On July 24th, 1807, Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in New York City, New York to parents Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge. Reverend Daniel Aldridge preached at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and also worked as a vendor on the streets of New York. There isn’t much information about Luranah Aldridge, but we do know she and her husband raised their family during New York’s Jim Crow Era. At the age of thirteen, Aldridge began his studies at the African Free School, a school founded for the children of slaves and free blacks. While attending the African Free School, Aldridge studied grammar, writing, mathematics, geography, astronomy, and theater. He developed a love for theater and would satisfy his desire to attend plays by watching as many plays as he could from the balcony of New York’s Park Theater. Hewould also be able to attend plays at the African Grove Theater. Aldridge’s experience as a student attending the African Free School afforded him the opportunity to receive a quality education, be exposed to the arts, and become classmates with men such as Charles L. Reason, George T. Downing, and Henry H. Garnet. In 1821, the African Grove Theater created a group called the African Company which included Ira Aldridge, this was his first professional acting experience. William Henry Brown and James Hewlet were the co-founders of the African Grove Theater, they gave Aldridge and many other black actors a platform to showcase their talents.
As an actor at the African Grove Theater, Aldridge earned roles in a number of plays sharpening his skills for a future even he was unaware of. The African Grove Theater was under attack by the white citizens of New York, white gangs, the police, and their main opponent was a newspaper editor and sheriff named Mordecai Manuel Noah. They harassed the actors and the owners of the theater constantly, the actors engaged in street fights to defend themselves and the theater. Despite the harassment, Aldridge was able to debut in the play Pizarro, written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He also earned other lead roles and his star was starting to shine. The African Grove Theater didn’t exist long because of the constant harassment they experienced, the harassment and fights also led to Aldridge traveling to Europe to continue his acting career. In 1824, Aldridge arrived in Liverpool, England, traveling along with him were actors known as the Wallack brothers. Aldridge made his professional acting debut in England in May of 1825 at the age of seventeen playing Othello. His next debut was at the Royal Coburg Theater in London. This debut was seen to be the debut that helped Aldridge become a popular actor in London. He then earned the lead role in the play The Revolt of Surinam, where he played the lead role of Oroonoko.
One of Aldridge’s challenges was breaking the idea of what “African Theater” was. A so-called white comedian named Charles Matthews introduced white audiences to “African Theater” by exposing them to a Menstrual performance. The performances caused the white audiences to believe what they saw was authentic theater performed by African people. Aldridge was such a skilled actor that even though the white audiences attended the play expecting a menstrual show, they left with respect for Ira Aldridge, his acting skills, and black actors. His performances of Othello would leave audiences entranced by how moving and authentic his performance was. At the end of his performances, Aldridge would speak to the audience about a number of social and cultural issues that negatively affected African Americans and African people globally. As an abolitionist, Aldridge used his platform to bring attention to the plight of his people and his messages were well received. He began touring Europe in 1828, making his first stop in the city of Coventry where his acting skills were praised so much that he was made manager of the Coventry Theater, and became the first manager of the theater to be a black person from America. Aldridge used his platform at the Coventry to speak out against slavery, his speeches were so electrifying and poignant, that the people in London who supported him petitioned the British Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Kingdom. Around 1831, Aldridge traveled to Dublin, Ireland, Bath, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, leaving behind captivated audiences who sang his praise. The use of different monikers would help Aldridge raise his profile as an actor, the popularity helped him land roles in plays in the city of Exmouth, England, before traveling to Brussels, Belgium. He then began touring throughout Europe where his performances were praised, he even presented to the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and performing for King William IV of Prussia. His successful performances led to him being asked to perform in Budapest, Serbia, and Russia. In 1824, Aldridge met and married a woman named Margaret Gill who he was married to for forty years. Aldridge produced a son from a relationship outside of his marriage which led to him being sued by the actor William Stothard.
