Daily Campus History: The racist legacy of minstrel shows at UConn

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The members of The Blackguards. Photo courtesy of UConn Archives and Special Collections

When I had the idea for this column, I knew I would inevitably uncover some truths about The Daily Campus and the university as a whole that would not be positive. This week, while combing through papers from the World War I era, I found out about an official UConn club that existed at the time: the “Storrs Blackguards.” The Blackguards were a drama club created with one goal only: to perform minstrel shows. 

For context, minstrelsy was a racist form of entertainment for white people in America created in the early 1800s which involved the cast dressing in blackface and pretending to be Black. The characters in minstrel shows were based purely on harmful stereotypes and extremely dramatized caricatures, and they served to enforce racist stereotypes for decades. While minstrelsy as a profession died out at around the turn of the century, amateur performances lasted long into the twentieth century. 

Unfortunately, this is where UConn comes in. The Blackguards were formed in 1917, and their inception seems to stem from an editorial printed in this very newspaper. The author of “How About a Minstrel Show?” made the argument that during wartime, a show of this kind could help to “[make] our College appear as normal as usual.” The fact that blatant racism was seen as a way to bring normalcy to campus speaks volumes about the social climate of the time. 

The first show was documented in the paper as well, in an article titled “Minstrel Show is well received.” It took place on Dec. 29, 1917, and featured over 40 students. The other purpose of the Blackguards was explained in this article, and that was that each year the club would help to fund certain causes on campus. Their first campaign was to fund the newspaper in its effort to send copies of the Campus (not The Daily Campus until 1955) to alumni who were serving in the war. Another sad truth related to these shows is that A.T. Busby, the man that Busby Suites is named after, was a part of the troupe. Busby was the only self-identifying (we have no way of knowing if there were others) Black student at the college at the time, and it’s unimaginable how uncomfortable he must have felt being among his peers as they portrayed Black characters in such a disrespectful way. As for why he didn’t just not participate, one has to remember that the school was far smaller then, and with only a handful of clubs in total, it’s likely that he would’ve been one of the only people not taking part. 

The first show was the only one where a monetary amount is given for how much money was raised, but assuming that the rates didn’t change much, it can be assumed that the total profit would be in the thousands, adjusting for inflation. Exactly where each show’s profits went is not completely documented, but it is certain that the club at least donated to the Campus newspaper, to a tablet commemorating a member of the group who had died and to the school’s official portrait of Professor Henry Ruthven Monteith, whom the building is named after. 

The bottom line of this research is this; UConn’s early days were not exempt from the cultural climate of the rest of the country. Racism was the norm in this country from its inception, and it continues to this day. The fact that this university, only a century ago, had a school-sanctioned club that was unapologetically, even boastfully racist, should not be a surprise to anyone. The club lasted from 1917 only until the early 20s, but its cancellation seems to be only due to a string of unpopularity, not that the student body suddenly became anti-racist. During its tenure, the group travelled to multiple towns to perform as representatives of the school, printed a joke about the KKK and the n-word in the paper, and was referred to as “high-class entertainment” multiple times. Last week I sang the praises of Lady Principal Margaret Kenwill, whom I said UConn should remember as a figure who stood for progressive ideals over a century ago. I stand by that, but I also believe that if we are to celebrate her as someone in our history that makes the school look good, it would be incredibly wrong to pretend that we don’t have skeletons in the closet. 

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