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George A. Thompson

theater manager and playwright, was born in the West Indies, probably on Saint Vincent, before 1780. Little is known about Brown's early life. He worked for some years as a steward on passenger ships, then left the sea and settled in New York City, where he worked as a tailor. The 1820 census shows him as middle-aged and free, living with his wife and daughter. At about this time he opened a public garden in the grounds behind his house on Thomas Street, between West Broadway and Hudson Street. An open-air cabaret offering light refreshments and music, the African Grove, as he called it, served the city's African American population, which was excluded from the other larger public gardens in the city.

The African Grove presumably opened in the spring of 1821, but the only knowledge of it comes from a story in the National Advocate of ...

Article

George A. Thompson

Brown, William Alexander (fl. 1817–1823), theater manager and playwright, was born in the West Indies, probably on St. Vincent, before 1780. Little is known about Brown’s early life. He worked for some years as steward on passenger ships, then left the sea and settled in New York City, where he worked as a tailor. The 1820 census shows him as a middle-aged free black man, living on Thomas Street with his wife and daughter. At about this time he opened a public garden in the grounds behind the house in which he lived on Thomas Street, between West Broadway and Hudson Street. This was a sort of open-air cabaret, offering light refreshments and music. The “African Grove,” as he called it, served the city’s African-American population, which was excluded from the other, larger public gardens in the city.

The African Grove presumably opened in the spring of ...

Article

Leslie H. Fishel

abolitionist, businessman, and civil rights advocate, was born in New York City, the son of Thomas Downing, a restaurant owner, and Rebecca West. His father's Oyster House was a gathering place for New York's aristocracy and politicians. Young Downing attended Charles Smith's school on Orange Street and, with the future black abolitionists J. McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Charles Reason and Patrick Reason, the African School on Mulberry Street. He completed his schooling privately and in his mid-teens was active in two literary societies.

Before he was twenty Downing participated in the Underground Railroad and worked with his father to lobby the New York legislature for equal suffrage. In 1841 both were delegates to the initial convention of the American Reform Board of Disenfranchised Commissioners one of many organizations formed by African American men to fight for ...

Article

Kevin Byrne

vaudeville entertainer and theatrical entrepreneur, was born in Dallas, Texas. The names of his parents are unknown. Though in later interviews Dudley frequently changed the story of how he broke into show business, his earliest stage work was most likely in Texas and Louisiana as part of a medicine show. This job, in which he played music and told jokes to draw a crowd to the pitchman and his wares, was an appropriate beginning for a man who always sought to be the center of attention. Dudley eventually became an artist and businessman who, as demonstrated by both his actions and writings, was passionately concerned with cultivating the rights and strengthening the dignity of African American performers during an era when what it meant to be a black entertainer was greatly in flux.

Dudley s apprenticeship in the professional theatrical world took place during the last decade of the ...

Article

Paul Devlin

singer, composer, minstrel performer, street musician, and one of the world's first recording stars and the first African American to make any recording, was born in Wheatland, Loudon County, Virginia, though possibly in Fluvanna County, Virginia. It is unclear as to whether he was born free or as a slave. His father, Samuel Johnson, was listed as free soon after George's birth. His mother was known as Druanna, or “Ann Pretty.” While still a small child Johnson was hired as the “bodyservant” for a young white boy his same age, Samuel Moore. Johnson grew up in the prosperous Moore household and was taught to read and write. He is thought to have spent the Civil War working as a laborer for one or both armies.

Johnson moved to New York sometime around 1873 and began performing on ferry boats. In 1890 ...

Article

Christopher Devine

baseball player and activist, was born Welday Wilberforce Walker in Steubenville, Ohio. He was the fifth of six children born to Moses W. Walker, a physician and minister. He was reared, along with the rest of his siblings, by Caroline (O'Harra) Walker, but Weldy's death certificate lists his mother as Maria Simpson. This information was supplied to the coroner by Walker's nephew Thomas Gibson, who in the early 1920s claimed not to know Weldy's mother's identity. It is unclear whether the change in Gibson's information evidences newfound knowledge, a disclosed Walker family secret, or fiction. Walker's first name likely paid homage to the local pioneer Alexander Welday (although when and why Walker changed its spelling is unknown), and his middle name likely honored the English abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Steubenville where Walker would spend most of his life was a racially progressive town known for ...

Article

John N. Ingham

restaurateur and hotelkeeper, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Pere Leigh Wormley and Mary (maiden name unknown). Both his parents were free people of color before their 1814 arrival in Washington, where his father became proprietor of a livery stable on Pennsylvania Avenue between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets, near the famous Willard Hotel. Wormley's early life is obscure, but it is certain that he went to work at a young age as a hack driver for his father, whose business was thriving by the 1820s. Eventually Wormley bought a horse and carriage of his own and began to work independently. Wormley's exposure to the city's fine hotels and high society through his clientele, which inevitably included many prominent public figures, might have influenced his later vocation.

In 1841 Wormley married Anna Thompson; they had four children. In 1849 he left his home to join the ...