The Vernon County Historical Society recently upgraded the copy machine in our museum’s busy office. Our former 16-year-old machine was replaced with a modern, time-saving, higher-quality machine that will be a benefit to patrons and volunteers alike. We appreciate the Viroqua Area Foundation for its generous grant of $500 to help pay for this vital piece of equipment. Many thanks also to the Dawson Club, which is the historical society’s friends group, for its generous donation toward this purchase.

February is Black History Month. While doing other research recently, I was looking at a copy of the Jan. 2, 1918, issue of the Vernon County Censor and noticed an advertisement for an upcoming show at the Star Theater, located at 211 S. Main St. in Viroqua. The ad was illustrated by two formal portraits of an African-American man and woman. Black entertainers in Viroqua 100 years ago is a story worth pursuing.

Dave and Alice Picket played at the Star Theater on Jan. 4 and 5, 1918. Their act was billed as the “Old Original Pickets, World’s Greatest Character Imitators and Negro Minstrel Entertainers.” A little searching led me into the history of minstrelsy, and specifically black minstrelsy.

Ninteenth-century minstrel shows involved music, dancing, jokes, and short skits, all based on racist caricatures of African-American life. Earlier in the century, shows were performed primarily by white people in “blackface,” skin darkened with burnt cork or some other makeup.

Later in the century, minstrel shows sometimes featured black people themselves, called “originals,” as in the “Old Original Pickets.” By about 1900, minstrel shows were losing popularity, replaced by vaudeville. But the Pickets continued to tour well into the 20th century.

A newspaper review from Willmar, Minnesota, in 1921, describes the Pickets’ show as including banjo music, ragtime, and pre-Civil War plantation songs. It also featured many character sketches – of African Americans, of Irish and Scandinavian and Asian immigrants, of Jews – all people struggling at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder at that time. (To portray the white characters, Dave Picket apparently wore “whiteface” makeup, an uncommon practice.)

These character sketches were probably based on broad stereotypes, full of exaggeration and ridicule. How did the Pickets feel about lampooning themselves and others? What was it like to perform in front of all-white audiences? Did the audience members have any other experiences with African Americans?

This 1918 ad says that the Pickets “have played Viroqua many times in the past, and are well known here.” Where did they stay overnight? Were they allowed in local hotels and restaurants?

Lots of questions and not many answers. These complicated issues continue to resonate today, as “blackface” is again in the news. To learn more, visit the website for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture at nmaahc.si.edu.

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