Mummers leadership meet with City Council members over use of blackface

Brendan Ireland, a member of Philadelphians for Mummery tossed confetti as he marched the parade route.

Brendan Ireland, a member of Philadelphians for Mummery, tossed confetti as he marched the parade route. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

Mummers leadership appears on board with supporting a proposal floated in City Council that would ban members who take to the streets wearing blackface in the annual parade.

“If it takes that, we’re for it. We’re not against sanctions,” said Mummers Comic Division President Richard Porco on Tuesday.

Porco’s comments came a day after he and Mummers leadership met with Councilmembers Cindy Bass and Mark Squilla, among others, inside City Hall over the ongoing fallout from two men who wore blackface in the parade on New Year’s Day.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The meeting was the first since Bass introduced legislation last week that would outlaw the use of blackface in the parade and impose a fine on violators and ban them from marching in public parades for five years.

While a court order has banned the use of blackface in the parade since 1964, it carries no penalty.

Bass said the hour-long meeting on Monday touched on the most recent blackface controversy and how Mummers intend to prevent instances of blackface in the future.

“We feel that the effectiveness will really come from the Mummers organization itself and the leadership,” she said.

A significant problem that contributes to a lack of oversight during the parade is a policy known as one-day Mummer, Bass said, which allows individuals to purchase a pass to march in the folk festival that same day.

The two men who wore blackface this month bought their way into the parade using that policy.

Bass called for ending that policy.

“They’re really not a part of the organization or the club other than marching down Broad Street on New Year’s Day,” said the councilwoman, adding: “[Mummers] really need to close the ranks.”

All six Mummers divisions condemned the use of blackface in the recent parade, Porco said, adding that he believed any blackface ban has to have “some bite behind it.”

“We all agree something has to be done,” he said.

Stomping out the use of blackface would be difficult because thousands of people participate in the parade, Porco said. He said the use of blackface by two people this year was not reflective of the Mummers groups, which annually raise money for charities and draw business to the city.

“What’s to stop anybody from jumping in the parade?” he asked. “You can’t be everywhere every minute.”

But Porco contended Mummers groups would overcome the blackface issue just like they weathered a club’s transphobic performance in 2016. Mummers continue to receive sensitivity training from the city over that performance.

The ban on the use of blackface during parades appears on track to pass in City Council. The legislation, which Bass introduced alongside Councilman Mark Squilla, garnered eight co-sponsors, including Council President Darrell Clarke.

Bass was confident the ban would not infringe on someone’s First Amendment right to free speech because blackface involves ethnic intimidation.

The ban in City Council comes as Mayor Jim Kenney threatened to cancel the parade unless Mummers ended the use of blackface in the parade, among other issues. Porco said he and the groups have yet to meet with the mayor.

Bass said her office was not coordinating efforts with the mayor.

“I don’t think there has been any briefing from the [Kenney] administration,” Bass said. “It would have been great to have worked together on this.”

Looking forward, Bass said she would soon introduce legislation to penalize Mummers clubs whose members continue to wear blackface.

She anticipated meeting again with Mummers leadership, although time has yet to be scheduled.

Porco said Mummers groups would “work together with the city to improve our image.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal