uncle tom

Among the rich collections at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village is a set of panels, removed from the inside of the East Side Restaurant when it was located on East Main Street in Newport.

A billboard-like poster made from lithographs pasted to the panels depicts a scene displaying baggage and stage materials from a theater troupe performing Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Labels on the cargo being moved off the docks by African American workers reveal its destination as the Pike’s Opera House and surrounding theaters and hotels in and around the interconnected cities of Covington and Newport, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, where Stowe lived from 1832 to 1836. Her 1852 abolitionist novel, upon which a variety of plays were based, sold more copies than any book in the nineteenth century except for the Bible.

The East Side Restaurant was established in the 1940s and operated by Helen Essaff and her family in a building that once housed the Cobleigh Store and later the C.O. Marois Market. This grand advertisement for the roadshow likely dates to between 1880 and 1900—a time when Newport was home to both the Field Opera House and Clock Tower and the Lane Opera House. While the Field Opera House was destroyed by fire in 1896 and the Lane Opera House met the same fate in 1923, during their heyday as Newport social hubs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the state’s most frequently produced play.

A Vermont drama, set partially in the region and with the main character being from the state, by the turn of the century, more than 400 companies were performing adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in what were known as “Tom Shows.” Brass bands and parades were often used to advertise upcoming performances, and as the shows became more popular, they began reflecting the regional views of their audiences. Differences in how Stowe’s story was told were starkest in the aftermath of the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction—a time when white supremacy, segregation under Jim Crow laws, and the lynching of African Americans flourished. By then, anti-slavery themes were absent from many performances and the shows bore little resemblance to Stowe’s novel. Instead, they lapsed into minstrelsy and parody, reinforcing racial stereotypes with white actors in blackface, buffoonery, and the myth of the “contented slave.”

Though the bloodiest war in American history had ended, a new battle emerged over who would control the historical narrative. In 1902, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Kentucky began a campaign to ban theatrical performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, claiming that it “present[ed] a picture of slavery in the South that is essentially false because it present[ed] what was rare and exceptional as normal and typical.” According to Civil War scholar Anne Marshall, to shape public memories, the UDC argued that relations between slaveholders and the enslaved were “kindly and mutually beneficial.”

Their petition received national attention, and in 1906, the UDC gained the support of Kentucky Representative Billy Klair, who proposed a bill making it “unlawful to present plays in the Commonwealth that are based on antagonism alleged formally to exist between master and slave, or that excites race prejudice.” The bill passed in the state Senate and the House (71-13), with offenders facing one to three months in jail and fines of $100 to $300. When African American citizens attempted to use same the law to prevent the white supremacist films The Birth of a Nation and The Clansman from being shown in theaters because they “excited race prejudice,” the courts ruled that the law was inapplicable to the new medium of moving pictures.

Against this backdrop, the caricatured images of African Americans in the lithographs on the panels can be viewed as reflecting prevailing notions of a racial hierarchy and culture wars at the time around who gets to decide how history is interpreted. The UDC’s claims that the play was injurious to the community, especially children; presented a false portrait of life under slavery; and fostered racial resentment and prejudice are reminiscent of contemporary debates over the teaching of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer-prize-winning publication from the New York Times, the 1619 Project places slavery and the contributions of African Americans at the center of U.S. history. Alongside other curricula focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the project has prompted legislation introduced in 26 states that would limit how issues of race and racism are taught in the classroom. Eleven states have already passed laws some see as whitewashing American history by banning the discussion, training, or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression.

As an institution dedicated to celebrating the life and legacy of African American Alexander Twilight, the first Black college graduate and legislator in the U.S., the Old Stone House Museum’s mission is grounded in the conviction that our community must educate itself about historic injustice, systemic racism, and pervasive inequities. Museum artifacts like the mural on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, donated by Dena Gray, who bought and renovated the East Side Restaurant in 1986, offer opportunities to consider local Vermont history in relation to ongoing controversies both around how the story of our nation is crafted and how to create shared memories, especially in the absence of agreed-upon facts. Indeed, learning from the past can help us grapple with the complex issues of the day, inform future generations, and strengthen community ties.

Spencer Kuchle, Ph.D. is Associate Director for Collections and Interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.