As you enter the "Blues in Claiborne County: From Rabbit Foot Minstrels to Blues & Cruise" exhibit at the Smith Robertson Museum, you can see white platform plaques and posters lining the brick walls. Straight ahead is a large display plaque titled "Bobby Rush." Pictures of Rush holding his cigar-box-one-string diddley bow accompany his testimonial of Port Gibson's Rabbit Foot Minstrel.
Rush, who hid his involvement from his preacher father, really wanted to play guitar for the minstrel show, but entered the cast as a hambone guy instead. "I was the youngest thing in Rabbit Foot," Rush's account says.
Of all the entertainers who emerged from the all-black Rabbit Foot Minstrel—including "funky chicken pioneer" Rufus Thomas—Museum Manager Pamela Junior says the one that surprised her the most was Rush. "He thinks that he's possibly the only living Rabbit Foot Minstrel entertainer," she says.
Across the room from Rush's information plaque is the portrait of F.S. Wolcott, the white owner of Rabbit Foot who purchased the group from a black man, Pat Chappelle, in 1910. Wolcott's portrait is enclosed in an oval shape and framed by five or six black figures against a green background. With disproportionately large red lips and caricature-like expressions, the figures represent the Rabbit Foot Minstrel actors.
People who grew up on shows like "Amos and Andy" are familiar with the traditional blackface make-up and over-the-top, slap-stick dramatization of African American stereotypes that both black and white actors performed, but like Junior, didn't understand its negative effect until later.
"Just hearing about whites putting on blackface and the big white lips to mimic the ways of African Americans really bothered me," Junior says. "But as I went and actually researched and did some reading, I saw that (it) was basically the way African Americans got into entertainment. … And you got entertainers out of it such as Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Rufus Thomas and … Bobby Rush."
Junior is especially excited about Ma Rainey, who was instrumental in the "birthing of the blues." At 7 p.m. on Feb. 28, the closing day of the exhibit, Diane Williams will perform a one-woman-show, playing Rainey. Blues bassist Nellie McKay will accompany her. "A lot of people don't know about the music of that era, so that's going to be phenomenal," Junior says.
Although the exhibit largely consists of historical documents and photos, the correlation between the minstrel show and the development of music and dance is obvious. The Rabbit Foot Minstrel had a band, orchestra and individual performers, not to mention a line of chorus girls.
In the middle of the exhibit room stands a smaller recreation of the original 80-foot-by-110-foot canvas tent that the minstrel players would set up in each town they toured. Inside are two mannequins dressed in authentic silver chorus uniforms with crimson red sequined lining.
Junior says the exhibit has attracted a large population of students from the area—about 2,000 since the end of January—but walking through the exhibit in front of me were two 70-something white women. They reminisced with each other, occasionally gawking at the photo of a star whom they did not know was in a minstrel. One of them exchanged stories with Junior, telling her, "I grew up in that era."
It's moments like this that illustrate the exhibit's reconciliation of the minstrel, not because the history is one to be proud of, but because it facilitates dialogue about an era that many wish to forget and that many young people don't know about at all.
"Blues in Claiborne County: From Rabbit Foot Minstrels to Blues & Cruise" is on display until Feb. 28 at the Smith Robertson Museum, located off High Street at 528 Bloom St. Call 601-960-1457 for more information.