Ira Frederick Aldridge is today remembered as one of the most renowned actors of the nineteenth century, one of the highest-paid actors of his time, and the first Black American to establish an acting career in another country. Although the venerable Shakespearean performer and tragedian spent most of his life overseas, Aldridge in fact got his start as an actor at the African Grove Theatre in Greenwich Village.
Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in New York on July 24, 1807. At the time, slavery was still legal in the state, but both of Aldridge’s parents, Daniel and Luranah Aldridge, were free. Aldridge’s father worked as a straw merchant and a lay preacher, and hoped that his son would also develop a religious career. The family resided in proximity to Greenwich Village’s “Little Africa,” which for much of the 19th century was was the largest and most important African American community in New York, centered around today’s Minetta Lane and Minetta Street.
Aldridge studied in the neighborhood’s African Free School starting around the age of thirteen for about two years. The first school for Black students in America, the African Free School was founded over three decades before — on November 2, 1787 — in Lower Manhattan by the New-York Manumission Society and founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. The institution prepared the city’s Black students, many of whom were the children of enslaved people, to enter the public school system. A number of renowned figures were students here, including the abolitionist, educator, orator, and Greenwich Village resident Henry Highland Garnet.
Ultimately consisting of seven schools, the third African Free School was located in Greenwich Village, at 120 West 3rd Street, then known as Amity Street. According to his biographer, Bernth Lindfors, Aldridge graduated from the school’s Mulberry Street location, which was constructed in 1820. It is likely that he previously attended African Free School No. 1 on William Street, or a separate church school. While here, Aldridge received awards for his oratory skills.
From a young age, Aldridge was completely captivated by the theater. The Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius, quoted by Lindfors, reveals:
“His first visit to a theatre fixed the great purpose of his life, and established the sole end and aim of his existence. He would be an actor. He says at this hour that he was bewildered, amazed, dazzled, fascinated, by what to him was splendour beyond all that his mind had imagined, and mimic life so captivating, that his own real existence would be worthless unless he in some way participated in such imitations as he witnessed.”
Soon Aldridge began performing with the African Company/African Grove Theatre in the early 1820s. The troupe was founded by William Alexander Brown, a pioneering Black actor and playwright who had learned about different types of theater while traveling extensively as a ship’s steward. Upon Brown’s return to New York City, he bought a house on 38 Thompson Street and began the African Company.
The Company members would meet and perform in the building’s back yard, until they began receiving what were undoubtedly racist complaints from the neighbors, and the police forced them to move. Brown shifted the Company north to Bleecker and Mercer Streets, but soon found it was too far from his core audience, and so returned to Mercer and Houston Street. Brown’s African Grove Theatre was located near the Park Theater, which served white audiences and with which it often competed. The African Grove Theatre put on both Shakespearian plays and original works, and Aldridge’s first role with the organization was Rolla from Pizarro.
Devastatingly, the African Company and the African Grove Theatre were disbanded in 1823, as a result of both financial distress and discriminatory city intervention. While the theater and company was not the first attempt to create a Black theater within New York City at this time, Grove is remembered as the most financially successful.
Like most Black actors of his time, Aldridge was sometimes treated with great hostility from white audiences and managers, and denied access to a number of roles because of his race. He decided to travel to Europe to pursue his acting career, and in 1824, at the age of seventeen, he sailed to England. Here he enrolled at the University of Glasgow, and found work performing in traditionally Black roles. On October 10, 1825, he debuted as the first Black actor at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London as Prince Oroonoko of Africa in The Revolt of Surinam.
Aldridge went on to tour the United Kingdom, and was perhaps best known for his Shakespearean roles such as Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, and King Lear. In 1833, when Edmund Kean collapsed and died in the middle of an Othello run, Aldridge was called to take his place. In Othello, arguably Aldridge’s greatest role, he broke barriers playing opposite white actresses, which would have been unthinkable in almost any American theater at the time. Though critics objected to this and other performances, frequently using racist rhetoric, Aldridge continued to tour and grow his reputation. In 1852, he embarked on his first European tour, and five years later conducted a series of highly-regarded shows in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Throughout his life, Aldridge was also an avid abolitionist. He contributed financially to the cause and even paid for the freedom of enslaved people himself. He also incorporated songs of freedom into his work.
Aldrige’s first wife, Margaret Gill, died in 1864, after which Aldridge married Amanda von Brandt of Sweden. Together, the couple had three children. On August 7, 1867, at the age of sixty, Aldridge passed away and was buried Lodz, Poland, where he received a state funeral.
Over the course of his career, Aldridge received a number of honors including Switzerland’s White Cross. The Ira Aldridge Memorial Chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and a theater at Howard University, are named in his honor. His legacy as a boundary-breaking Black actor, theater artist, and abolitionist made an impact internationally, reverberating far beyond the Greenwich Village neighborhood from which he emerged.
To learn more about Little Africa, the African Free School, the African Grove Theatre, and other African American History sites in our neighborhoods, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.