Choteau Acantha readers who follow the Old News columns written by semi-retired reporter Nancy Thornton are often treated to views and ideas or conventions that occurred in the past, giving them a better understanding of where some of Choteau’s historic buildings come from, or who the founding fathers were, or how people here survived droughts and blizzards, or maintained country schools or lived through the Spanish flu pandemic. In this week’s column, Thornton explores how blackface minstrel shows were routinely used as entertainment and fund-raising events in this county through the mid-1950s. Many of us were alive in the mid-1950s and may remember going to such shows. Others, who are younger, may have heard of minstrel shows, but not really understood what they are and what they represent. The youngest generation among us may not even know what blackface was or why minstrel shows are now viewed with deep disgust.
As the Black Lives Matters movement continues to roil the country’s largest cities, Choteau and Teton County — with an overwhelmingly white population — can seem far away from racial unrest and largely untouched by the systemic and institutionalized racism that continues to plague minorities today. A young woman who lives in Choteau part-time organized a Black Lives Matter protest in Choteau in June. The peaceful event drew about 30 protesters of all ages from the county to walk around the Teton County Courthouse and show their support for legislative changes that will eradicate public policies that are unfair to people of color. They did no looting. They broke no laws. They were quiet and peaceful, yet, on social media, the young organizer was called names, told that she was disgusting and shameful, and heaped with scorn, from others, mostly locals, some of whom said there is no such thing as racism in Choteau and that institutionalized racism is a myth or is something that no longer exists.
Thornton’s old news column this week clearly shows that as late at the mid-1950s, white people here thought it was just fine to make money off of entertainment that denigrated and derided people of color, mainly Blacks. Her column is not meant to celebrate this behavior, but to show everyone that we have a long way to go before we as a society shed the trappings of racism, before we can advance beyond the stereotypical characterizations of minorities. Her column is meant to make people here think about minstrel shows and realize that these things harken back to a time when half of this country believed that the enslavement of Blacks was a morally acceptable practice.
America truly has a long way to go before it heals from all the scars the practice of slavery has left on the country. Recognizing the wrongs of the past and righting them today is how this country moves forward. Today, we recognize that minstrel shows and blackface performances put on here were degrading, insensitive, racist activities, and we struggle to understand how the people putting on those shows, going to them, laughing and spending their money at them, could not see them for what they were: truly despicable parodies of fellow Americans. Today we acknowledge the past. We apologize for those who engaged in this behavior, and we urge all going forward to work for a better world where race is never used to prevent anyone from pursuing his or her own particular American dream.