This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
Perhaps he doesn’t look it, but this man was as important in his own way as W.E.B. DuBois. Well…maybe not.
Billy Kersands (c. 1842-1915) was a star of minstrelsy from the 1860s until his death. He was one of minstrelsy’s biggest personalities and one of the very few people who was popular in both black and white minstrel shows. The reason why may be quickly gleaned by the expression on his face in that portrait. He looks extremely funny; he doesn’t look terribly dignified.
He was best known and remembered for the size of his mouth, which he would fill with things like billiard balls and saucers for the amusement of the assembled throngs. On the other hand, he is also well revered as a master of early forms of the soft shoe and the buck-and-wing. Dancer, comedian, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and acrobat. This was one well-rounded superman of the theatre, but he grew increasingly controversial as the demeaning stereotypes he embodied became less and less accepted.
He refrained from going into vaudeville (and its greater financial rewards) because he said he had all the money he needed and he was simply more comfortable on the minstrel stage (which was all but gone by the time he passed away anyway). As the Jazz Age marched on, bona fide minstrel men, and then blackface**, grew rarer and rarer. And Mr. Kersands was a man of the 19th century.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.