Black America, 1895
During the summer of 1895, in a Brooklyn park, there was a cotton plantation complete with five hundred Black workers reenacting slavery. Dorothy Berry uncovers the bizarre and complex history of Black America, a theatrical production which revealed the conflicting possibilities of self-expression in a racist society.
February 24, 2021
Acres of white cotton and a hundred wooden cabins housing five hundred Black workers. Cotton is picked from the stalk and brought over to a humming cotton gin. Women on porches chat over chores, while keeping an eye on wandering children. The local preacher extols repentance to a backslider, and folks sing hymns in rare moments of leisure.
What sounds like a South Carolina plantation in 1845 is also, in this case, a New York City exposition in 1895. Black America, which took place between Brooklyn’s Third Avenue and Thirty-Seventh Street (then Ambrose Park), was a combination slavery cosplay, ethnographic exhibition, Black performance review, and all-around spectacle. Ticket holders were purchasing a full day’s worth of entertainment. For twenty-five cents (a dollar for box seats in the arena), attendees entered an Ambrose Park transformed, at a cost to the organizers of a stated $13,000 a week ($400,000 in today’s money).1 Before the performances, which changed weekly, visitors were free to walk around a recreation of the plantation life imagined in sentimental minstrel songs.
Over a hundred cabins were built to form the Renaissance Faire style village, which housed more than five hundred Black performers, who traveled north to playact slavery.2 Reviewers fixed on the Southern performers’ authenticity. Lou Parker, a hiring agent for the production, was reported to have “spent the greater part of the winter traveling through the South selecting the talent, and declares that for every one he engaged he rejected at least nine”.3 The Black performers themselves tempered this commitment to historical realism: living in cabins for the multi-week production, they added placards expressing their own identities, like “Pilgrims from Savannah”, “Four Little Atlanta Girls”, “The Eighth Ward Club of Philadelphia”, and “Home of the Tar Heelers”.
Beyond the cabins lay an ersatz cotton field, ingeniously manufactured from real cotton plant stalks, with cotton fluff loosely attached by wire, and a functioning cotton gin.4 One strains to imagine the complicated feelings of the formerly enslaved picking cotton for show. With a production of this scale, there may have been current share-croppers who found they were making better (and easier) money plucking cotton from faux plants. This live-action roleplay of plantation life created a dangerous form of cognitive dissonance. A built-in assumption of the Northern production was that Black people were moving toward a form of modern twentieth-century respectability (defined entirely in White terms). Yet the ease and leisure of the enslaved performance erased the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery.
This was a plantation of five hundred workers, with no whips, no overseers, no selling of mother from child, husband from wife. They were all dressed in new, matching outfits, “white straw hats [for] the men and the red bandannas [for] the women”.5 Reviewers praised the authenticity of this self-managed plantation, writing:
We see the negro as he is supposed to be in the South, and there are said to be none but Southern negroes employed in the exhibition. There is no burlesque in Black America. Everything that is seen represents part of the daily life of the Southern negro.6
Designed to show the folkloricized roots of American Blackness, the exposition’s setting — physically situating headline performances behind the plantation scene — played into the ethnographic racial science that educated White Northerners used to elide their racism. Much like the “ethnographic displays” of authentic Dahomean villages at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago two years earlier, which W. E. B. Du Bois countered in his curation of “The Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Exposition Universelle in Paris five years later, the plantation was presented as edutainment.
This perception of Black America as an educational production with entertainment value was repeated again and again by critics who gave praise like “it is a show for intelligent people rather than for the crowds who usually frequent open air and popular seaside resorts.“7 Reviewers assured potential audience members that this was nothing like the Blackface shows they were used to:
If there are still people who have stayed away from this entertainment under the impression that it was a sort of black minstrel show, they should correct that idea right away. No such music has been heard north of the old Mason and Dixon line before, and after this fortnight we shall have no chance to hear it again this side of Virginia.8
While there may have been singing on the faux plantation, the real show took place in the outdoor amphitheater that opened after visitors had a chance to explore Southern life in situ. The list of performances is too long to recount, and weekly changes in the line-up invited visitors to return again and again. There were jugglers, acrobats, equestrians, comedians, soloists, foot-races, Othellins, jockeys, skaters, cakewalks and mammoth choruses of hundreds.9 Although many Black performers in New York were, at this time, developing urban musical styles that reflected their experiences, these imported performers were deemed by the public to be truly Black and representative of a uniquely Southern authenticity.
