Thomas Dilward: The mysterious African-American Dwarf

Thomas Dilward: The mysterious African-American Dwarf
Thomas Dilward

Thomas Dilward (1840–1902), also known by the stage name Japanese Tommy, was an African-American dwarf who performed in the blackface minstrel show. He was also sometimes billed as “The African ‘Tom Thumb'” and the “African Dwarf Tommy”.

Thomas Dilwared is one of only two known Blacks to have performed with white minstrel companies before the American Civil War (the other being William Henry Lane). Dilward’s size, between 23 and 36 inches in height, made him a “curious attraction” and allowed him to take to the stage with whites at a time when almost no black men did; in addition, his stage name may have been intended to hide his ethnic background. He was famous for his skills at singing, dancing, and playing the violin. He has also been credited in John Russell Bartlett’s 1877 Dictionary of Americanisms with having invented the word hunky-dory, meaning “everything is all right”.

Thomas Dilward was born in Brooklyn, New York. He first performed with George Christy in 1853, possibly as a response to General Tom Thumb, a dwarf appearing in productions staged by P. T. Barnum. Into the late 1860s, Dilward performed with Dan Bryant’s Minstrels, Wood’s Minstrels, the Morris Brothers’ Minstrels, and Kelly and Leon’s Minstrels. Beginning in the 1860s, he appeared with a number of black minstrel troupes.

Modern writers, such as Mel Watkins, cite Dilward as possibly being one of the first black entertainers to present some element of authentic black dance on the white American stage. He would also have had opportunity to present some degree of black comedy and song, but he probably did not stray far from the traditional, white-defined material.

Dilward was around three feet tall. He quickly developed talents to entertain people because this was the most promising plan to support himself. He could sing, dance, act, and play violin. Thomas Dilward went on to perform in blackface minstrelsy, which was considered a low form of entertainment, even in the mid-19th century. Most of these shows featured white people using “blackface” to imitate African-Americans and consisted of comic skits, dancing, and music, but for most of the time relied on humor was at the expense of African Americans. Frederick Douglas, who was a contemporary social reformer, said of these minstrel shows that they comprised “filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow citizens.”(Kuntz).

Thomas Dilward had a stage name of “Japanese Tommy”. The reasons for the name are unknown but it is rumored that it was created to conceal his identity as an African-American because audiences did not want to pay to see a black person perform. Dilward was one of the only two known African-Americans to have performed with white minstrel companies before the American Civil War (The other being Henry “Juba” Lane). (Watkins) These black minstrel troupes made appearances around the mid-1850s. These groups advertised themselves as genuine but mostly used burnt cork to cover their face and make it black. Once African-Americans started to appear on stage without “blackface”, audiences were surprised at the variety of skin colors that existed. (Knowles)

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According to the Dictionary of Americanisms (1877), he was credited with the invention of the word “hunky-dory”, meaning “everything is all right”. Even though Thomas Dilward faced extreme inequality and discrimination, he made the best of his situation and embraced his size and race in order to benefit himself financially. He was permitted to perform in these white minstrel shows because he was considered an “oddity” at three feet tall. However, “Japanese Tommy” was such an oddity that the demand to see him was very high. In the Lewiston Evening Journal of 1871 there is an advertisement for the Morris Brothers minstrel show, which features him and his “enormous salary” of $200 per week in gold. In many other newspapers during the mid-19th century that had advertisements for minstrel shows, “Japanese Tommy” usually headlined their advertisement. Advertisers went as far as referring to him as “The Wonderful Japanese Tommy”. (Ottawa Citizen & Halifax Morning Sun 1865) Dilward performed in a number of different minstrel shows including Dan Bryant’s Minstrels, Wood’s Minstrels, Morris Brothers’ Minstrels, and Kelly & Leon’s Minstrels. Also, some modern historians such as Mel Watkins cite Dilward as possibly being one of the first black entertainers to present some element of authentic black dance on the white American stage. The first of these minstrel shows started to debut in the mid 1800s. Most all of these shows consisted of white performers using “blackface”.

Once people realized the success these groups were having, minstrel groups began forming that consisted of entirely black performers. This became an outlet for African American performers to benefit financially. In general though, these shows exhibited high levels of racism and discrimination that were used as comedic material. These minstrel shows had overall probably a negative effect on civil rights and African Americans in general. The only beneficial factor of these shows for African Americans was probably the financial compensation for the black performers such as Thomas Dilward but besides those select few, these minstrel shows were very racist and counter-productive for society. Thomas Dilward was a pioneer in African American culture as well as the entertainment industry. He made the best of the cards that he was dealt. Although he was three feet tall and black, Thomas Dilward artistic value triumphed any physical feature that was used as comedy. The fact that advertisers used “Japanese Tommy” as their headliner and didn’t advertise his height or race proved that Dilward was a better singer, dancer, and musician than many of the white performers at the time. With a $200 a week in gold salary in 1871, “Japanese Tommy” established himself as a well-earning African American performer during the 19th century. Dilward died in 1902 in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York.