Sad But True: ‘Black Face’ Was Part of Tri-Cities History
If you haven't heard, the governor of Virginia has been asked to resign over a 1984 photo in which he allegedly is dressed in "black face" -- a term commonly used to refer to white/Caucasian people putting on makeup to look African American for comedic effect. No one is laughing now, and we haven't been for decades. But the sad history of that custom is familiar to many elderly Tri-Cities residents.
My grandfather used to tell me stories about working on the Manhattan Project out at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation north of Richland. He said the government treated the workers well. The food was good and there were recreation and entertainment opportunities provided. One was what he called "minstrel shows" where people put on "black face" make up and accompanying costumes to perform variety shows.
These performances were almost always derogatory of African Americans. Even when young people ignorantly put on dark makeup to dress up as their favorite television character or musician for Halloween, the images spark hurt and humiliation. It is an image from a time when racism and discrimination were acceptable.
I was further disturbed to be looking through a Richland church congregation's scrapbook years later and found numerous photographs of members of the congregation acting out "black face minstrel shows" in the 1940s for church parties.
I don't believe any of the actors at Hanford or the church meant ill will for anyone else, but it is part of a larger story. My wife's grandfather remembers vicious brawls at the Richland skating rink (before Rollarena) when the time allotted to African Americans to skate accidentally overlapped with general skating. And many elderly residents remember a sign on the green bridge between Kennewick and Pasco saying African Americans were not allowed in Kennewick after dusk. Indeed, African Americans were not allowed to purchase homes in Kennewick until the early 1960s.
I am proud that such behavior has not been tolerated in Tri-Cities for decades. I hope all types of people enjoy living here as much as I do and feel respected by their neighbors. The governor of Virginia said he hopes the episode prompts healthy conversations about race, and I think the more of those we have the better off we'll all be.