Historians often present the gradual shift in African American popular performance — from the racial characterization of offensive Blackface minstrelsy archetypes to radical representations of Black authenticity in the Harlem Renaissance and later the Black Arts Movement — as linear progress, a straight-line evolution away from White-crafted stereotypes of rural chicken-stealers toward accurate reflections of Black life’s complexities. Straight lines make better study guides than historiographies. History is full of clashes, setbacks, and retreats.
The Black America extravaganza is a prime example of the conflicting possibilities of self-expression in a racist society. A mixture of minstrelsy, racial uplift theater, and ethnographic human zoo, this spectacle provides a unique glimpse into the state of plantation nostalgia and urban Black self-perception at the turn of the twentieth century. An ad in the Brooklyn Eagle captured the strange mix of scientific racism and racial uplift:
[Black America showcases] the Afro-American in all his phases from the simplicity of the Southern field hand to his evolution as the Northern aspirant for professional honors and his martial ambition as a soldier . . . 10
While the idea of plantation cosplay in Brooklyn might sound more like speculative fiction than a sound business decision, it was a logical progression for Nate Salsbury, the funder behind Black America.11 By 1895 he was already known as a successful producer and manager for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a famous nostalgic overlay for American imperialism and oppression.12 In many ways, Black America would mirror those productions, transforming painful and brutal recent history into uplifting performances of American progress. Starring Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull among other sharp-shooters and Native American performers, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West remains part of the popular imagination, popping up in period television dramas and living on in contemporary westerns. Black America has escaped popular memory perhaps due both to its smaller production run and inability to create lasting dramatic storylines. Wild West shows helped establish the classic settler colonial drama of “cowboys versus Indians”, but Black America presented something somewhat different — plantations without White antagonists, racial uplift without a whisper of who was keeping the race down to begin with.
While Nate Salsbury has traditionally been credited as the idea man behind Black America, Billy McClain, an Indianapolis native who designed and produced the exposition, was no stranger to large-scale reenactments either. McClain’s identity as a Northern, African American playwright, actor, and the producer of this strangely sentimental recreation of enslaved life is erased in the promotional broadsides listing “Mr. Nate Salsbury, Projector and Sole Director”, but McClain’s primary role is attested to by his contemporaries and generally accepted by scholars today.13 In the years preceding Black America, McClain worked on talent development, stage, and music direction for two enormous performances: The Battle of Vicksburg, a massive Civil War reenactment that took place on the beaches of Coney Island, and The South Before the War, a heavily nostalgic recreation of plantation life.14 His involvement in Black America was noted in the press, where he is credited at times as “amusement director and stage manager”,15 chorus leader and manager of the over five hundred performers,16 and “manager of the Black America exhibitions”.17 The brainchild of a Black playwright and production manager, with production and funding by one of the most successful popular entertainment figures of the day, Black America presented an uncanny mix of nostalgia for plantation life and celebration of Black creativity and citizenship.18
To consider Black America’s reception, we must first understand its appeal. Already a popular theme on the minstrel stage and in song-sheets purchased for home performance, this form of sentimental nostalgia (Blackface performers singing about heartache and maternal instincts) furthered abolition interests as well as commercial attempts to capitalize on the popularity of sentimental European song.19 Urbanites without personal experience of slavery’s atrocities related to musical themes of simple rural life, carefree living, and a caretaking Mammy. Songs like Black composer James Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny'' played on a plantation nostalgia onto which immigrants and newly urban migrants could transfer their own feelings of homesickness.20 Black America extrapolated this plantation nostalgia, adding in a mixture of pseudo-educational ethnographic racial display, recently popular at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and a racial-uplift staging designed to present a progressive model of African Americans, from enslaved plantation dwellers to proper cosmopolitan citizens.
