Racial prejudice and discrimination intensified at the turn of the 20th century. The Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson legalized discrimination under the concept that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. Lynchings increased throughout the south and Midwest, prompting Ida B. Wells Barnett to launch a crusade against lynching.
President Theodore Roosevelt hosted African American educator Booker T. Washington at lunch at the White House, and Sedalia Sentinel newspaper editor George Scrutton printed a vitriolic denunciation of both the president and Washington. Scrutton’s column angered local blacks, as did his suggestion that the city force Sedalia’s “rough element” from West Main Street to move north of the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks, a move that would have brought taverns, gambling and prostitution into respectable black neighborhoods. Scrutton’s editorials regularly criticized other aspects of African American life, including ragtime music and dance.
Institutionalized racism, a form of prejudice so deeply ingrained in daily patterns of thought that it is often unrecognized, appeared in the form of what were derisively called “coon songs,” which featured African American musical forms and dialect and whose sheet music covers depicted thick-lipped, kinky-haired caricatures. The minstrel show, in which white performers wore blackface makeup and imitated black musicians singing such songs, was a popular form of entertainment for white audiences.
On Dec. 15, 1901, the Sedalia Democrat advertised a program to be presented in late December by the Sedalia High School Girls’ Glee Club. The article advertising the program listed the songs to be performed. The program was not the Christmas music that might have been expected in a December concert; instead, it was a minstrel show with all the racist conventions.
Mr. Glenn Woods, glee club director, was cast as the interlocutor, the straight man who set up the jokes designed to ridicule the cast members impersonating African Americans. He was surrounded by what the Democrat described as a “bevy of beauty,” the girls of the glee club with their faces painted black and eyes and lips accentuated with white grease paint.
The program was to begin innocently enough with a medley that appeared to praise high school choruses entitled “High School Glee Club Girls Are We.” By the end of the medley, portions of the songs “Go Way Back and Sit Down” and “Coon, Coon, Coon” made the racist aspects of the song selection abundantly clear.
Songs by Stephen Foster, a pre-Civil War composer whose songs sung in black dialect gave an idealized picture of happy slave life, were interspersed between other numbers. Foster’s songs included “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Suawnee River.” The girls sang other southern songs such as “My Girl from Dixie” and “Sweet Magnolias Bloom.”
While the program featured some popular sentimental songs of the time, including “The Old Oaken Bucket,” “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” and “On the Banks of the Wabash,” derisively racist songs predominated. Some of the songs were romantic songs more appropriate to male singers, such as “I Want My Black Baby Back,” “My Chocolate Venus” and “I’ll Make Dat Black Gal Mine.” Another of the songs,” All Coons Look Alike to Me,” played to the common stereotype.
Part I of the program was made up of musical selections. Part II, was to include “Sousa’s Band” and two skits, both designed to mock African Americans. Of the plays, “Aunt Jemima’s Trouble” detailed the problems of a stereotypical cook. The other play, “A Cook Wanted,” emphasized the notion that black women belonged in servile roles in white people’s kitchens.
The Sedalia Democrat described the planned minstrel show as “a splendid programme,” indicating the reporter’s level of institutionalized racism. No doubt the Democrat’s competitor, Sedalia Sentinel editor George Scrutton, would have disagreed since he actively disliked popular music and references to the south.