been in existence nearly as long as that race of people. Consequently, it is impossible to get at its origin from that source. The point then is this: who first made pretensions to imitate the colored race or introduce their quaint and humorous character to the public? Some, I know, will doubt, and others will claim their knowledge in the matter as indisputable. Suffice it to say, that this subject will be picked all to atoms, and after the storm is over it will return to its present truthful shape again, as facts indelible.
The writer does not go so far back for dates, or even assert anything in this brief description of minstrelsy, but what can be vouched for and identified as facts by actual printed documents of each and every assertion herein made, which documents have ever been preserved with great care until the present time; and now feeling desirous of giving a more general publicity to the same, he does so with no selfish motive or partiality, but with a view of enlightening the minds of the curious, and showing those in the profession the path which their predecessors have traveled, and what has been done towards the elevation of minstrelsy, which amusement, in the writer’s estimation, will in a few years far eclipse all its former improvements, and become an indispensable entertainment, claiming for its support in vocal, instrumental, and physical force, the best talent in the theatrical line. For already has the minstrel introduced his merry afterpiece, with all its appropriate costume, scenery, and music; burlesques upon burlesques have since appeared in rapid succession; operas have also been introduced; and, in fact, artists of merit in former days now seek in vain for positions in minstrel companies.
Many suppose that negro minstrelsy originated about twenty-three or twenty-five years ago, or in the days of Barney Burns, Enam Dickinson, Tom Bleakly, George Washington Dixon, T. D. Rice, Leicester, John Smith, Joe Sweeney, &c., who all had their own peculiar style in singing and dancing, individually; some with the banjo, and some without it; others having for their principal attraction only some simple Negro melody, such as “Coal Black Rose,” “Such a Getting Up Stairs,” “Gumbo Chaff,” “Sitting on a Rail,” “Jim Crow,” and one or two others of less popularity. I will now give a short description of a few prominent performers who succeeded the parties just alluded to and became vastly popular, particularly in this city. These were Dick Pelham, James Sandford, Frank Brower, and others, to whom I shall allude in the following order viz.: 1838---Jim Sandford played the Black Door Keeper or Ticket Taker, at the Franklin Theatre, Chatham Street, N.Y.
For the next two or three years very many aspirants for colored fame made their debut with faces blacked. Prior to the organization of the first regular minstrel company, January, 1842, the following parties appeared in public---Charles Jenkins and G. W. Pelham, at American Museum, January, 1842; Frank Diamond, Whitlock, and Tom Booth, at Arcade Garden, 255 Bleecker Street, January, 1842; Dick Pelham, Master Chestnut, Dick Van Bremen, and Joe Sweeney at Bowery Amphitheatre, 37 Bowery, January, 1842; Frank Diamond and Whitlock, at Chatham Theatre, April, 1842; John Smith, T. Coleman, Chestnut and Hoffman, at Bowery Amphitheatre for Smith’ benefit, June, 1842; John Diamond and Whitlock, at American Museum, December, 1842; Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Master Pierce, Jimmy O’Connell, Frank Diamond and Mestayer (all dancers but Mestayer), Franklin Theatre (Dan Emmett and Master Pierce were performing the same time at the Bowery Amphitheatre), December 29, 1842; Dan Emmett and Frank Brower, at the Bowery Amphitheatre, where, and at which time the idea of a minstrel company was put in motion by the following persons, viz.: Dan Emmett., Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock, and Dick Pelham, who all immediately went into a thorough course of rehearsals at the boarding house of Emmett, No. 37 Catharine Street, kept by one Mrs. Brooks.
They were all diligent in their labors and it did not take long to acquire the scanty versatility necessary in those days for a cork professor to delight his patrons. The idea was original; but I might deserve censure in applying it to any one of the number, and have therefore distributed the honor among the party. The cause of their organization was simply to make up a combination of Negro stuff for one night only, which was expressly for the benefit of Pelham, who at that time was dancing between the pieces at the Chatham Theatre.