Ira Aldridge's Relatives in New York City

Article excerpt

Ira Aldridge was one of the world's greatest actors, and a good amount has been written about him, (2) but not much is known about his family in New York City. Using statements made by Aldridge himself on playbills, in a diary he kept on one of his Continental tours, and in his application for British citizenship, Marshall and Stock were able to establish that he was born in New York City on 24 July 1807. (3) James McCune Smith, who had attended African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street while Ira was a student there, stated that his schoolmate was born "in Chapel Street (now West Broadway)" in lower Manhattan, (4) and Longworth's Directory for 1812 (5) confirms that Aldridge's father Daniel was living at the rear of 93 Chapel Street five years later, so it is more than likely true that this was the place where Ira was born.

Other documents suggest that he may not have been christened as Ira. For instance, in 1825 he signed his marriage certificate as Fredrick [sic] William K. Aldridge, (6) and on some of his earliest playbills and promotional materials in England the initials F.W. preceded his surname. Ira may have been only a nickname that he assumed several years later as his first name, for it was not until 1833 that he began appearing on playbills as Ira Aldridge. Toward the end of his life, both on his application for British citizenship in 1863 and on his last will and testament in 1867, (7) he identified himself as Ira Frederick Aldridge. William and K. had by this time disappeared from all his official signatures.

An anonymous biographical pamphlet entitled Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius and published in 1848 or 1849 (8) claims that Ira's father Daniel had been born in Senegal as the son of a "reforming Prince" who was opposed to the slave trade. Other sources point to Maryland and specifically to Baltimore as his birthplace, (9) but his death certificate in 1840 records that he was born in New York in 1772. (10) There is additional evidence proving that Manhattan was his home--at least for most of his adult years. The 1800 Census of New York City lists a black Daniel Aldridge, and later local census records are a bit more ambiguous, showing several Daniel, D. or D.J. Aldridges but giving no indication of their race. However, annual volumes of Longworth's Directory record a Daniel or D. Aldridge living and working in the city as follows:

1803     Daniel, laborer, Barley
1812     Daniel, grain measurer, rear 93 Chapel
1813     Daniel, grain measurer, 76 Leonard
1816-17  Daniel, no employment specified, 1 Beach
1819     D., laborer, 1 Beach
1820-22  D., laborer, Greene and Spring
1825     Daniel, cartman black, 63 Sullivan
1826     Daniel, cartman black, 63 Sullivan and 82 Varick
1827     Daniel, cartman black, 114 Varick
1829     Daniel, no employment specified, 114 Varick
1830-31  Daniel, no employment specified, 46 Laurens
1834     Daniel Aldrich [sic] (colored), huxter [sic], 6 Leonard
1835     Daniel Aldrich (colored), huckster, 3 Leonard

And on his death certificate in 1840 his address is given as 41 Thomas Street.

One may assume that most if not all the Directory entries refer to the same person--namely, Ira's father--for when Ira's mother Luranah died in 1817, the Manhattan Death Libers noted her address as Beach Street, and when James McCune Smith wrote his essay for The Anglo-African Magazine, he recalled that Ira's father Daniel was "a straw-vender in the city of New York ... We well remember the old gentleman--short in stature, with a tall, broad-brimmed white hat, mounted on a high cart filled with his merchandise, and dolefully crying "straw, s-t-r-a-w!" through the streets, especially on Saturday nights." (11) This conforms with the Directory's description of Daniel Aldridge as a "cartman black" and it may also explain the reference to "Daniel Aldrich (colored)" as a "huxter/huckster."

New York City had about 2500 cartmen in 1824-25, nearly half of whom were Irish. …