Following the run of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Brooklyn’s Ambrose Park, showman Nate Salsbury, in the 1890s, sought another production to fill the vacant venue. His first thought–for an exhibition on Italian industry–did not get very far because his poor health prevented him from planning it.
Searching for something “purely national and a novelty,” he decided on a show that would provide a “picture of the South,” to be called “Black America.” Salsbury hired Billy McClain, a black entertainer who had already been doing a show called “The South before the War,” to manage the production.
Black America’s purpose, Salsbury told a Washington Post reporter, “was to show the people of the North the better side of the colored man and woman of the South.” He thought that listening to the musical talents of the southern blacks would be a “valuable lesson to any one at all interested in the close study of the colored man.”
The Boston Globe reported that Salsbury’s experience in the Civil War had given him the “opportunity to study the racial characteristics of the Negro,” and that therefore his show had “an ethnographic value.” A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter made the observation that it would have been strange if Salsbury had not recognized that “the southern negro and his life in the south” was just as interesting as the Wild West.
Educational aspects of the production were noted in some of the advertising for the show. “Scenes of rural simplicity,” declared a playbill, portrayed the “lovable, bright side of the true southern negro.” Newspaper articles noted that Black America “depicts life in the south,” including “all sorts of negro sports and pastimes.” Black America was “instructive in its lessons, truly historical in its pictures,” and portrayed “the Southern negro in a marvelously realistic setting, showing many novel and interesting details of a system now happily passed away.”
The New York Times found the show “entertaining and of much educational value,” and noted that it presented “an opportunity to become familiar with plantation life.” Black America showed “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.”
According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Black America’s “scenes and incidents of southern life” were “reproduced with a fidelity of detail,” and promised that “everything seen represents part of the daily life of the Southern Negro.”
To achieve a level of authenticity, participants in the exhibition were blacks who had lived in the south. Salsbury said he hired only “genuine Southern negroes,” mostly from the states of Virginia and North and South Carolina. Rather than established show people, he sought people with natural talent who mostly had no formal training or experience (though this goal probably was not totally achieved). Advertisements promoted the fact that no whites and no northern blacks appeared in the show. Its authenticity was assured because it featured “actual field hands from the cotton belt.”
Salsbury seemed to believe that contact and understanding of diverse cultures would lead to a better brotherhood of mankind. Ads for another of his shows, called “The Rough Riders of the World,” promised the audience “all kinds, all colors, all tongues, all men fraternally mixing in the picturesque racial camp.” A newspaper description of the parade that preceded the Rough Riders show declared that “in time, knowledge and acquaintance will dispel racial prejudices and national hatred, and emphasize the fact of all mankind’s kindredship.” Such a gathering of cultures “presages the dawn of universal friendship–the millenium.” Though these points were not expressed in relation to the Black America show, they do suggest that Salsbury believed in at least the marketability, if not the actuality, of such sentiments.
Clergymen in New York and Philadelphia commended Black America to their congregations. Though perhaps engineered by Salsbury as a promotional ploy, the support of the pastors assured the public of the wholesomeness and enlightenment offered by the show.
All in all, even if the motives behind Black America were not purely educational, and even if its portrayal of life on a plantation not particularly accurate, it does seem to have been, as noted by Marian Hannah Winter (in her 1947 article, “Juba and American Minstrelsy”), “a first effort to make some presentation of the Negro as a person.” It must also be kept in mind that it was a commercial venture, and was expected to earn money for its owners, and therefore had to entertain the paying public enough that it could stay in production. Focusing on the gloomy aspects of plantation life would have been bad for business.
Description of the Show
The show, or exhibition as Salsbury usually called it, went through numerous changes over time and across venues. During the summer and fall of 1895, Black America was presented to audiences in Brooklyn, Boston, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia.
Its most elaborate productions, at Ambrose Park in Brooklyn and at the Huntington Avenue circus grounds in Boston, featured the music and dancing that were present in all its versions, but also something extra: theme-park-like reproductions of plantation villages. Members of the public were encouraged to arrive early enough for the show that they could stroll among the cabins, 150 of them, where many members of the production actually lived during its run. Cotton fields were put in–at Ambrose Park they amounted to a full acre–and an “old-time” cotton gin was set up and operated. Gardens were planted, and demonstrations of tobacco processing were made.
As they walked among the cabins, audience members could interact with the blacks, observe them practicing skills from the past, and watch staged vignettes, such as a black preacher on a mule as he called on his flock to repent, or a pretty girl sitting on a porch being courted by admirers. Mock camp meetings were also held.
Other major outdoor amusements included horse races and mounted demonstrations by the 9th United States Cavalry, the “crack colored troops” who had performed so well (as ”Buffalo soldiers”) in the Indian wars. The cavalrymen had their own camp on the grounds.
