tv Discussion on Actor Ira Aldridges Portrait CSPAN May 16, 2015 1:34pm-1:51pm EDT
>> will look into the personal lives of three first ladies. rachel jackson, emily donelson and angelica van buren. rachel jackson was called a bigamist and adulterer during andrew jackson's 1828 residents will campaign. and died of an apparent heart attack before he took office. his niece come emily donelson becomes the white house hostess but is later dismissed as fallout from the scandal. and when martin van buren's widow becomes -- we were martin van buren becomes resident, his daughter becomes hostess. sunday night at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span's original series first ladies -- influence of image. examining the public and private lives of the women who fulfilled the position of first lady, for martha washington, to michelle
obama. sundays on american history tv on c-span3. as a cop limit to the series c-span's new book is now available. -- complements to the series c-span's new book is now available. providing lively stories of fascinating women creating an illuminating, entertaining, and inspiring read. it is available as a hardcover rebook your favorite bookstore or online bookseller. >> coming up next, we visit the national portrait gallery in washington, d.c., with curator jim barber who gives us an in-depth look at one of the oil paintings of ira aldridge, an early 19th-century african american actor. he was born free in new york in 1807 and became famous in after being unable to find work in america. this program is part of a series called "face to face" about important players in the struggle for justice in american history.
ian cooke: hello and welcome. i am ian cooke of the national portrait gallery. it is an article of faith that every picture tells a story. this series exists to connect some of the thousands of stories we have on hand and make one step from stories to history. our presenter today is jim barber, an historian at the portrait gallery. jim has lectured extensively on the civil war. he has finished a new exhibition on babe ruth and given talks on everyone from thelonious monk to elmer ellsworth. please welcome jim barber. [applause] jim barber: welcome to the national portrait gallery. ira aldridge, we will talk about a little bit right now. very appropriate for february is black history month. why ira aldridge?
with this "face to face" series, we connect three different people throughout three consecutive months. we began last month with pocahontas. this month is ira aldridge. the connection is the thread back in 2007, the state of virginia commemorated two huge anniversaries. one, the older one being the 400th anniversary of the founding of jamestown. the second anniversary was the 200th anniversary of the birth of robert e. lee. one of the hardest things to do for anyone is to get a sense of time.
think back 200 years if you can to robert e. lee's era. and then another 200 years back to jamestown. that is hard to do. if someone just says 400 years ago, we cannot really envision that. so the thread is jamestown. that is where it starts. in 1519, 12 years later, the first african americans arrive at jamestown. -- in 1619, 12 years later, the first african americans arrive at jamestown. they are not slaves yet. they are for the most part indentured servants. slavery will begin a little bit later. a lot of people wonder why did it take so long for slavery to end. well, slavery was in existence from us 200 years when robert e. lee is born in 1807. which is rather remarkable.
and slavery will end in about four short -- well, long years at the end of the civil war. let's talk about ira aldridge. ira was not a slave. he was a free black. he was born in downtown manhattan, new york city, in 1807. along with ira aldridge, robert e. lee is going to shadow aldridge. ira aldridge, free black. not many opportunities for free blacks. one of the biggest challenges was to stay out of the hands of kidnappers to be taken back into slavery. ira would go to the free black
school in downtown manhattan. that is where he becomes introduced to the performing arts and theater. in a nutshell, ira is known as the great black african american shakespearean actor of his age. he was one of the most visible black people of his era. not so much in this country, but mainly in europe and england which we will get to any minute. in any event, he goes to school in new york city. in his early teens, he will start his acting at the african grove theater, which was the first african american theater in the united states. what amazes me is how this show
man in his early teens, 13 or 14, knew what he wanted to do in life to the point where he realized at about age 15 that he was not going to make it as a black actor in the united states. he takes himself off to england. talk about initiative. he is still mid-teens. this is 1824. he will leave new york city bound for london. in 1824, robert e. lee has just won acceptance to west point. in 1825, lee will gain admittance. he has to wait a year, but he will gain admittance to west point.
in 1825, aldridge has been in england for a year and will star in his first role as "othello," one of shakespeare's plays. that is the character we see him dressed as in this portrait. this is by an english artist. it came to the gallery in 1972 through an english estate. what do people think about this? an african american in that role? the reviews were mixed. african american theater was often criticized and mocked in the united states and in england. but ira saw that the chances for his success were greater outside of america, better in england and europe than they would have been had he stayed. although england had a caste system, there was not the racism
people experienced in this country. ira does fairly well. he continues to act throughout a series of shakespeare's plays. he does "richard the iii," "macbeth", and whatnot. he will then tour england. life in england also presents opportunities. he will marry in 1825. he takes a white woman for his wife. that would have been impossible in the united states. he will have six children. only four of those will turn out to be a legitimate. but that still did not bother -- he was not bothered by that.
but did not set his career back any in his day. he decides he really wants to tour europe. that is when he makes his money and also establishes his name. he will tour with the european theater group through germany. he's well received. switzerland, he is well received, austria, poland, and especially his zenith will be in russia. again, doing these different shakespearean plays. it is in poland where he is thinking about, in 1857, he is thinking about returning. he is lining up 100 performances back in the states. on the eve of his departure, he falls sick and dies and is
buried now in poland. that is where his tombstone is. that is 1867. 1857. robert e. lee has surrendered the army of northern virginia in appomattox in 1865. that commemoration will be this coming april, and he is now the new president of washington university which will become washington and lee. lee will live until 1870 where he dies of heart trouble. lee is buried in the lee chapel on the campus of washington and lee university.
where does this go after next month? the connection is pocahontas jamestown, pocahontas, robert e. lee, ira aldridge, both born in 1807. both men knew again exactly what they wanted to do. lee, being a soldier. aldridge, being an actor. next month, we will follow the african american heritage more and look at senator everett dirksen of illinois. he made the cover of "time" magazine a number of times. the portrait gallery has the collection of original cover art. we have a cover of everett dirksen on display. senator dirksen basically was the catalyst of moving the historic civil rights legislation through the senate and congress in january, just
this time, january-february, the winter of 1964. that legislation would eventually be signed by president johnson on july 2, 1964. that is the historic civil rights act of 1964. it took another 100 years from the end of the civil war to really begin to see some of the social equity and civil rights for blacks that whites had enjoyed since the beginning. so ira aldridge would have, 100 years later, would have found a little more inviting america than what he was used to. but it took that long, and even
longer. there was the civil rights act in 1955. ira aldridge represents a free black, which is somewhat unusual, and one that knew his mind and pursued his goals and dreams and prospered. on the european tours, they were very lucrative for him. he ended up building a very nice house in london. he lived there quite comfortably. ira aldridge. any questions? >> when you were talking about aldridge being in england and russia, i was thinking of paul robeson.
was he aware of aldridge an inspired by him? jim barber: i can't answer that, but he could have been aware of him. any number of african americans were aware of ira aldridge. americans don't remember ira aldridge, but europeans more or less to. he met richard wagner, the great german composer, and whatnot. he is one of these characters like george c. marshall. if you ask high school students in america who was george c. marshall, the man that winston churchill said won world war ii, if you ask american high school students, they may not know george c. marshall. but if you ask german students they know he was the man behind the great marshall plan after
world war ii. there are certain americans almost better known in europe than they are in this country. i think ira aldridge is certainly one of them. ian cooke: thank you all for coming. next month, jim barber with everett dirksen. [applause] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2015] >> you
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