Wore Blackface

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, April 4, 1913:  We practiced for the last time tonight. Am glad it is over. This certainly has been a late to get to bed week for me and I am beginning to feel the effects of it. They blackened me up tonight. I had an awful time a-getting it off my face afterwards.

McEwensville Community Hall
The play was held in the McEwensville Community Hall

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Whew, I find diary entries like this one really difficult—and hope that you can help me figure out the best way to think about it.

I want to feel happy that the dress rehearsal for the class play went well—but I also want to look at this entry within the larger context of social history.  Let me try to explain–

Grandma played the role of Chloe the servant in the class play. This entry confirms what I think many of us suspected—Grandma wore blackface when she played this role.

According to Wikipedia, blackface was a type of makeup that performers used in the late 19th century and early 20th century to “create a stereotyped caricature of a Black person.” It is very controversial; and “played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture.”

A hundred years ago, blackface was accepted and audiences thought that blackface characters were funny. Grandma probably enjoyed hamming it up as she played the role of Chloe.  (Back in January when the play was cast, she’d written, “I am Chloe the negro servant. That was the part I really wanted.)


The civil rights movement in the 1960s brought about so many positive changes. At that time Grandma would have been in her 60s and 70s. Did she ever think back to when she was a teen who played Chloe in blackface?. . .


You may enjoy reading a previous post that I did on a related topic:

How Should Offensive Language in Diaries be Handled?

34 thoughts on “Wore Blackface

  1. I remember seeing a traveling entertainment show at the local school or church when I was very, very young, sometime in the 1940s, living in rural Wisconsin. I remember being startled by actors in blackface then, and I was much too young to begin to understand what was going on.

  2. Racial stereotypes and portrayals are of course a very delicate subject. Especially in our society today. However, we need to remember that these stereotypes go both ways. There is even a tradition of whiteface performance in the US and other countries. Both blackface and whiteface were most commonly used when actors of the opposite race were not available to portray a character. Did they often go to far in their portrayal of the stereotypes? Of course, but so much of humor is sometimes the difference between yourself and others.

    1. It is interesting to think about this issue from the broader context of actors playing roles of people who are from a different race or ethnic group.

  3. I’m going to wade in with an observation because the touchy subject of racial stereotyping (and to a greater degree racial vilification) can be very hard to accept when associated with our dear old grandma’s and granddads.

    If the school play had a role written for a negro servant, then wouldn’t it be natural that the person playing the role would wear black make-up and dress as a negro servant?

    Should we condemn the great Sir Laurence Olivier for going black-face to play the role of Shakespeare’s Othello?

    If Helena really wanted the role of Cloe and spent many months rehearsing, I am sure she acted the part well.

    1. I also think that she probably did a stellar job of playing the part. Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t thought about the role of Othello. There is so much to think about.

  4. As a baby boomer, I have a different “take” on this. The tradition and history of black-face in theatre and movies can be seen as a black spot, or point to underyling racism … but like the years and the cultures that prohibited women fromn performing and men played both male and female roles … the actors themselves truly thought of these roles as challenges.

    Sorry to say … I am not politically correct and believe we should not attempt to “white wash” the color out of history. Racial problems and sexism were and still are a problem … if anything … the tradition of theatre and the history of how we have or have not evolved is important for young people to learn.

  5. What an interesting diary entry that reminds us of how times have changed. We have a complicated history, and I try not to apply the norms of today to the past.

    1. We do have a complicated history! I agree that we can’t apply the norms of today to the past–yet sometimes diary entries like this one glaringly indicate how some norms have changed for the better over the past hundred years.

  6. I am glad for Helena that it is over. Practicing and anticipating the big event can be taxing…It was what it was in Helena’s day and I have no ill-will toward her. Today, I try to be cautious about watching, reading stereotyping material about others especially if I have little to no contact.

  7. Of course you need to be sensitive to people’s feeling, Sheryl, but you also need to be true to history. Most people didn’t think twice about portraying blacks in this way back in Helena’s day. That’s a fact and if we don’t note these incidents, we also don’t get to see how far America has come and how she’s changed for the good.

    As for Helena, we’re hearing from a school girl in a play, not a woman revving up for a Klan parade.