When showtime came, an impressive sequence of musical, dance, and novelty acts began. One of the most appreciated musical elements was the performance of a mammoth choir employing the voices of 300 singers. Songs were also performed by soloists and quartets.
Dances included about every type that was popular at the time: buck and wing, the heel to toe, and the flim flam. Newspapers reported that the cakewalk, where smartly dressed couples strutted together with style, was always well received by the crowd. Specialty acts were presented, and included jugglers and contortionists as well as athletes who boxed and walked tight ropes.
Patriotism was expressed, not only by the participation of the black cavalrymen, but also by the display of large images of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Generals Grant and Sherman, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. Appropriate songs accompanied these displays.
Though most of the 500 blacks who participated in the show in one way or another were unnoticed parts of the grand spectacle, some were singled out in press accounts. Billy McLain reportedly was responsible for much of the planning, production, and direction of the show. Madame Cordelia, his wife, was a renowned soloist, as was Bessie Lee. Others who were specifically pointed out were Madame Flower, William Banks, and human corkscrew Charles Johnson.
Though some established performers were in the show, Salsbury’s deliberate attempt to seek out talented people with no show business background meant that Black America certainly offered an avenue for a career in entertainment, and probably many of the performers remained in the business, satisfying regional audiences. They may not have become national stars, but they got work.
A Success or Failure?
Black America was received well enough at its first venue–Brooklyn’s Ambrose Park–that Salsbury attempted to delay its planned opening in Boston, reportedly offering the Boston people a $10,000 bonus as compensation for the delay. His offer was rejected, and an apparently successful run at Ambrose came to an end. During its run, the park’s capacity of 7,000 was exceeded at least five times.
In Boston, shows were seen by thousands of spectators, and special excursion trains were arranged to transport people from other cities throughout New England. One week in August was even designated as Knights Templar Week at the show, with planned Masonic activities.
When it returned to the New York City area, at Madison Square Garden, it was billed as having previously been successful in both Brooklyn and Boston. The shows in Manhattan were described as “doing a fine business” before crowded audiences.
Black America was received well enough at Philadelphia’s Grand Opera House that it made another appearance there following its visit to the District of Columbia‘s Convention Hall.. The Washington Post predicted during its final week there that the owners would earn a “neat sum if business continues as good for the three remaining nights as it has been heretofore.”
Its second run in Philadelphia seems to have been the last appearance of Black America. Though Salsbury had contemplated taking the show to Europe–in hopes of duplicating a similar successful move made with the Wild West Show–that never happened.
In November of the following year, 1896, newspaper notices announced that a show, called Darkest America, would be presented at Hyde and Behman’s in Brooklyn. Described as “another darky show,” it featured a “company of eighty Southern colored people,” including a chorus of fifty. This compared very unfavorably with Black America’s company of 500, and chorus of 300.Though an advertisement billed it as “an exposition of Negro Life as he is and was,” Darkest America was no doubt a cheap imitation of Black America.
Though accounts, possibly over-hyped by supporters, describing the huge popularity of Black America appeared frequently in newspapers, scholars who have studied it have concluded that it was a failure. Bobby Bridges, in his book Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, says that Black America “flopped and suffered heavy losses.” Probably contributing to its failure were the expenses of transporting hundreds of performers when the show toured (it had its own train), not to mention the salaries of such a large group and the construction costs associated with the plantation villages erected in Brooklyn and Boston. Even if the show attracted decent audiences, covering such extra expenses would have been difficult.
Black America was certainly not an accurate recreation of plantation slave life, despite the promotional slogans. Some of the so-called past-times, such as tight-rope walking, were not likely to have been practiced widely on plantations. In some ways the show was more a “grab bag” of acts that were performed by, or in some way associated with, blacks. As reported in the New York Times, Black America showed “what the colored race is capable of doing in a comparatively untried field.”
Press accounts refer to Black America as reproducing the happy aspects of plantation life. Naturally enough, audiences weren’t overanxious to be reminded of the terrible side of slavery. Also, there were plantations, and then there were plantations. Salsbury said he mainly recruited blacks from Virginia and the Carolinas. In the later years of slavery, conditions on plantations in these states were probably not as austere as in the deep south, where plantations operated as small fiefdoms, and geography reduced the opportunities for slaves to escape excessive cruelty.
Finally, the intentional absence of whites in the show precluded any accurate portrayals of the peculiar institution. With no whites, there were no owners, no overseers, no floggers, no miscegenation. Black America served not as a documentary of the life of blacks on antebellum plantations, but as a showcase of the talents and versatility of black people.
More information on the Black America Show, including a list of some of the performers who participated in it, is available in my short -e-book, called Slavery on Stage: Black Stereotypes and Opportunities in Nate Salsbury’s “Black America” Show. It is available for various e-readers from smashwords.com, http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/362832
Photo above, members of the “Black America” cast (from the Illustrated American, June 29, 1895); and below, an advertisement for the show from the May 25, 1895 New York Clipper.