Philadelphia’s New Year’s Tradition Reflects Our Racist Past — And May Overcome It
The Mummers Parade is growing more diverse, showing how longtime traditions can be recast.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Frank Rizzo’s quoted comments came during a 1978 mayoral campaign. In reality, they came during a campaign to change the city charter so that Rizzo could run for a third consecutive term the following year.
For more than a century, Philadelphia has celebrated New Year’s Day with the Mummers Parade, a regional tradition that brings thousands into the streets to wear costumes, play music, dance and perform satirical sketches on local and national politics.
Almost every year, however, the parade sparks controversy. In 2019, for example, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke denounced the mummers because he incorrectly thought that the rapper Jay-Z had been portrayed by a white man in blackface, not an African American. While Clarke was wrong, the mistake was plausible, given that black Philadelphians, who make up more than 40 percent of the city’s population, have never participated in the parade in large numbers. And until the city imposed a ban on blackface makeup in the parade in 1963, many mummers marched in blackface, a practice inherited from the 19th-century minstrel show.
Even today, the Mummers Parade is imbued with performances reminiscent of blackface minstrelsy. The “strut,” the mummers’ signature dance step, for example, can be traced to the cakewalk, an antebellum plantation dance adopted by the minstrel show.
In many ways, the history of the Mummers Parade is a microcosm of the halting movement toward racial integration in the United States. The persistence of minstrel-show stereotypes in the parade mirrors and magnifies the persistence of racism in American society at large. But the parade is also one of the most prominent expressions of Philadelphia’s distinctive history and culture and, thus, also a potential source of civic strength in an increasingly diverse city.
Throughout much of northern Europe and colonial North America, groups of costumed “mummers” roved from house to house during the Christmas season, entertaining their hosts and expecting food, drink or a small tip in return. As early as the 17th century, immigrants from England and Sweden introduced this custom to southeastern Pennsylvania.
By the 19th century, most mummers were young, working-class white men, and their streetside antics were infused with forms of racial impersonation borrowed from the Indian melodramas and blackface minstrel shows popular in the contemporary theater. According to the Philadelphia Public Ledger, New Year’s Day 1876 witnessed impromptu parades by men dressed as “Indians and squaws, princes and princesses, clowns … [and] Negroes of the minstrel hall type.”
Philadelphia’s new, central police force eventually cracked down on unruly holiday celebrations, and H. Bart McHugh — a newspaper reporter and theatrical agent — led the effort to corral the mummers into an organized parade, with prizes funded by the city. In 1901, the city government sponsored the first official Mummers Parade, and the Public Ledger reported that “three thousand men and boys in outlandish garb frolicked, cavorted, grimaced, and whooped while the Mayor and members of Councils, Judges, and other officials, State and municipal, looked on.”
From the beginning, most mummers’ clubs specialized in fancy dress, music, dance or comedy, leading to an elaborate structure for judging a varied assortment of parade performances. Three African American groups competed for prizes in Philadelphia’s first city-sponsored Mummers Parade, and regular African American participation in the parade continued through 1929, when the Octavius V. Catto String Band (named for a martyred 19th-century civil rights leader) made its final appearance.
Sociologist Patricia Anne Masters attributes the withdrawal of independent African American clubs from the 1930 Mummers Parade to the Depression, which hit Philadelphia’s black community especially hard. Deteriorating economic conditions, along with the Catto String Band’s last-place finish in 1928 and 1929, clearly discouraged African American groups from competing, but black brass bands continued to march as paid accompanists for white mummers’ groups through the 1930s, a practice that remains common today.
Yet, Mummers documentarian E.A. Kennedy III suggests that the prolific use of blackface by white mummers also contributed to black disillusionment with the parade. This disillusionment erupted into full-blown conflict in December 1963, when Cecil B. Moore, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and Louis Smith of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) successfully pressured parade director Elias Myers, a city official, to ban blackface from the Mummers Parade. This ban precipitated an unsuccessful legal challenge, as well as protests and counter-protests by mummers and civil rights activists.
The result was an uneasy detente over the issue of race in the Mummers Parade. Even in 1975, 12 years after the blackface ban, the New York Times described it as “essentially a white man’s event,” overseen by Mayor Frank Rizzo, who famously enjoined his white working-class base to “vote white” during a 1978 campaign to change the city charter so he could run for a third consecutive term.
Over the past six decades the parade has grown considerably more inclusive, even as brownface, redface and yellowface makeup have remained common sights in the parade, and blackface still appeared at the nighttime party after the official parade has ended. In the 1970s, most mummers’ clubs began admitting women for the first time. (Women had long worked behind the scenes, helping to stitch costumes but rarely appeared as performers). In 1984, the Goodtimers Comic Club, with an African American president and hundreds of minority members, started competing in the parade, just as W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African American mayor, took office. And in 1992, a group of Cambodian American artists and students teamed up with the Golden Sunrise Fancy Brigade to stage a Khmer dance drama along the parade route, reflecting the rapid growth of the city’s Cambodian American population.
By 2016, participants in the Mummers Parade included a Caribbean steel band, a Mexican American carnival organization, an African American drill team, a Puerto Rican bomba group and a brigade of drag queens — even as videos of individual mummers using racist and homophobic slurs along the parade route have also gone viral in recent years.
This bifurcation captures the complex state of the parade when it comes to race as we enter a new decade. Some mummers embrace the growing diversity of the parade out of conviction, whereas others view it as a pragmatic antidote to the declining participation and attendance that have afflicted the parade since the 1990s. Indeed, many if not most new mummers over the past decade have come from outside the white ethnic communities that traditionally sustained the parade.
Progressive and racially integrated mummers’ groups like the Vaudevillains, the Rabble Rousers and the Lobster Club have sought to change the political tenor of the parade, with performances that confront climate change, nuclear proliferation, big agriculture, student loan debt, access to health care and fracking in rural Pennsylvania. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the Vaudevillains from 2009 to 2012). These groups have realized that joining the parade is the only way to bring about a more pluralistic future for the mummers, offering a local lesson in direct political action that applies to struggles over diversity, equity and inclusion at the national level.
The Mummers Parade offers a carnivalesque bully pulpit to communicate directly with one’s fellow citizens, and as a city-sponsored event, participation is open to anyone. The reach of the parade has diminished from its peak, but roughly 8,000 marchers and 50,000 spectators crowd the parade route each New Year’s Day, and hundreds of thousands watch the parade on local television. Because Philadelphia is the largest city in America’s second-largest swing state, the vibrancy of the city’s political life has national implications, especially in a presidential election year.
A populist tradition like the Mummers Parade has the potential to point the way toward a more inclusive future or to remain mired in the racism that has characterized America’s past. Rather than abandon or decry the parade for its attachment to minstrel-show stereotypes and its history of racial exclusion, Philadelphians of all backgrounds would do well to embrace mummery as a powerful civic rite, with the potential to make the city’s growing diversity a force to be reckoned with.
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