Ram: Bill Pickens And Kake Walk

Feb 18, 2019

Known as Kake Walk, one of the highlights of the campus social calendar, it’s been described as “a standard act in minstrel theatre, originated on plantations as a competition among slaves” and UVM now has a digital collection of 231 items documenting it that date from 1895 onward.

Documentation also records at least some reluctance to wear blackface beginning in 1954. The sixties saw a switch to light green makeup but continued the use of dialect. And after complaints about the lighter complexion, the makeup went back to a dark green that’s described as “impossible to distinguish” from blackface.

One attempted act of dissent never made it into the records, however. The first person of color to serve as Student Government Association President at UVM was a man named Bill Pickens, who served from 1957 to 1958 and made it one of his initiatives to end Kake Walk. We met recently at the 75th anniversary of the Student Government, where I spoke as only the third person of color to be SGA President. He’s a very congenial man, and spoke only fondly of his UVM experience and the importance of service.

Mr. Pickens’ grandfather was a founder of the NAACP and his family was very well-connected to African American leaders around the country - including baseball legend Jackie Robinson, whose 100th birthday we observe this year. Robinson agreed to speak out against Kake Walk that winter, but a snowstorm grounded his plane in LaGuardia – and it took another decade for campus sentiment to finally turn against Kake Walk.

This Black History Month, I’ll honor Mr. Picken’s failed effort, lifetime of service, and belief that we should celebrate black history 365 days a year. And since there are quite a few Vermonters who continue to speak fondly of Kake Walk – I’ve heard some of them myself - I’ll also keep in mind that past informs present.

Instead of celebrating people who wore blackface, which likely still includes some prominent Vermonters, we should be acknowledging Bill Pickens - who tried to end it – as well as those who finally did.