Commentary: The Virginia Democrats’ Minstrel Show

by George Rasley


No one can be sure when the first white man “blackened up” to play an African American on stage; however, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice developed the first popularly known blackface minstrel character called “Jim Crow” in 1830.*

Rice’s imitation of a black man and perpetuation of stereotypes was extremely popular with whites in both the North and South. Minstrel music was often inspired by Anglo-Celtic songs, but the performance, singing, and speech mimicked and mocked African American vernacular. Some white performers even augmented their noses and other features when performing to look more stereotypically “black.”*

Judging by the revelations of the past week, it appears Mr. Rice’s theatrical descendants are governing the Commonwealth of Virginia, as both Democrat Governor Ralph Northam and Democrat Attorney General Mark Herring have been exposed appearing in blackface during the 1980s.

And let’s be clear about what was going on in their appearances: Neither Northam nor Herring were appearing in “make-up” to play the African character in Shakespeare’s Othello or as a traditionally African character like “Zwarte Piet” in old Dutch Christmas pageants.

They were blacked-up in the worst tradition of minstrelsy to mock and belittle African-Americans.

When the website Big League Politics broke the story of Democrat Ralph Northam’s racist background and the page in his medical school yearbook depicting him in either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan robe – Northam was uncertain who was who in the picture. Later he decided to change his story and deny any association with the offensive picture and yearbook page, however, the person in blackface looks a lot like Northam, right down to the plaid pants that seem to appear in another contemporaneous photo.

So, we’re not buying Northam’s post-scandal memory loss, after all his nickname at Virginia Military Institute was “Coonman.” While “coon” has long been a racist epithet applied to African Americans it has a special place in minstrelsy.

Ernest Hogan, the first black producer and performer in a Broadway show, “The Oyster Man” (1907) and one of the inventors of ragtime had an 1896 hit, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” The song tapped into the strong currents of racism in turn of the twentieth century America and it gave rise to a whole new sub-genre of ragtime called “coon songs.” A glut of coon-themed songs flooded the market after his smash hit.*

That is just part of the heritage of Democrat Governor Northam’s nickname, but it seems well fitted to the blackface image on his medical school yearbook page.

As for Democrat Attorney General Mark Herring, after he called for Governor Northam to resign in the wake of the Ku Klux Klan and blackface picture scandal, someone apparently reminded him that he too had blackened-up back in the 1980s.

AP broke the story that Democrat Herring admitted that he wore “brown makeup” and a wig in 1980 to look like a black rapper during a party. Herring said he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers they listened to, including Kurtis Blow.

That the whiter than white bread Herring listens to rap music calls for a suspension of disbelief akin to that required to believe Hillary Clinton was telling the truth in an interview with the hip-hop morning show “The Breakfast Club” on urban radio station Power 105.1; the interviewer asked her about items she always carried with her and Clinton immediately answered, “Hot sauce.”

Herring is next in line to be governor behind Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, but he is certainly Ralph Northam’s equal when it comes to minstrelsy and blacking-up to denigrate African Americans.

The 1980s were not the 1830s and by then minstrelsy was no longer amusing to anyone in the American cultural mainstream. Democrats Northam and Herring have both made careers accusing Republicans of being racists, so it is fair to ask would any Young Republicans have thought was appropriate or funny to put on blackface in the 1980s? As a leader in Young Republicans back then I know the answer would have been a resounding “NO.”

The racist behavior of Northam and Herring has exposed the deep vein of hypocrisy on race that runs through the Democrat Party. We believe both Northam and Herring should resign, because in addition to their racist pasts, they were elected through a fraud on the good people of Virginia who have worked hard to heal the Old Dominion’s racial divisions.

* University of South Florida, Special & Digital Collections, The History of Minstrelsy from “Jim Crow” to “The Jazz Singer.”

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Photo “Mark Herring” by Mark Herring. Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by AlbertHerring. CC BY-SA 3.0.











Reprinted with permission from

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