Racism in 19th Century Theater

The 19th century was a time for artistic and cultural innovation just as much as it was industrial. With the opening and renovations of playhouses from The Walnut in Philadelphia to The Park in New York, theatre was turning from a bottom class way of passing time to an art form middle and upper class patrons were drawn too as well. Early on, there was no inherent ‘American’ play. Like much of the culture at the time, England and Europe was looked to for theatre, which is why Shakespeare and other European melodramas and romantic plays dominated the scene. However, after the Civil War and even before with the election of Andrew Jackson,nationalistic themes and feelings swept the country and it was portrayed in the theatre as a result. Art is a representation of the time, and prior to the Civil War, a major exploit in the entertainment industry was the ‘Indian’ character. Meant to exhibit a generalized view of native americans, the ‘Indian’ character figure was often misrepresented in racially insensitive ways. James Nelson Baker is credited for writing the first play that includes native americans in his work The Indian Princess. This play is considered to be a precursor to the Pocahontas story that is later known to be seen as an american classic. The Indian Princess is a groundbreaking play, for including native americans as main characters but does so in a way that is meant to overshadow the horrific and negative impacts of colonialism onto the natives. Pocahontas is seen in the play as the spiritual and exotic figure who can heal the wounded and ill soldiers, and brokers peace and a solidarity between her people and the english. This creates a false narrative of how the interactions between the natives and the settlers happened. Myron Matlaw comments in his critique of 19th century plays that

“Over fifty such ‘Indian’ plays appeared before the Civil War, and they remained popular”.

American culture and more specifically american theatre in the 19th century always had a racialized character, the only thing that change who was portrayed was the Civil War. Before the Civil War, President Jackson’s policies and the conflicts with native tribes made the Indians an easy target and it was the public sentiment gave playwrights the go ahead. However after the Civil War, racial angst and hatred transitions from Indians to the black community, which is why we see the rise of the ‘blackface’ performances. Eric Lott describes blackface minstrelsy as something

“the culture that embraced it, we assume, was either wholly enchanted by racial travesty or so benighted”.


Having real African Americans perform and take on legitimate roles on the stage during the 19th century would have been unimaginable and very likely illegal too. It was not until William Henry Lane, better known as his Master Juba, would be the first black performer to actually take to the stage and wow audiences with his extravagant and masterful tap dancing shows.

The people, the audience to these plays and performances, needed their beliefs about race represented in their everyday entertainment, and this came through the incorporation of exaggerated and racialized characters in the 19th century theatre scene.

Understanding all the meanings behind Civil War monuments

By: Sukhvir Singh

The Civil War is by far one of the most important time periods when it comes to pivotal moments in U.S history that defined and guided the United States to where it is today. A bloody war on a scale not yet experienced by the citizens of such a young nation, both sides suffered an unthinkable amount of casualties. As Faust explains the realization the country felt soon after the war’s beginning  “Americans recognized that they had embarked on a new king of war, as the [First Battle of Bull Run] yielded close to 24,000 casualties, including approximately 1,700 dead on each side” (56). The horrors and pain of war was experienced by both sides of the Civil War, however the south’s causes were rooted too much with slavery of african americans, and were doubly hurtful in the time after. This is not to forget the losses suffered by families of the South, but to understand and realize that the South and Confederacy’s motives were too aligned with slavery to stand in public because that is a reminder for those whose family during this time were victims to the cruelties of slavery.

When I first heard about the debate in Charlottesville surrounding the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument, I shrugged it off as something that should have happened sometime ago but none the less happy that the community came to appreciate the sensitivity of the issue and deeper meanings behind the messages that the statute sent that hurt members of the community. However, the subsequent riots and violence that ensued made me realize that the feelings that were at the core of our greatest civil conflict are not yet erased and will not be until the markers of the past are gone. Every awful part of the war, experienced by soldiers and those not on the battlefield, are encapsulated in memorials like this. Faust details how powerful the images of fields of dead soldiers was on men, changing them thereafter (55). These memorials are reminders of those insane number of lives lost on that field, and the power behind them comes from the reminder that those men were killed over a conflict that focused on the oppression of their fellow man. Yes, the north has memorials, and yes they carry heavy feelings as well, but their ambitions were that of the United States and for the equality of all, not the enslavement of one.  


This is the statue that sparked the controversy in the Summer of 2017. This towering statue of known anti-abolishinist and Confederate army leader creates feelings of a dark and painful time for African Americans, and that is the message sent by the statue. that the community of Charlottesville stands by the South’s causes.

Memorials sites, statues, commemorations are intended to spur remembrance, inspire, and be make the nation in this case look good, but this cannot happen when it contradicts itself by making another group who suffered at their hands have feelings of sorrow, remembrance of painful and dehumanizing times? The American public memory should always serve to not target or offend anyone, and or it goes against it’s own created identity of welcoming all with open arms.

Davis’s Call to Laborer’s Harsh Reality

By Sukhvir Singh:

Rebecca Harding Davis does not hold back when discussing the lives of immigrant factory and mill laborers in Life in the Iron-Mills. Narrating the life of Hugh Wolfe, a welsh immigrant who works as a furnace hand in a Kirby&John iron mill, the hardships and struggles that he faces apply to many individuals at this time. His life is a tragic but a common one amongst poor workers, who were often immigrants. Working long shifts for little money, and fighting the struggles of poverty like not always having enough to eat and not getting a break from work. Life in the 19th century urban setting was one filled with smoke and filth. As Davis explains in detailing the city in which Mr. Wolfe works,

“The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke”.

