The Faces of the African American National Biography
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource.
The most highly esteemed African American actor of the nineteenth century, Ira Aldridge earned international acclaim for his moving theatrical performances throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, Europe, and the United States. Although born free in New York City, he was the son of a slave turned Calvinist preacher and encountered racism in the United States that limited his theatrical opportunities at the start of his career. Making his debut in London in 1825, Aldridge made a name for himself by playing the title role in Shakespeare's Othello, as well as a number of other characters in performances in England and elsewhere. His fame grew after filling in as Othello for the renowned English thespian Edmund Kean, who fell ill during a performance at London's Covent Garden in 1833. Aldridge thereafter toured Europe, where he unexpectedly died at the height of his career while on tour in Lodz, Poland. Pictured here as Othello in a painting by Henry Perronet Briggs, he is the first African American actor who found fame and fortune outside the United States because of American racism.