Unstellar moments: History of blackface at UVA

Performers in blackface were one of the ways the achievement of African Americans was delegitimized. Photo courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library Performers in blackface were one of the ways the achievement of African Americans was delegitimized. Photo courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

By Shrey Dua

Just months out from the blackface scandal that rocked Virginia’s Democratic leadership and threatened Ralph Northam’s governorship, all of 10 people showed up May 15 to learn about UVA’s history of blackface.

At a talk that was one of several held last week as part of the city’s Unity Days series on race relations, UVA Assistant Dean Kirt von Daacke offered evidence of more than a century of bigotry, from the University of Virginia’s founding straight through the modern era, touching on a fraternity’s donning of Native American headdresses criticized as “culturally insensitive” earlier this year.

The images he showed came largely from UVA’s yearbook, Corks and Curls, which has been published since 1888.

Von Daacke didn’t pull any punches in calling out UVA and central Virginia for its unprecedented slave population, even compared to other universities and areas of the state.

Over 4,000 enslaved people lived and worked at the university at some point between 1817 and 1865, he said. “It’s a lot of people. Everyone who worked at the university owned enslaved people, whether you were a professor or hotel-keeper. All the students came from slave-holding families, [and] although they weren’t allowed to bring enslaved servants with them, we’re pretty sure they did anyways.”

After the war, the wave of newly freed African Americans achieving financial success in Charlottesville and Albemarle County was “terrifying,” to a dying breed of Lost Causers, von Daacke said. “This is proof that everything they want to believe about African American citizenship and capacity for living in a biracial community is false. So it’s this context, particularly around the 1870s and 1880s, that drove a particularly nasty racist reaction.”

Blackface performances and racist cartoons were ways to delegitimize black achievement while perpetrating white supremacy. Von Daacke showed examples of student-created blackface cartoons that targeted a “colored gentry.”

Von Daacke is a historian who focuses on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Virginia. He will release a new book on slavery later this year, six years after his first book, Freedom Has a Face: Race, Identity, and Community in Jefferson’s Virginia.

The event itself is part of the recently created Unity Days, a series of presentations, musical performances, speeches, and more, hosted by the city and Charlottesville community, intended to “educate, inspire, and honor people in our community in order to move towards economic and racial justice,” according to the city’s website.

Partially in response to the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, Unity Days will be held annually during the second weekend of August. In this inaugural year, however, the entire summer is filled with events. Each month has its own theme, including May’s “Our community’s history of race relations.”

In addition to von Daacke’s presentation, last week also included a presentation on Jewish history, the history of slavery at UVA, and a celebration of Queen Charlotte. Coming up next are discussions of Sally Hemings as a muse and Monacan history.

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