A strong example for the lack of regulation and difficult working conditions is the well known hours and shift lengths the laborers endured through. Deborah after working a dozen hours at the spools, must deliver her cousin Hugh food to his iron mill which is located almost a mile away. Through the stormy and cold night she makes the journey there for him so he may eat the cold potatoes and have some stale ale for dinner. The circumstances made it easy for disadvantaged people like Wolfe to be caught in a never ending cycle of work. Mill owners and managers tied down the work force with contracts that included length of employment, often passed what was verbally agreed upon by the employer, a very low starting wage with the ‘opportunity’ of a raise, but that was a hopeless causes, and as Zonderman explains,

“These legal contracts were one of the commonest devices used for controlling the labor”.

People like Wolfe often had no other choice but to agree to the terms presented because jobs were scarce and long term employment was even rarer. Employers knew they could take their pick of the desperate work force and get away with unfair and unreasonable conditions and terms.
Labor injustices presented in Life in the Iron-Mills are rooted in a larger societal problem of the increasing gap between classes in antebellum America. In the poem, wealthy men like Mitchell and Kirby, who were the son and son in-law of Mr. Kirby, the factory owner make their rounds and comment on the unfortunate conditions of the workers but their tone and actions imply that they believe it is almost a natural happening, this division of wealth. For example, when Wolfe asks what make can make him happy, Kirby and Mitchell response is money, but when Wolfe asks them to spare some for him, they say they cannot help him.
The point of Davis writing this piece was to bring attention to the terrible conditions so many workers in america faced on a daily basis. Davis knew that to really call the american people and governments to action she had to highlight in detail the lives of people like Hugh Wolfe. To Davis, factories and industrialization represented a dark time, clear from the way she describes how smoke and residual effects of factories smother towns and cities. And to a degree Davis has a point, as Daniel notes when discussing nineteenth century labor,

“The ascendency of trade and commercial competition was accompanied by class conflict” .

This lifestyle was the foundation of many american and immigrant persons who simply wanted to make a living and although many took advantage of them, people like Rebecca Harding Davis took notice to what was happening and spoke up to make it known to spark change.


Wetherill & Son White Lead Factory

The painting above is of a Wetherhill & Son lead and chemical factory located in Pennsylvania. This factory is relatively small and rather open than most mills and factories found during the mid nineteenth century yet the amount of smoke produced is clear. The painting showcases how much smog and filth these building brought with them to towns, and that no matter how harmful the work may have been to the laborers, especially during a time before health and safety codes and regulations, one would endure to be able to have a job and income.




Aspirations and Anxieties : New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System,      1815-1850. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014. Accessed November 4, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Daniel, Evan M. “Nineteenth-Century Labor and Radicalism.” Workingusa 17, no. 4 (December 2014): 597-603. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 4, 2017).

Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron-Mills. (The Atlantic Monthly, 1861), 

Breton, William L., ca. 1773-1855. Wetherill & Brothers white lead manufactory & chemical works, corner of 12th & Cherry streets, Philadelphia.[Philadelphia]: Kennedy & Lucas]. 1831.


Education in the Lives of Slaves:

By: Sukhvir Singh

When examining what enslaved persons valued and what they did not, it is easy to come to the conclusion that because their conditions and circumstance were so terrible, their overarching goal was to always to reach a place where they could be free and live under their own rule. Moreover, there are a number of slave narratives that detail how literate slaves used this skill to forge documents and navigate their way to freedom, one of the most famous narratives being of Frederick Douglass. First, any schooling that slaves received was very informal, and very seldom in the setting of a proper location and professional instructor. As seen with Frederick Douglass and most enslaved persons, he asked his master to teach him how to read.

The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud, for she often read aloud when her husband was absent, awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art, and my ignorance and inexperience of what it could do for me, as well as my confidence in my mistress, emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read.”(69)

It is also very important to note that the circumstances for a slave to ask him master to teach him to read have to have been perfect. Masters would not want their slaves to know how to read, as it would weaken their ability to control them, as a literate slave could better maneuver the world and escape slavery. Additionally, for a slave to have such a trustworthy and legitimate relationship with their master was not common. Yes, slaves were trusted with the management and care of the property and owners, but that was their responsibility, the trustworthy relationship in this case refers to one in which the masters give information or reveal something that the slave can ultimately use to escape or go against the owners.

A corner in Millinery Room

Most schools that did exist for black individuals were centered around labor and domestic work, not the education of English, math or science.

The blog opened with explaining how it was nearly impossible for slaves to receive an education, but the key word there is nearly. In the northern states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, while still difficult, enslaved persons could attend schools only for blacks where they could receive an education. James Smith was an enslaved person who was able to escape the clutches of slavery and receive a proper schooling in Massachusetts.

I then made preparation to attend school at Wilbraham, Mass. After I had been there a while I became quite proficient in my studies, especially in mathematics, it being my favorite study. At first I found it difficult to keep up with the course of study; I overcame it, however, and progressed so rapidly that the students and the faculty of the academy gave me great praise.

When one examines the lives of slaves who were fortunate enough to manage an education, whether formally or informally, it is hard to argue that these individuals were not significantly better off than other enslaved persons. James Smith explains that even in at his age, when learning how to read and write may have seemed pointless, he knew it would still be invaluable to him.

The reason I attended school there was because it was a more retired place for me. I was very ambitious to learn, for I knew I would be better qualified to enter into business for myself, which I had some thoughts of doing then”

Rev. William J. Simmons, 1849-1890

Educators race varied depending on how north or south was when but the presence and existent of black teachers definitely contributed to the idea that African Americans can and should pursue an education

Education’s ties to slavery and freedom exemplify the difference between what made a slave valuable as property. Masters and owners looked at the physical characteristics of slaves, as Walter Johnson showcases how slaves are prepared for purchase and showcasing. (Johnson 123). So an owner would have no benefit from having a slave that knew how to read and write, rather it would be a treat as I mentioned above.