    I’m not one to cry “racism” in every instance of this type. Ignorance is the word I choose most often to describe the racial stereotyping that went on. And many blacks deliberately acted in certain ways in order to keep their owners/employers from knowing what they really thought or were capable of doing. This way of presenting themselves saved many of their lives and, post-slavery, their job positions. People saw this subservient, shuffling figure and formed their ideas about the dark-skinned people they encountered.

    I’m delighted that she wanted to be chosen for this part, as you note. Helena may have thought about it later in her life and felt badly. Or maybe she thought about how she gave her friends and family a glimpse of what black people had to go through in her day. That would be a good thing.

  8. I’m not made at your grandmother for wearing black face and playing Chole in the school play. I must admit that my mind went “Ack!” when i read the title though. I don’t think you should change her words or leave things like this out.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that in discussing situations like this or slavery, some people will say things like “people” thought about it differently back in those days. Or you can’t look at history through a modern lens. All “people” back in those days weren’t white people and there were people who didn’t think it was ok. I wish that “People” included everybody who was around back then, white or black.

    Not fussing. Not angry. Just notice this and thought I’d mention it.

    1. I appreciate your candid thoughts. Your comment makes me think about the old Ladies Home Journals and Good Housekeeping magazines from a hundred years ago that I often use as a resource for this blog. Similarly to what you described, I’ve noticed that they seemed to have a very narrow definition of “people.”

  9. I never thought about the events that she and my own grandmother lived through – Darla again came through with wise words. It is amazing to think of some things that were acceptable back then that we would never think of doing today – thank God we have come a long way. That said, Helena was a young girl having fun and I am sure it never dawned on her or anyone what black face would mean to others in later years. This was a good insight in life back then.

      1. My grandmother was from the south and used to tell us a few things that were the norm…as she said, that was just the way things were back then…no one thought much about it ~ I am glad someone finally did think about it and brought about change.

  10. You’ve gotten a lot of great comments here on this topic! I can add 2 things, but agree with much that has been said. One thing I will add is that I found photos of my grandmother (the tailor, not the one I write about on my blog) and her sisters dressed as “pickaninnies” (that’s the word they used at the time). This would have been about the exact time your grandmother was writing about. I find the photos to be fascinating artifacts of history, but I don’t want to share them because I feel that people would think less of my grandmother who was a caring person and when I knew her in the sixties not a racist. However, at the time of those photos, she was participating in a less than admirable aspect of our culture.
    the other thing I wanted to add is that while today we look at blackface in entertainment as something to be reviled, people think NOTHING of having white actors wear makeup to appear asian for Asian roles. I know that because my daughter is an Asian actor. It’s very disheartening in today’s world to see that. Why is it ok for that but not for “blackface”? She was at an audition for an Asian role and a white girl ran into a wall and said, “I can’t see where I’m going with my eyes taped.” This is not a joke–that really happened. However, what it shows me is that it’s all a matter of perspective from what the culture at large accepts as customary.

    1. Thank you for sharing the information about your grandmother. It makes me feel better (maybe that’s not exactly the right words, but you know what I mean) to know that other people are grappling with similar issues as they work on their family histories.

      You make a really good point that it is important to think about this from a broader perspective. It’s terrible that actors are wearing make-up to appear Asian.

  11. To quote Oprah via Maya Angelou “when you know better, you do better”. I’m sure the same school wouldn’t promote that type of
    performance today. The spirit of team work and confidence of preforming in front of an audience I’m sure was the ultimate goal. There was also a time when woman couldn’t vote, children worked in factories and Corporations were allowed to pollute rivers with no regard for the environment…I’m glad for the most part, we are going in the right direction.

    1. I’m also glad that for the most part, things seem better today. It’s more fun to write about the warm, fuzzy things that happened back then, but I think that it is important to think about both the good and the bad.

  12. I have a friend that lives with soneone who collects those mammy type figures. One day we were invited over for bbq and i brought my daughter and her bff, who is beautifully black! I always hated those figurines but esp that day! I dont think the bff even noticed them but i was embarrassed still!

  13. Those pictures on Wikipedia are pretty freaky…I’m not sure I want to try to picture “Grandma” looking like that. I’ll just stick to her graduation photo, thank you very much.

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