Remembering Jim Crow at the Local Level: Black History Month

It’s been a while since I’ve done any serious blogging. Much of this is due to the fact that I needed a mental break after finishing my thesis. The biggest reason however, is because I’m in the midst of wrestling season and I just lack the energy at the end of the day to do any serious writing. Well, with wrestling coming to a close, a new blog layout, and some interesting topics to write about; I think it’s time for a new post.

A few stories recently crossed my news feed that are rather fortuitous. They coincidentally align with this year’s Black History Month and my lesson plans in U.S. History which cover the Jim Crow Era. Needless to say, I was rather excited to share something local and well, famous, with my classes. Despite the fact that each story is unique, interesting, and memorable, they are all sad reminders of a time of subjugation. With that, I give you the “Gold Dust Twins.” 

In 2008, a tornado ravaged part of downtown Atlanta, Georgia and uncovered a commercial past that many are unaware ever existed. Pasted on the side of a four story building on Auburn Avenue is a billboard from the early 1900s featuring the “Gold Dust Twins” (pictured left). Although the caricatures of ‘Goldie’ and ‘Dustie’ appeared as early as 1890, the cartoon figures depicted on the Atlanta billboard emerged around 1900. In 1903, the twins were a part of a national marketing campaign which boosted sales primarily in the mid-west U.S. Eventually Goldie and Dustie crossed national boundaries and boosted international sales in Canada and Great Britain. The twins grew in popularity throughout the early 1900s and even received their own radio show in 1929. Changing sensibilities about the mascots on the national level, as well as market competition from products such as “Tide,” eventually led to the quick demise of Gold Dust Washing Powder and with it, Goldie and Dustie. The twins re-emerged recently on Spike Lee’s mockumentary CSA: Confederate States of America, in a fake commercial which attempted to satirize/recreate Jim Crow Era advertisements for the modern era.

(Fast forward to 3:50 for the Gold Dust Twins)

I spent about ten minutes or so at the beginning of class showing them the news report and having a general discussion about the billboard. This led to a conversation which centered on the appropriateness/inappropriateness of using race as a mascot for advertisement. A few students drew the obvious parallel between Jim Crow Era advertisements and the Washington Redskins NFL franchise. Some students drew parallels between the advertisement and the movie The Help. A few of them pointed out that the Gold Dust Twins are depicted as cleaning; the implication that the black race was in a subservient role centered around service to white masters. Obviously these were excellent answers based on the students’ interpretation of the source material. To wrap up the conversation before jumping back into the ‘Roaring 20s,’ I asked my students whether or not the billboard should be preserved; most said yes.

What types of questions might you pose when asking students to explore such a topic? As always, the comments section is open.

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