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Memphis SCV Books, Then Backs Away From, Blackface Minstrels Show

After receiving criticism for booking "Snowflake's Minstrels" for a celebration, a spokesman says the SCV 'does not condone black-faced minstrel shows.'

When the Forrest Historical Society and the local Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) teamed up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of a Memphis statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest last July, they booked a band they advertised as "Snowflake's Minstrels" as part of the festivities.

That might have been enough to raise some eyebrows, given the historical connection of minstrel shows to racist stereotypes of blacks — not to mention the fact that Forrest, in addition to his storied career as a cavalry general, was a slave trader who became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War.

But the ads for Snowflake's Minstrels appeared innocuous, and the matter likely would never have been publicly noticed — if not for a July 8 message sent to hundreds of SCV members on the Southern Herald e-list. The note, from one "Tom Williams," let readers in on a little secret "NOT being publicized anywhere" except in a few selected venues like the Southern Herald — that the "wildly entertaining Snowflake's Minstrels" would be giving a "grand blackface performance."

"You'll be rolling in the aisles," Williams promised.

Later that day, an E-mail reply that apparently came from white supremacist attorney Kirk Lyons scolded Williams for leaking this potentially embarrassing fact to the Southern Herald list. Lyons, an SCV member closely connected to the recent takeover of the SCV by racial extremists, later denied sending the E-mail. But it was signed "Kirk" and came from an address Lyons is known to use.

"By putting this here, you have broadcast this to the world," it said. "Some snitch will pass it on. ... I love the minstrel legacy as much as anyone (I was part of a historical minstrel show at Vicksburg National Military Park back in the '80s), but you could likely get burned, esp [sic] in Memphis. Is this really a good idea?"

Wendi Thomas, a columnist at Memphis' Commercial Appeal, didn't think so. Provided with the E-mails by the Intelligence Report, she wrote a scathing column about the plans for a blackface event. Because his name was listed as a contact in the ads for Snowflake's Minstrels, Thomas called Lee Millar, lieutenant commander of the Tennessee SCV and also a member of the Forrest Historical Society. Millar is the computer network manager for the Shelby County Sheriff's Department.

Millar told Thomas that although he was listed in ads for the event as the band contact, he was not a member. He said he had no idea who had booked Snowflake's Minstrels. And he said that in any event the band had called him to cancel.

The funny thing is that Millar is a musician who plays guitar and sings for the 52nd Regimental String Band, which specializes in Civil War era music. That band, which also includes Greg Todd, a regional SCV leader in Tennessee, regularly plays SCV events. Most remarkably, the band has recorded The Minstrel Skit (MP3 1.4M), featuring the well-known black minstrel caricatures "Mr. Bones" and "Mr. Tambo."

But, in an interview with the Intelligence Report, Millar was insistent: The 52nd Regimental String Band was not Snowflake's Minstrels. He declined to say how or where Snowflake's Minstrels could be contacted. Separately, Todd acknowledged that he had performed in blackface as part of the 52nd Regimental String Band, but added that he did not see that as racist — he had only tried to please his customers, he said. Todd declined to say if Snowflake's Minstrels was his own band.

Denne Sweeney, the SCV's national commander in chief and a close ally of Lyons and other extremists, said that the SCV "does not condone black-faced minstrel shows" and that the 52nd Regimental String Band had been, in any case, the SCV's "second choice" to play its July national convention. He said in an E-mail that he was launching an investigation into whether or not the string band had, in fact, performed in blackface. If so, he said the SCV would no longer hire it.