The use of blackface dates back to the minstrel shows that first became popular in the mid-19th century, during the era of slavery. These shows were performed by white minstrels (musicians) who used burnt cork or shoe polish to paint their faces black. Dressed in tattered clothes, they performed music and skits that caricatured enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting them as lazy, dumb, and cowardly.
These performances dehumanized black people and promoted the “stereotype of the dimwitted slave who was happy to be in the South,” says Rhae Lynn Barnes, a professor of American cultural history at Princeton University.
Before movies and television, minstrel shows were America’s most popular entertainment. They first appeared on stage in New York around the 1830s. For many white people in the North, it was their first encounter with anything depicting black life, but it was one rooted in falsehoods. By the 1850s, minstrel troupes were traveling across the country—both North and South—singing and dancing in front of huge crowds of white people, who roared with laughter.