The Black America Show: Nate Salsbury’s Wild West Show for the Old South of slavery days
(02-23-2018) An NYT headline called the Black America Show an exhibit of the “Fun-Loving Darky of Old Slavery Days.” I kid you not. So began revisionist history and nostalgia for the Old South. You may have heard of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. It toured the northeast and Europe, starting in the 1880s, where it provided an odd, romanticized idea of the American West. Nate Salsbury wanted to do something similar for the Old South. The show’s full title was “Black America: A Gigantic Exhibition of Negro Life and Character“. Yep, there was a mock plantation in a Brooklyn park in 1895!
Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland
I’m reading Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, by Kurt Anderson. He gives an inventory of all the ways (white) Americans have been more prone than Europeans to believe in big dreams, in get-rich-quick schemes, the supernatural, cure-alls, conspiracy theories, UFO sightings and other “alternative facts” from the beginning of white colonization up to the Trump presidency and America’s current “post-factual” society. It’s fascinating, and it confirms that I’m right when I argue with my American husband that UFO sightings are really mostly an American thing.
Nostalgia for the Old South
I’m not even halfway, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book, but what I read last night about the Black America Show had me gobsmacked at first, and then it explained a lot. Anderson discusses the insane nostalgia of Southern whites for the plantation lifestyle before the Civil War, how the South never accepted that they lost, or if they did, it was by referring to the attempted secession as “The Lost Cause”. And they didn’t waste much time rewriting history.
Happy Slave stereotypes
Salsbury claimed that the idea was to show, “with a fidelity of detail, […] the better side of the colored man and woman of the South. […] It will show the labors that the negroes of slavery days engaged in, and the happy, careless life that they lived in their cabins after work hours were over.” The park included 150 slave cabins where people could watch live vignettes as they walked by, like “a fat black mammy, with a red handkerchief on her head, [who] sits outside one of the little cabins, knitting,” as one New York Times journalist reported; and a cotton field where genuine “Southern Colored People” — none of your Northern colored people or whites in blackface — played at being happy-go-lucky, singing slaves. They also worked an “old-timey” cotton gin and gave tobacco-rolling demonstrations.
There were no white people in the show. Not a one. No overseers with whips, no owners, not even around the partial plantation house replica. That’s how happy the black slaves apparently were; they didn’t even need white oppressors! They certainly started revisionist history of the Old South off with a bang.
Promoting Black Culture
Salsbury also wanted to show that African-Americans could do other things — other than be slaves, I suppose. Included in the program was a section “Showing the Afro-American in all his phases, from the simplicity of the southern field hand (especially the phenomenal melody of his voice), to his evolution as the northern aspirant of professional musical honors.” Besides much singing and dancing, the visitors could also watch black jugglers, tight-rope walkers and contortionists. The Buffalo Soldiers also showed off their horse-riding skills. So it was a mix between an open-air museum, a circus, a concert and a talent show.
In Fantasyland, Anderson brings up the Black America Show as an early example of rewriting Southern slave history. Kate Kelly makes the same point, but adds that the wildly fictitious care-free life of the slaves after their work was done probably led to some fervent fact-checking, which may have helped to bring attention to the actual reality of the South’s “peculiar institution”. David Fiske gives Salsbury the benefit of the doubt, sort of, because he claimed to want the show to be educational, historical, and expose Northern folks to the rich culture and skills of Southern blacks and thus bring understanding. It was his marketing spiel, anyway.
The show was successful for two seasons, starting in Brooklyn’s Ambrose Park, then touring Boston; Manhattan; Washington, DC; and Philadelphia. Salsbury apparently did pay his employees well and no doubt more than a few of them stayed in New York and continued in music or show business afterward — the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing about a decade later. However, I’m pretty sure that Black America — and a few similar shows that sprung up after Salsbury’s show ended — played a significant role in the early days of revisionist history in relation to the enslavement of black people in popular American culture and in history education.
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Salsbury’s Slavery Spectacular!”, 02-23-2018)
- Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire; A 500-Year History. New York, Penguin Random House, 2017.
- Fiske, David. The Plantation in Brooklyn: Nate Salsbury’s Black America Show. The New York History Blog, January 7, 2014. – http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/01/07/the-plantation-in-brooklyn-nate-salsburys-black-america-show
- Kelly, Kate. Black America: An 1895 Stage Extravaganza for the North. (America Comes Alive)! https://americacomesalive.com/2015/02/20/black-america-an-1895-stage-extravaganza-for-the-north
- Roberts, Sam. When There Was a Mock Plantation in Brooklyn. The New York Times: City Room, January 9, 2014. – https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/when-there-was-a-mock-plantation-in-brooklyn
Header image: https://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/01/07/the-plantation-in-brooklyn-nate-salsburys-black-america-show/