VA Governor Ralph Northam in Blackface: Racist Entertainment in Context

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Ralph Northam, Virginia Governor Northam, Governor Northam, Northam in blackface, Northam's yearbook photo, blackface, minstrelsy, racism, white supremacy, black history, slavery, antebellum South, A photo has surfaced of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in blackface. Dressing up as a caricature of a black man is terrible; when put into historical context — among the many other forms of racist entertainment and racist pseudoscience — blackface represents a truly horrendous past.

(2-7-2019)  Governor Ralph Northam in blackface — what’s the big deal? Blackface popped up as racist entertainment in the late 1820s. At that time in America, the vast majority of blacks were enslaved, mostly on Southern plantations. Though slavery had been debated since the practice began 160 years earlier, the abolitionist movement really got organized in the 1830s. The American Anti-slavery Society was established in Philadelphia in 1833, and it’s agenda was immediate emancipation of all slaves.

Obviously, Southern slaveholders saw their way of life threatened. Poor whites, especially in the South, had always been told they may be poor, but that it could be worse — at least they were superior to blacks, and one day they might be slaveholders themselves. Now they heard that blacks were their equals. If blacks were going to get paid for their labor, they would be competing with whites, so many poor whites strongly resented the idea of free blacks.

Many representatives of the abolitionist movement pointed out the discrepancy between the American ideal — all men are created equal — and social reality: Many white people considered black people as subhuman.  The Southern slaveholders and other white supremacists counter-argued that slavery was the logical and natural state for black people because blacks were subhuman, childlike, incapable of taking care of themselves. They would have everyone believe that the black slaves were happy to have their entire lives run by superior white people.

Several pseudosciences became popular in the 1830s: Craniometry involved measuring human skulls to determine race. Phrenology was also related to the human brain; it was used to predict character traits and mental capability. Eugenics was widely discussed,  although the term itself was not commonly used yet. Predictably, white supremacists used these pseudosciences to confirm their racial prejudices and demonstrate to the (Northern) public the “scientific proof” that blacks were inferior. Popular racist entertainment quickly latched on to this.

Blackface became common in the early 1830s, had its heyday between 1850 and 1870, and continued in various forms well into the twentieth century. White men in blackface appeared in minstrel shows, performing skits, playing music, singing songs, and telling jokes, all while portraying blacks as dim-witted, infantile, ignorant, superstitious, and, despite it all, happy-go-lucky. Some minstrel shows had actual black performers, but the manager was usually white. In all cases, minstrel shows confirmed racial stereotypes that justified slavery in the minds of many whites.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the “Father of Minstrelsy”, was the first to create a popular blackface persona — Jim Crow, a slave character dressed in rags, who behaved like an idiot. Yes, the same Jim Crow that inspired the term “Jim Crow laws” for the many laws that kept blacks “in their place” after Reconstruction. To add insult to injury, blackface became associated with blacking — boot polish; many blackface shows displayed advertising for black-makers in the background.

Minstrel shows were just one of many forms of racist entertainment, both in the United States and in Europe. Kevin Young, in his book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbugs, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, notes

“the long history of black people on parade, from the auction block to the menagerie, from the first Africans captured and brought as slaves to Jamestown in 1619 to Ota Benga, shown in the Bronx Zoo as a pygmie savage”. (p. 34).

Sara Baartman (or Saartje Baartman), a young, enslaved South African khoikhoi woman from the East Cape, was the most famous case of human exhibits in Europe. In 1810, when Sara was 20 or 21, a ship surgeon and friend of her slaveholder noticed her. He was fascinated with her enlarged buttocks and elongated labia. (I kid you not.) The two men took her to Europe, where she was subjected to medical examinations and put on display in a cage for the general public. She died in 1815; a self-professed doctor took a cast of her dead body; her pickled brain and labia were on display in the Musée d’Homme in Paris until 1974.

Here in America, P.T. Barnum‘s first claim to fame was his traveling show, where he exhibited Joice Heth, a black woman whom he claimed had been George Washington’s slave and wet nurse. This would have made her 161 years old. The elderly Joyce (or Joice) Heth was blind and almost certainly still a slave when Barnum exhibited her as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World”. People flocked to the show to see and touch Heth, to decide for themselves, as Barnum suggested, whether she was really 161 years old or not. Folks also visited to feel connected to the popular first president; for a price, they could touch Heth’s breasts, which had supposedly provided sustenance for “Little Georgie” Washington.

At some point someone said she wasn’t real, that she was an automaton — a machine made of whalebone and old leather. Barnum went with the flow, inviting folks to come judge for themselves if she was even a real human. Upon her death — in 1836, a year after Barnum started exhibiting her — a public autopsy was performed on Heth. Doctors cut her up and determined that she had been at most 80 years old.

Millie and Christine McCoy (or Millie-Christine) were conjoined twins born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851. Their slaveholder sold them to a showman when they were nine months old. They ended up being bought — along with their whole family — by another showman, Joseph Pearson Smith, who rented them out to, among others, P.T. Barnum, who displayed them for a while when they were three. Smith’s wife instilled “Christian values” in the girls and taught them to read, write, sing, dance, play the piano and recite a few German and French phrases, skills they could then demonstrate in the show. (The great relationship they supposedly had with the Smiths, their slaveholders, is refuted by a letter found in the archives of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 2007.)

