tv African American Actor Ira Aldridge CSPAN April 4, 2015 9:45pm-10:01pm EDT
gallery in washington d.c. with curator jim barber who gives us an in-depth look at one of the oil paintings of ira aldridge an early 19th-century african american actor. he was born free in new york in 1807 and became famous in after being unable to find work in america. this program is part of a series called "face to face" about important players in the struggle for justice in american history. jim barber: hello and welcome. i am ian cooke of the national portrait gallery. it is an article of faith that every picture tells a story. this series exists to connect some of the thousands of stories we have on hand and make one step from stories to history. our presenter today is jim barber, and historian at the particularly -- portrait gallery. jim has lectured extensively on the civil war. gas finished a new exhibition on
babe ruth and given talks on everyone from thelonious monk to over elvis -- [indiscernible] please welcome jim barber. jim barber: welcome to the national portrait gallery. ira aldridge, we will talk about a little bit right now. very appropriate for february is black history month. why ira aldridge? with this "face to face series," series, we connect three different people throughout three consecutive months. we began last month with pocahontas. this month is ira aldridge. the connection is the thread, back in 2007, the state of virginia commemorated two huge
anniversaries. one, the older one being the 400 anniversary of the founding of jamestown. the second anniversary was the 200 anniversary of the birth of robert e. lee. one of the hardest things to do for anyone is to get a sense of time. think back to hundred years -- 200 years if you can to robert e. lee's era. and then another 200 years back to jamestown. that is hard to do. if someone just says 400 years ago, we cannot really envision that. so the thread is jamestown. that is where it starts. in 1519, 12 years later, the
first african americans arrive at jamestown. they are not slaves yet. they are for the most part in gentry servants -- indentured servants. slavery will begin a little bit later. a lot of people wonder why did it take so long for slavery to end. well, slavery was in existence from us 200 years when robert e. lee is born in 1807. which is rather remarkable. and slavery will end in about four short -- well, long years at the end of the civil war. let's talk about ira aldridge. ira was not a slave. he was a free black. he was born in downtown manhattan, new york city in 1807.
along with ira aldridge, robert e. lee is going to shatter aldrich -- shadow aldridge. ira aldridge, free black. not many opportunities for free blacks. were of the biggest challenges was to stay out of the hands of kidnappers to be taken back into slavery. ira would go to the free black school in downtown manhattan. that is where he becomes introduced to the performing arts and theater. in a nutshell, ira is known for most as the great black african american shakespearean actor of his age. he was one of the most visible black people of his era.
not so much in this country, but mainly in europe and england which we will get to any minute. in any event, he goes to school in new york city. in his early teens he will start his acting at the african growth theater -- growth theater, which was the first african american theater in the united states. what amazes me is how this show man in his early teens 13 or 14, knew what he wanted to do in life to the point where he realized at about age teen that he was not going to make it as an actor -- at age 15 that he was not going to make it as a black actor in the united states. he takes himself off to england. talk about initiative. he is still midteens.
this is 1824. he will leave new york city bound for london. in 1824, robert e. lee has just won acceptance to west point. in 1825, lee will gain admittance. he has to wait a year, but he will gain admittance to west point. in 1825, aldridge has been in england for a year and will star in his first role as a fellow -- othello, one of shakespeare's plays. that is the character we see him dressed as in this portrait. this is by an english artist. it came the gallery in 1972 through an english estate.
what do people think about this? an african american in that role? the reviews were mixed. african american theater was often criticized and mocked in the united states and in england. but ira saw that the chances for his success were greater outside of america, better in england and europe than they would have been had he stayed. although england had a caste system, there was not the racism people experienced in this country. ira does fairly well. he continues to act throughout a series of shakespeare's plays. he does richard the ii, mcbeth and whatnot.
he will then to her england. life in england also presents opportunities. he will marry in 1825. he takes a white woman for his wife. that would have been impossible in the united states. he will have six children. only four of those will turn out to be a legitimate. but that still did not bother -- he was not bothered by that. but did not set his career back any in his day. he decides he really wants to tour europe. that is when he makes his money and also establishes his name. he will tour with the european theater group through germany. he's well received. switzerland, he is well received, austria, poland, and especially his zenith will be in
russia. again, doing these different shakespearean plays. it is in poland where he is thinking about an 1857, he is thinking about returning. he is lining up 100 performances back in the states. on the eve of his departure he falls sick and dies and is buried now in poland. that is where his tombstone is. that is 1867. 1857, robert e lee has surrendered the army of northern virginia in appomattox in 1865.
that commemoration will be this coming april, and he is now the new president of washington university which will become washington and lee. lee will live until 1870 where he dies of heart trouble. lee is buried in the lee chapel on the campus of washington and lee university. where does this go after next month? the connection is pocahontas jamestown, pocahontas, robert e. lee, ira aldridge, both born in 1807. both men knew again exactly what they wanted to do. lee, being a soldier. all bridge -- aldridge, being an actor. next month we will follow the african american heritage more
and look at senator everett dirksen of illinois. he made the cover of "time" magazine a number of times. the portrait gallery has the collection of original cover art. we have a cover of everett dirksen on display. senator dirksen basically was the catalyst of moving the historic civil rights legislation through the senate and congress in january, just this time, generally-february the winter of 1964. that legislation would eventually be signed by president johnson on july 2 1964. that is the historic civil rights act of 1964. it took another 100 years from the end of the civil war to
really begin to see some of the social equity and civil rights for blacks that whites had enjoyed since the beginning. so ira aldridge would have, 100 years later, would have found a little more inviting america than what he was used to. but it took that long, and even longer. there was the civil rights act in 1955. ira aldridge represents a free black, which is somewhat unusual, and one that knew his mind and pursued his goals and dreams and prospered. on the european tours they were very lucrative for him.
he ended up building a very nice house in london. he lived there quite comfortably. ira aldridge. any questions? >> when you were talking about aldridge being in england and russia, i was thinking of all robeson -- paul robison. was he aware of adridge an inspired by him? jim baker: i can't answer that, but he could have been aware of him. any number of african americans were aware of ira aldridge. americans don't remember ira aldridge, but europeans more or less to. he met richard wagner, the great german composer, and whatnot.
he is one of these characters like george c. marshall. if you ask high school students in america who was george c. marshall, the men that winston churchill said won world war ii, if you ask american high school students, they may not know george c marshall, but if you asked german students, they know he was the man behind the great marshall plan after world war ii. there are certain americans almost better known in europe than they are in this country. i think ira aldridge is certainly one of them.
ian cooke: thank you all for coming. next month jim barber with everett dirksen. [applause] >> you're watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span 3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook, @cspanhistory. >> american history tv recently visited longwood university in virginia. the program was cohosted by the university at appomattox courthouse national historical park. next, a talk