As many area residents know, Reading Municipal Light produces a popular calendar every year that shows vintage photos from across its service area, which includes much of Lynnfield. On Friday, the utility company issued an apology for its September image, which shows a "minstrel show" that took place in 1924 where some of the men were in blackface.
"RMLD apologizes to its customers and other individuals who have been offended by this culturally insensitive portrayal," said the company's statement. "This is not a message RMLD supports. RMLD strongly encourages and is committed to diversity and inclusion." The utility also indicated that it will "reinforce and enhance its internal training related to diversity in the workplace and will create a diversity committee to review future RMLD projects to ensure that this insensitivity does not reoccur."
The image used for the calendar depicts the Martins Pond Social Club at their clubhouse on Lakeside Boulevard, North Reading. They would apparently wrap up their summer season every year around Labor Day with the minstrel show. "Members vied for the solo in the closing number," said the calendar's September page, adding in an almost nostalgic tone that "During these performances, the festively decorated clubhouse was filled to capacity with appreciative crowds." One can read how the participants "bantered" at these shows, as well as the fact that they were later directed by a couple of retired vaudeville sisters. What one does not read about in the calendar's text is the way such conduct and images are generally perceived here in the year 2012.
This same "minstrel" crew in the photo also apparently performed their routine at Flint Memorial Hall and other places, notes the calendar account, a photo of which can be viewed above.
"Minstrel Show A Huge Success," Said The Headline From Lynnfield
With that, Reading Municipal Light did not just stumble onto some lone minstrel show that took place just once in these parts 90 years ago. In fact, two months ago while researching a separate Lynnfield history article, I came across a page 1 story from the microfilmed April 30, 1942 issue of the Lynnfield Village Press. Its headline stated, "Minstrel Show A Huge Success."
I'm going to run the 1942 newspaper account word for word below - this isn't really material that you can just paraphrase or selectively quote from. The content is very offensive and is only being offered in the context of historical insight. I apologize in advance to anyone who will find this offensive or hurtful - And to anyone who might fall into that category, this is probably a good time to click back somewhere.
The "minstrel show" event was put on by the former Couples Club of Lynnfield and occurred at the old town hall. Several of the participants' full names were used in the story, including the guy who played "Sambo," but they will be omitted from this account solely as a matter of discretion for any remaining local descendants. Again - everything quoted below appeared on Page 1 of the defunct weekly, the Lynnfield Village Press, in its April 30, 1942 edition.
"Mr. ( ), introducing the end men to the audience, was unable to find Sambo in the place reserved for him and was being assisted by the other end men in seeking to find him when a startled wild yell of alarm from the darkened balcony disclosed a very black and worried Sambo standing at the edge of the balcony waving his arms and demanding to be taken down in order that he might get into his place on the stage. His desperate intention of jumping from the balcony was checked by the arrival of a ladder, rushed down from the stage by two of his blacked-faced brothers who finally effected his rescue so that the show could go on." The character also did some tap dancing "side by side" with what seems to have been his real-life wife who was in the audience.
Later in the show, another man, presumably not in blackface, "fascinated the audience with his dexterity in keeping several rubber balls dancing around the air without ever touching the floor."