Wells, Maine Minstrel Shows

Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) medical school yearbook photo reminded me of the minstrel show put on in Wells, Maine on February 18, 1955, one of its annual series. Here’s a link to a newspaper article mentioning it. It appears in the rightmost column under “Wells” as written by Mrs. Elaine LaPierre:

“The first rehearsal for the annual Wells minstrel show will be held this evening at 7:30 at the grange hall. The show will be presented on February 18.”

Another site tells us “Minstrel shows continued to be popular well into the 1950s, and high schools, fraternities and local theater groups would often perform minstrel shows in blackface. It became unpopular as African Americans asserted more political power in the 1950s.”

The show staged in Wells is a case in point. The Wells Grange raised money for good causes. Many of its participants also were members of the Congregational Church and sang in its choir; and some of these took part in the minstrel show. Coincidentally, that same newspaper page from the Biddeford Daily Journal has an article titled “Donations Made by Wells Grange”.

Should we identify all the participants in minstrel shows throughout our history and subject them to embarrassments, accusations, ostracism, loss of stature, loss of jobs, demotions and shunning? Should we stain their families and names? Are we to gallop around on our high horses claiming to be harmed, shouting racism and making demands because of things that people did 30-40-50-60… years ago? Who among the accusers will cast the first stone? Who is without sin?

In a related case, I was reading about the French and Indian War when I came across the fighting activity of Lord Jeffery Amherst, after which Amherst, New York and Amherst, Massachusetts are named. Many of us might be speaking French and/or living under unimaginably different circumstances or not living at all had not the British defeated the French in that war. Lord Amherst is now known to have contemplated using smallpox to infect Indians that stood in his way. This has led Amherst College to change the name of its Lord Jeffery Inn to Inn on Boltwood.

History is filled with chains of causation that cannot be undone by how we treat statues and names, or by applying today’s values to those of yesteryear. The challenge facing many of today’s so-called leaders, or people claiming to be leaders, or people striving to be leaders of society and government is to stop being demagogues and to start exhibiting some actual virtues such as wisdom in dealing with indiscretions.


10:43 am on February 2, 2019