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PHOTO ESSAY

Early Black Comedians

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Billy Kersands

Billy Kersands, star of the Georgia Minstrels.

As shocking as its crude spectacle now appears, minstrelsy was one of the few vehicles for black economic and artistic advancement in postwar nineteenth-century America. Billy Kersands, arguably the era's most popular minstrel, traveled across the United States in "a private railway carriage that he purchased outright" (Cullen); Charles B. Hicks, Kersands's troupe manager with the Original Georgia Minstrels, organized trips to Germany, New Zealand, and Panama to perform. Though frequently appalling, the minstrel show introduced satirical exaggeration and slapstick, often subversively, to American audiences. Once troupes—which had begun as white men in "blackface" made of burned cork—became predominately black, they gained substantial black support as well. Many of the most important entertainers and comedians of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century either got their start in or became famous through the minstrel circuit, including Bert Williams, Ma Rainey, and Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham.

Cullen, Frank, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly. "Billy Kersands." Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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