Kake Walk at UVM
The Kake Walk at UVM collection documents a former University of Vermont event that is for some a hallowed tradition and for others overt racism. The terminated competition, which was the highlight of the campus social calendar for over eighty...
The Kake Walk at UVM collection documents a former University of Vermont event that is for some a hallowed tradition and for others overt racism. The terminated competition, which was the highlight of the campus social calendar for over eighty years, featured fraternity brothers in blackface and kinky wigs dancing to the tune of "Cotton Babes."
HISTORY UVM's Kake Walk dates to the early 1890s when it resembled the popular American minstrel show. A dance known as the cakewalk, by then a standard act in minstrel theatre, originated on plantations as a competition among slaves. The pair that most entertained their white owners would be awarded cake. The cakewalk later evolved into a refined social dance whose accompanying music was a predecessor to ragtime. UVM's Kake Walk departed from these styles, however, to become its own unique tradition.
Early Kake Walks featured a pair of men in costume (one in drag) wearing blackface. In addition to the "a walkin' fo' de kake" competition, the event included grotesque stunts and a peerade; skits were soon added. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Winter Carnival weekend grew to include the election of a King and Queen and a snow sculpture competition. After World War II, male walkers wore suits in the colors of their fraternity known as "silks." The judging was codified as the high-stepping dances became more and more stylized. By the 1960s, the three-day festival also included a ball, a jazz concert, and winter sporting events. Local merchants benefitted from the influx of returning alumni and visiting guests, and the organizing committee made significant profits. Kake Walk was governed by fraternity brothers known as Directors, as well as a female student appointed Secretary.
Professors James Loewen and Larry McCrorey date dissent concerning Kake Walk to as early as 1954 when Phi Sigma Delta first refused to wear blackface. Various statements opposing Kake Walk were printed in the Cynic, published in local papers, and delivered at public events; two students picketed the last performance. In 1963, the Interfraternity Council (IFC) voted to eliminate blackface in favor of light green makeup but to continue using dialect. In 1964, due to audience complaints, the makeup was changed again to a darker green which, in black and white photographs, is impossible to distinguish from blackface. In 1969, due to successive decisions by a student-faculty committee, the Student Association, and the IFC, Kake Walk was officially eliminated from the Winter Carnival weekend.
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF COLLECTION This digital collection contains a selection of records from the University Archives such as event invitations, recruitment flyers, documentation of ticket requests, press releases, financial records, committee minutes, and director's reports. There are several representative examples of correspondence from alumni and community members responding to the discontinuation of Kake Walk. Some notable records include the 1964 document "A New Face," which announces the switch to dark green makeup after one year of light green; the results of the 1969 student opinion poll on the future of Kake Walk; the October 31, 1969 announcement eliminating Kake Walk from the Winter Carnival weekend; and a 1977 letter describing the Greek and Panhellenic vote to oppose any Kake Walk revivals.
Fourteen student newspapers from the University of Vermont are included in this collection. Every year, The Vermont Cynic produced a Kake Walk special edition. A sampling of papers from 1923 - 1977 were selected for this digital collection, as well as an article from 2004. The Cynics include some advertisements and articles unrelated to Kake Walk, but the majority of the papers' contents document Winter Carnival planning, activities, and participants. Some of the later newspapers, such as the 1954 Cynic, include debates around Kake Walk and voices of dissent.
Twenty-one Kake Walk programs ranging from 1898 to 1970 document the increasingly well-designed and expensively-produced publications. The programs contain information about winter carnival events, judges, committee members, participants, scorecards, royalty candidates, and awards. The programs include advertisements from local businesses, photographs of activities and participants, and various accounts of the history of Kake Walk. Blackface first appeared on a program cover in 1938 and was depicted on subsequent publications, with varying degrees of realism, until the last performance in 1969. Researchers will notice two parody programs: a 1922 publication imitating a Communist "rag" and a 1924 program entitled The Bohemian Meow. The program for the 1970 film festival which replaced Kake Walk is also included.
More than one hundred photographs taken during the last decade of the University of Vermont's Winter Carnival are available in this collection. The photos were most likely taken by staff and student enthusiasts to document and publicize the committee's production work, Winter Carnival events, and Kake Walk performances. In some cases, professional photographers may have been hired.
This collection also includes many non-traditional archival formats. Starting around 1912, all Kake Walkers choreographed their high-stepping dances to the syncopated tune of "Cotton Babes." A 10 inch 78 rpm record of this signature musical piece has been digitized and made available online. Originally composed by Percy Weinrich, this version of the song was arranged by UVM Band Director Joseph Lechnyr. A bronze Kake Walk trophy and fraternity drinking souvenirs such as a metal cup and a ceramic jug represent the many artifacts associated with this event.
In 2004, the Bailey/Howe Library held an exhibit entitled "UVM's Past: The Legacy of Kake Walk." This collection makes available exhibit materials archived at UVM, including newspaper articles which may have been on display, draft exhibit labels, and a notebook containing visitor comments.
PROCESSING INFORMATION Undergraduate and continuing education students enrolled in the summer 2010 ALANA US Ethnic Studies course "Curating Kake Walk: Race, Memory, and Representation" contributed to this collection overview and provided subject headings describing many of the collection's digital objects. They also developed several criteria in order to select the collection image thumbnail. In a statement reflective of class discussions and opinions, one group wrote that the Kake Walk at UVM materials "should be seen not as encouraging racism, but as an opportunity to learn from insensitivities from the past that can help us build a more unified future.
SUGGESTED READINGS For more information, see "The Black Image in White Vermont: The Origin, Meaning, and Abolition of Kake Walk" by former UVM Professor James Loewen. This chapter is included in this collection and was originally published as part of a book commemorating the University of Vermont's bicentennial. At the time this collection launched, it was the only known scholarly work on Kake Walk. Another secondary source which discusses Kake Walk, a 2004 speech on racism in Vermont by Professor Larry McCrorey, is also included here. See also a document in this collection entitled "Kake Walk Data" which compiles minutes and published information on committees, judges, programs, receipts, rules, and walkers.