The Ira Aldridge Troupe: Early Black Minstrelsy in Philadelphia
Shalom, Jack, African American Review
Minstrelsy before 1865 was a largely white-owned and white-performed phenomenon. There were, before 1865, few companies that had Black performers and that were Black-controlled. Robert Toll, in Blacking Up, lists only six such groups, none of which is known to have lasted more than a month. One troupe that is not on Toll's list, and is not, as far as I know, documented elsewhere, is the Ira Aldridge Troupe, which played in Philadelphia at the Franklin Hall in Philadelphia in 1863.(1) An eyewitness account by a white reporter from the New York Clipper provides insights into the program of the company as well as the troupe's reception by its largely Black audience ("Negro Minstrelsy" 70).
The Ira Aldridge Troupe is surely unique in the annals of minstrelsy, if only by virtue of its name, which reflects the pride and awareness the founders of the company must have had when they chose to title themselves after the Black actor who had left his homeland some 35 years before, never to return. Although long absent from the United States, Aldridge was not unknown here - his death in 1867 was reported on the front page of the Chicago Times (Marshall and Stock 334). However, during the Civil War, Aldridge's name had a significance even larger than his acting abilities, for he had kept a close eye on the abolitionist movement in the United States, and was reported to have contributed half his earnings to the struggle for the liberation of Blacks. As an example of Aldridge's immediate concern, when a Black family in Baltimore was captured after fleeing from slavery, Aldridge reportedly donated the money to buy the family's freedom (Marshall and Stock 198). So it is perhaps understandable that, unlike most later Black minstrel companies, and in keeping with the dignity of its name, the Aldridge Troupe apparently did not do plantation material, although they were billed as a contraband troupe - that is, as fugitive slaves. Perhaps, too, because of their substantially Black audience, the troupe felt no need to "put on the mask." In fact, although much of the material the group performed was standard fare, several of the company's acts were downright subversive, as a description of the show will indicate.
Part I began with ballad singing by three members of the troupe - Miss S. Burton, Miss R. Clark, and Mr. C. Nixon. Burton sang "When the Cruel War is Over," which, having sold over a million copies of sheet music, was the most popular sentimental song of the Civil War (Toll 110). The song describes a soldier's farewell to his lady, the wounds he receives in battle, and his dying request for a last caress. This song, so popular with white minstrel troupes, was an example of the change in white minstrelsy that had been occurring at this time. As the war progressed, the sentimental songs telling of the destruction of Black slave families were replaced in white minstrelsy with songs telling of white suffering because of the war. In the hands of a Black performer, however, this song with its refrain "Weeping, Sad, and Lonely, Hopes and Fears how vain! / When this cruel war is over, Praying that we meet again!" must have had a different, special meaning for its Black Philadelphian audience. Since Philadelphia was one of the closest Northern cities to the slave South, it had become a major stopping point for fugitive slaves, and a frequent destination for the underground railroad, which was supported by many Black churches and secular groups in Philadelphia (Miller and Smith 570). The song's not-so-encoded meaning clearly referred to fugitive slaves "meeting again" with their Black brothers and sisters still enslaved in the South. The imminent departure of the first troop of Black soldiers from Philadelphia added pertinence and poignancy: Soon there would be Black women seeing their true loves off to war (Du Bois 38). The Clipper reporter notes that the Black audience showed its appreciation, and Miss Burton sang an encore. However, much to the delight of the audience, but to the dismay of the reporter, Burton started to get "into a regular Methodist style, keeping up a movement with her body to the air of the song, collapsing at last into a regular camp meeting break down" (170). …