1864 was the year of Margaret Gill’s death. In 1865, Aldridge married a woman named Amanda von Brandt, the couple produced four children and lived between Russia and Europe; Aldridge was known for traveling to England often. In 1867, Ira Aldridge died while visiting Poland, after recently completing a seventy-city tour of France. The Polish sculptor Marian Konieczny created a plaque to mark the place of Aldridge’s death. Because of his amazing skill and his social activism, Aldridge received several honors and awards, such as the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences, the Golden Cross of Leopold, the Maltese Cross, a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, etc. The Howard University Department of Theater Arts is named after Aldridge. He was named one of the 100 greatest African Americans by Molefi Kete Asante. Several acting troupes popped up over the U.S. that included Aldridge’s name within their titles, the most popular were in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Connecticut. Ira Aldridge was a force to be reckoned with. He not only displayed to the world his phenomenal acting abilities, but he directly challenged negative stereotypes of African people, changed the way some Europeans viewed African people, pubicaly opposed slavery, and set the standard for actors who would play the character of Othello. Mr. Ira Aldridge, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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On February 25th, 1894, William Leo Hansberry was born in Gloster, Mississippi, to parents Elden Hayes and Pauline Hansberry. His father Elden Hayes was a noted history professor at Alcorn A&M College, Mr. Hayes died when William was three years old leaving behind two sons and their mother. William Hansberry was the older brother of the famed civil rights activist and real estate broker Carl Augustus Hansberry, who is the father of author Loraine Hansberry. After the death of his father, William Hansberry acquired his father’s library of history books, which he studied daily, and started him on a path that would inspire generations of African people to learn their past. In 1915, Hansberry began his freshman year at Atlanta University equipped with the knowledge he gained from reading his father’s books about ancient Rome and Greece but was exposed to information about ancient civilizations on the continent of Africa, which piqued his interest and he had to learn more. His interest was further piqued after reading “The Negro” by W.E.B. Dubois, the book exposed Hansberry to other black historical authors and books on the history of Africa. Using the references included within “The Negro” he searched for the books listed but was disappointed when he learned Atlanta University didn’t have the resources to properly study ancient African civilizations. Inspired by “The Negro” he decided to transfer to Harvard University in 1917 to further his studies of Ancient Africa.
Unfortunately, Atlanta University couldn’t meet his needs, but he was able to transfer to Harvard to take advantage of their resources, which he would use to empower African people. Hansberry graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1921, then moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to become a history professor at Straight College, before accepting a position at Howard University to become a history professor. It was at Howard University that Hansberry created his African societies curriculum, along with creating the African Civilizations Section of the Howard history department. Hansberry was holding true to his mission of gaining as much information about African civilizations so his people could be able to learn about their own history. Hansberry’s impact was beginning to be felt throughout America’s African American community. The African societies curriculum he created was no longer only being taught at Howard, other African American colleges were using his curriculum to educate their students about their history. Hansberry was able to travel to many colleges and universities giving lectures with pictures of Ancient African civilizations, inspiring faculty, and staff, which led to the institutions using his curriculum.
1925, began the decline of the relationship between Professor William Leo Hansberry and Howard University. That year, a symposium on “The Cultures and Civilizations of Negro Peoples in Africa” was sponsored by Howard, Hansberry, and his students presented 28 remarkable papers on evidence they gathered to prove the validity of the existence of ancient African civilizations. They were so impressive that they even provided actual archeological evidence of the existence of these civilizations. Hansberry and his students presented breakthrough evidence and information, but the administration at Howard University directly challenged the validity of Hansberry and his student’s findings. They were even challenged by the president of the university. The Howard administration was not happy with the information Hansberry and his team presented, they challenged the information on every level, the information was found to be credible, but Hansberry was still demoted and unable to gain his tenure. It’s amazing that a black man, at a black institution of higher learning, was punished for teaching black students about black history. Hansberry would go on to earn his master’s degree from Harvard University in 1932. Along the way to earning his master’s, he was able to study at Oxford University and the Chicago Oriental Institute; his reputation for being an expert on the history of African civilizations was spreading rapidly. Hansberry was traveling the globe lecturing about African civilizations and his reputation was growing so much that Howard promoted him to an associate professor position which gave him tenure.
At this time, Hansberry was one of, if not, the world’s authority on ancient African civilizations, he was so knowledgeable that he was unable to earn a Ph.D. because no one at the university he attended had enough information to approve his dissertation. Hansberry was not only a world-recognized authority on the history of ancient African civilizations, but he was a mentor to many students who would become prominent figures throughout the world, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe are his two most notable students. Nkrumah would become the first prime minister and president of Ghana, and Azikiwe would become the first president of Nigeria. Nkrumah, Azikiwe, and admirers all around understood the importance of Hansberry’s work and sought to help him in many ways publish and distribute his information. Hansberry was honored in 1963 as an academic center was named after him. He received the first Haile Selassie Prize, for his continuous work in revealing Ethiopian history, but his work was still being challenged by the administration at Howard University. A faculty or administration member accused Hansberry of teaching African history with no proof to validate his information, once again Hansberry had to defend his work, delaying his tenure, which he didn’t gain until 1938. 1959, was the year Hansberry retired from Howard University, leaving behind a strained relationship with the institution, but also blazing a historical path many historians behind him were able to travel. Hansberry died in 1965. Before his death, he prepared manuscripts for books but did not publish them. “Pillars in Ethiopian History” was published in 1974, and “Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers” were published in 1977. Professor William Leo Hansberry, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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