Ira Aldridge

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  • Topic: African Free School, Ira Aldridge
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  • Published : February 19, 2000
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Ira Frederick Aldridge was born on July 24, 1807 in New York. However, his birthplace remained questionable until 40 or so years ago. It has also been listed as Senegal(Africa), and Maryland. However conclusive evidence was found in the 1950s that he was born in New York. Included in this evidence are his British Naturalization papers and Death Certificate. His father was Reverend Daniel Adlridge , a straw vendor and preacher in "Old Zion". His mother was Lurranah. Ira grew up in a house on what is now West Broadway in New York City. He attended the African Free School No.2, which provided free education for Black children. The African Free School was established in 1787 on Cliff Street with one classroom for 40 children. After it was burnt down in 1814, it was relocated to No. 245 William Street. In 1820, A second African Free School was built in 1820 on Mulberry Street. This was known as the Arfrican Free School No. 2. It was here that Ira attended school. However, it is believed that he also attended No. 1 in his earlier childhood years. The African Free Schools are credited with contributing to the Abolitionist movement. They inspired them to fight for equal rights and use themselves as living examples that Blacks and Whites have the same potentials.

Ira spent much of his childhood at neighborhood theaters where he watched Black people perform many roles varying from skits to Shakespearean roles, such as Richard III. He mainly attended two theaters. The first one was the Park Theater that opened in 1798.Two frequent actors were Brits by the names of James and Henry Wallack. In this theater he didn't get such great seats since it was segregated, so he preferred the African Theater, owned by a gentleman by the name of Mr. Brown. One of the actors who frequently performed there was James Hewlett. He was very talented and had a profound impact on young Ira. When he entered his teens he performed a skit called "Opossum up a gum tree" locally. People were impressed, and he was dubbed the "African Roscius." Ira became friendly with the Wallacks and was their personal attendant.

In that time, when Blacks were starting to be accepted in American culture, a religious profession was something to aspire to. Therefore, Daniel constantly urged Ira to follow in his footsteps. He took him out of the theater so he could sit next to him in his church. Daniel desperately wanted to send Ira to theological school. He was sent to Schenactedy College, near New York to study theology. However, the college thought he was not suited for theological studies. Ira never explicitly disobeyed his father, but even Daniel eventually began to realize that Ira had already decided on his career, the theater.

In 1825 , when Ira was only 18 years old, he went to England with the Wallacks. He then attended Glasgow College, where many Blacks from the US went to attend college when they were not accepted in the US. He studied Latin Composition there under the tutelage of Professor Sanford. He remained there for 18 months until he moved on to actual acting. During the time he was in college he performed A Slave's Revenge as Oroonoko, a slave sold into slavery several times in the Coburg Theater. His debut was on October Aldridge as Othello in England 10, 1825. To make his name more appealing, he added the last name Keene, but he later dropped it. In 1806, he made history by playing Othello in the Shakespearean play of Othello in Coburg Theater of London. Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to play the role of the black Moorish general named Othello. His performance was an astounding success. Othello became his trademark .He was then dubbed yet again with another name, the Negro Tragedian.

However, a reporter of The Times did not think much of Ira Aldridge, and predicted a short career but he was devastatingly wrong. He was also booked in Brighton Theater for 1825. Aldridge repeated the same routine for quite q while. Othello and Oroonoko...
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