These themes of nostalgia and progress surfaced in specific performance forms. The cakewalk was well known in the North, but audiences of Black America perceived it as something entirely different: the authentic cakewalk of Southern heritage. Developed originally by enslaved people as a satirical masquerade mocking the stilted promenades of their upper-class enslavers, the cakewalk shifted into a more stylized promenade competition dance, commonly added as an act to minstrel shows by both Black and White performers. The “‘Ole Virginny’ cakewalk [featured in Black America was] something quite different from the fancy cakewalks the people of the North ha[d] been in habit of seeing”, a performance difference chalked up by Northern viewers to a sign that they were witnessing the cakewalk in its original form.21
The choruses too were seen as uniquely Black in a Southern manner and therefore more Black than the local New York performers. “All doubts as to these being genuine Southern negroes instead of performers imported in East River ferryboats is dissipated by their singing of the plantation melodies”, wrote one viewer.22 Others commented on what they perceived as the uniquely Black vocal qualities of the hundred-plus person chorus:
. . . the volume of sound and the blending of the voices with that unique metallic quality of tone which charmed Dvorak and led him to write music especially for a choir of negroes combine to produce an effect entirely novel to one familiar only with American or German choruses.23
The praise given to the performances links to the earlier ethnographic framing of Black America. These were not skilled performers; they were authentic and organic Southern Blacks, imbued with creative skill from birth. Given the period and cited locales from which some of the performers came, we know that at least a portion of the singers and dancers in Black America were formally trained professionals, and can assume that others were informally trained in their own artistic communities. The presentation, however, attempted to add value to Black Americans in the Northern eye by showcasing the natural goods of not only talent but also of citizenship.
Regarding citizenship, Black America’s stage production ended with an almost unimaginable spectacle, an act called “Historical Pictures”. The chorus of hundreds gathered on the stage to sing patriotic songs as massive ten-foot by twenty-foot portraits were unfurled, one by one: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln.24 All of the performances of the day, from the living plantation to the brass band of the historic Ninth U.S. Cavalry, culminated in this scene of patriotism and modernity, marking an end to the previous era and attempting to introduce Black America as something new.25
While we have descriptions from the press and the reminiscences of Vaudevillians, what is most mysterious and fascinating to imagine is the experience of Black American attendees to Black America. Earlier scholarship has been unclear on whether Black America was a Whites-only event,26 but there was at least one day when Black women and children were in attendance, as noted in the particularly florid and insensitive journalistic style of the early twentieth century :
Raphael cherubs done in chocolate were thick as blackberries at Ambrose park yesterday. Nate Salisbury [sic], the manager of “Black America,” had invited every colored mother having a baby under 2 years old to appear with her offspring and inspect the antics of the colored brethren from the South. The colored mothers went, and so did a considerable delegation of white parents, who took their own pickaninnies down to see the fun.27
We have the reporter’s interpretation of how those Black mothers felt about walking through a plantation with their children, then entering an arena to see buck dancing, cakewalks, and a recreation camp meeting, but we have nothing in their own voices. Black America is primarily available to us today in the mediated voices of professionals and exists mainly as a mystery. We know how several White Americans felt about it, but can only speculate as to how the Black Americans on stage and in the crowd experienced Black America in 1895.
Dorothy Berry is the Digital Collections Program Manager at Houghton Library at Harvard University. She received her MLS from Indiana University, as well as an MA in Ethnomusicology from the same institution, following a BA in Music Performance from Mills College. Previously she worked as the Metadata and Digitization Lead for Umbra Search African American History at University of Minnesota, as a Mellon Fellow at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and also as a graduate assistant at the Black Film Center/Archive and the Archives of African American Music and Culture.