The twins were joined at the pelvis, and — like Saartje Baartman — were regularly forcibly poked and prodded and photographed by doctors who wanted to examine their “genito-urinary organs”, to see if they had one set or two. This started when the girls were all of 15 months old.  The Emancipation Proclamation set them free at age 14. They continued their show, calling themselves “The 8th Wonder of the World”, but refused any more medical examinations, to the considerable anger and indignation of doctors everywhere. They became quite wealthy and eventually bought the plantation of their birth for their father, who had been enslaved there. Millie and Christine died in peace in 1912, at the age of 61.

1860 was the year the Civil War began, which was fought over Southern states’ rights to practice slavery. Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species the year before. Just a few months after  the book came out,  P.T. Barnum acquired William Henry Johnson, and put him on display in his American Museum as Darwin’s missing link. Johnson, previously been exhibited by another showman, may or may not have been microcephalic — it’s not at all clear that he was mentally challenged. However, Barnum certainly advertised him as such, naming him “the What-Is-It?“.He shaved his head save for the top of his distinctly sloping skull, to exaggerate the look. Barnum later  renamed him Zip the Pinhead, probably after a blackface minstrelsy character called Zip Coon.

Johnson performed in a hairy suit and stumbled around, hunched over, in a cage or in an artificial jungle environment. The backstory Barnum created for Johnson was  as follows: a group of adventurers discovered a group of Missing Links along the Zambia River. They captured “the-What-Is-It?” and two others and shipped them to America, but sadly the others died on the way. In Barnum’s American Museum, he rattled his cage and screeched, not yet having been fully civilized. But hey, he had been swinging from the trees and walking on all fours when the white men captured him, so this was progress, people! In reality he was born in New Jersey, probably around 1842 or 1843; his parents, poor former slaves, entered into an agreement with Johnson’s first showman to display him in return for monthly payments, probably in 1857; he must have been around 14 or 15. He died in 1826, not long after his last performance.

In 1903, avowed white supremacist Samuel Verner (S.C.)  traveled to Africa for the purpose of kidnapping “pygmies” to exhibit in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He captured Ota Benga and eight other men and boys from the Batelele tribe in the Bassongo area of the Belgian Congo. Ota Benga was a Bushman, or “pygmie”, diminutive at under five feet tall. According to the sign outside his cage he was 23 years old, though he looked much younger. In September 1906 he was put on display in a human exhibit in the Bronx Zoo in New York City, first in the monkey house, with chimpanzees. He spent the time on public view shooting with a bow and arrow, weaving baskets and playing with a parrot. He was soon placed in a separate cage littered with bones, suggesting he was a cannibal. (The zoo may have been inspired by Ota Benga’s pointy teeth; tooth-chipping was popular with his peers.) In this new enclosure he was joined by an orangutan.

By then he clearly resented his treatment, and he sat sullenly on a stool, glaring at the visitors. After a week he was let loose to roam the zoo, where mobs of visitors constantly chased him, prodded and tripped him, tortured his pet parrot and monkey with cigar burns, and laughed at his anger. Ota Benga was clearly good for business; the number of visitors to the zoo that September was double that of the the year before. Some people eventually managed to get him out of this ordeal. They paid his legal fees, entered him first into the city orphanage, and in 1910 they enrolled him in the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College in Virginia, but he left school, worked in a factory and shot himself in the heart in 1916.

To make a long and horrific story short: blackface was one of the many ways whites dehumanized, sexualized, derided, humiliated and exploited blacks for entertainment, so the visitors afterward went home feeling they were definitely far superior to those clowns and freaks, satisfied that the experience had been worth the price of the ticket. This is the history evoked by Governor Ralph Northam in blackface in medical school. And I haven’t even addressed the history of the Ku Klux Klan, the sinister, murderous, white supremacist organization his buddy in the photo had decided to represent at their bizarre costume party.


  • “Abolitionist Movement.” History,  2018,
  • “The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship.” (Exhibitions), The Library of Congress,
  • “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” (Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom), National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian (NMAAHC),
  • G.W. Dixon. “Ole Zip Coon.” (Song Lyrics From Around the World) International Lyrics Playground.
  • Linda Gordon. “When the Ku Klux Klan was a mass movement.” History Extra,
  • “The Joice Heth Exhibit.” The Lost Museum Archive,
  • Meserette Kentake and Kentake Page. “Sarah Baartman: The “first known Black female victim of trafficking.” The Weekly Challenger, 2017,
  • “The man who was caged in a zoo.” (The Long Read: Race) The Guardian, 2015,
  • Pamela Newkirk. “The Numbing Spectacle of Racism: What the ugly history of a 1906 Bronx Zoo exhibit tells us about ourselves today.” The Nation, 2015,
  • “P.T. Barnum.” Wikipedia,
  • “Paul Broca: French Anthropologist and Pathologist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica,
  • “Phrenology.” Wikipedia,
  • Ellen Samuels, “Examining Millie and Christine McKoy: Where Enslavement and Enfreakment Meet.” (The University of Chicago Press Journals), JSTOR, 2011,
  • “Sara (Saartje) Baartman.” South African History Online (SAHO), 2018.
  •  Harry Thomas. “Millie-Christine, 1851-1912: The History of the Carolina Twins: Told in “Their Own Peculiar Way” By “One of Them”
    [Buffalo]: Buffalo Courier Printing House, [18–?].” Documenting the American South,
  • Kevin Young. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbugs, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2017.

Header Image: Public domain photo from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook. He is the man on the left, in blackface.

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