Whitewashing Blackface and Whistling Dixie : The Commemoration of Dan Emmett

Introduction: Birth of a Project

I drove past the sign hundreds of times before I really saw it. It was 2015 and my family had recently relocated to just outside Mount Vernon, Ohio, a small city in rural central Ohio about an hour away from the state capital of Columbus. It had been an adjustment for me and my multiracial family. In 2010, over 95 per cent of Mount Vernon's nearly 17,000 residents were white. Less than two hundred of the city's residents were black and only about another 250 designated themselves as mixed-race in the 2010 census, which meant that my Black husband and two biracial children were among a very small minority. 

But the small city had its own charms. 
First settled in 1808, Mount Vernon boasted stately old homes, brick roads, and a thriving civic culture. Mount Vernon is, in many ways, a quintessential American small town, so much so that in 1944 the U.S. State Department used it as the backdrop for educational films designed to teach people overseas how “typical Americans” lived. Recognized as an “All-American Community” in 1965 by Look magazine and as “Ohio’s most livable city” by Ohio magazine in 1994, Mount Vernon today describes itself as “One of America’s Best Home Towns!”

But it wasn’t the State Department’s “Typical American” town markers that I drove past on my way to and from work each day. It was instead, a historic marker located at the city boundary that identified Mount Vernon as the birthplace of Daniel Decatur Emmett. Dan Emmett isn’t exactly a household nameI’m a professional historian who has taught American history for over twenty-five years and even I had to look him upbut chances are you know some of his music. A prolific composer, he is credited with writing "Old Dan Tucker," "Turkey in the Straw," and, most famously, "Dixie." Emmett was also one of the most successful blackface minstrel performers of his era, a local boy who made it big by performing with groups like the Virginia Minstrels and the Bryant's Minstrels in the 1840s and 1850s.

I soon discovered that it wasn't just these town historic markers that celebrated Dan Emmett. Once I began to pay attention, I saw references to Emmett everywhere in town: in school, street, and business names, on monuments, and even on the badge of the local police. The more I saw, the more I wanted to understand how it was that an Ohio town with a statue of a Union soldier in its town square had come to celebrate a blackface minstrel performer best known for writing the song which became an unofficial Confederate anthem during the Civil War. And so, this project was born. 

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