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Alice Knox Eaton

slave narrator, novelist, playwright, historian, and abolitionist leader, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of a slave mother, Elizabeth, and George Higgins, the white half-brother of Brown's first master, Dr. John Young. As a slave, William was spared the hard labor of his master's plantation, unlike his mother and half-siblings, because of his close blood relation to the slave-holding family, but as a house servant he was constantly abused by Mrs. Young. When the family removed to a farm outside St. Louis, Missouri, William was hired out in various capacities, including physician's assistant, servant in a public house, and waiter on a steamship. William's “best master” in slavery was Elijah P. Lovejoy, publisher of the St. Louis Times, where he was hired out in the printing office in 1830 Lovejoy was an antislavery editor who would be murdered seven years later for refusing ...


David Krasner

actor, director, and composer, was born Robert Allen Cole Jr. in Athens, Georgia, the son of Robert Allen Cole Sr., a successful carpenter and political activist. Nothing is known about Cole's mother. Cole received musical training in Athens and finished elementary school after his family moved to Atlanta. He made his first stage appearance in Chicago, performing in Sam T. Jack's The Creole Show in 1891; later he became the show's stage manager. Around 1893 Cole and his stage partner, Stella Wiley, moved to New York, where they performed in vaudeville. Cole and Wiley may have married, but there is no evidence, and in any event by the end of the 1890s they had parted company. Returning to Jack's Creole Show Cole soon emerged as the headliner developing his popular stage character the tramp Willy Wayside During the mid 1890s he formed the first school ...


Clarence G. Contee

Born about 1846 in New York City on Sullivan Street in Lower Manhattan, a son of Henry Downing and Nancy (Collins) Downing, Henry Francis Downing was the grandson of Thomas Downing, operator of an oyster-selling business and well-known free black. He was the nephew of George Thomas Downing, a well known politician in New York City and in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a friend of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The family maintained the oyster business and a refectory (dining hall) on Broad Street into the 1850s. Henry Downing received enough education to enable him to read and to write.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Downing was still in school. Eager to serve, he enlisted in the Union Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on August 25, 1864, beginning his service on board the North Carolina He was ...


Lawrence R. Rodgers

Born in New York City into a family of successful free African Americans who ran an oyster business, Henry Downing was the nephew of the esteemed politician George Thomas Downing. Henry Downing served two terms in the U.S. Navy (1864–1865 and 1872–1875). Following the Civil War, he traveled around the world, a journey punctuated by a three-year residence in Liberia, where his cousin Hilary Johnson later served as president (1884–1892). After returning to New York, he became politically active in the Democratic Party. For his strong support, President Cleveland appointed Downing consul to Loanda, Angola, a West African colony of Portugal, where he served less than a year before resigning in 1888. After returning to New York for several years, he emigrated to London in 1895 where he remained for twenty two years There he began a productive if undistinguished career as a writer ...


Jeffrey Green

African‐American playwright and journalist in London. Downing enjoyed a varied career. In his youth he was a sailor, and later worked for the United States foreign service in Angola. He also managed a New York press agency representing prominent black leaders including Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells. Around 1895 Downing and his reputedly white American wife, Margarita (c.1873–c.1950), arrived in England and settled in Chiswick, west London.

A fortuitous meeting with the African‐American poet Paul Dunbar in London resulted in Downing's management of Dunbar's 1897 successful reading tour throughout England. As Dunbar's manager, Downing played an instrumental role in bringing together two of the most famous and talented black artistes of the 19th century. Impressed by his stewardship of Dunbar's tour, Samuel Coleridge‐Taylor contacted the pair and thus began a series of collaborations between the ...


Brian R. Roberts

diplomat, editor, and author, was born in Manhattan to Henry and Nancy (Collins) Downing. His family operated an oyster business and restaurant, and his uncle was George Thomas Downing, a Rhode Island businessman and civil rights leader. Nothing is known of Henry Downing's education before he entered the U.S. Navy at age eighteen.

Serving from 1864 through 1865 he worked on three vessels, the North Carolina, Pawtuxet, and Winooski. Afterward he traveled widely, spending three years in Liberia, where his cousin, Hilary Johnson, later became president (1884–1892). In Liberia, Downing worked as secretary to the Liberian secretary of state. Upon his return to New York he reenlisted in the navy, serving from 1872 to 1875 on the Hartford in the Pacific.

After his discharge Downing again returned to New York City and married Isadora (maiden name unknown) on 8 ...


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 ...


Peter E. Carr

Alexandre Dumas was born Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie in Villers-Cotteràts, northeast of Paris. His father was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and his mother was Marie-Louise Elisabeth Labouret. Born in the French Caribbean, Thomas-Alexandre was the offspring of the Marquis Antoine Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie and one of his black house slaves, Marie Céssette Dumas, who was from Jérémie, Saint Domingue. She died when ThomasAlexandre was young; he was eventually brought to Paris at the age of fourteen. As Thomas-Alexandre's grandfather did not wish his mulatto grandson to officially use the name Davy de la Pailleterie, he enlisted in Napoleon's army as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, at length attaining the rank of general.

The death of his father in 1806 left the young Alexandre Dumas and his mother in very bad financial circumstances. At the age of fourteen he apprenticed as a clerk with a local notary in Villers-Cotteràts. In 1822 ...


Jonathan Edwards

In 1893 the playwright George Bernard Shaw described Alexandre Dumas père (senior) as “a summit of art,” comparing him to Mozart: “you get nothing above Dumas on his own mountain … if you pass him you come down on the other side instead of getting higher.” Dumas's literary work is striking in its breadth and originality, and accessible to all lovers of adventure regardless of their social or educational background. In theater, Dumas created two new genres, the prose historical drama and the drame moderne, and, although dated today, his plays enjoyed unprecedented success in their time. His greatest novels, rich in passionate characters, lively dialogue, and gripping plots, have lasting appeal, and many, such as Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), have become household names.

The story of how young Dumas a provincial light skinned boy whose tightly curled hair revealed his African ancestry rose to become the ...


Anthony Gerard Barthelemy

Although erroneously thought to be the first play written by an African American, William Wells Brown's closet drama The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom was the first dramatic work by an African American to be published. Issued as an octavo pamphlet of fifty-two pages by Robert F. Wallcut of Boston in 1858, the publication of The Escape attests to its popularity and confirms the play's value as antislavery propaganda. Brown claims in the author's preface to have written the play for his “own amusement and not with the remotest thought that it would ever be seen by the public eye”. However after his friends arranged for him to read it “before a Literary Society”, public readings soon followed with great success. Encomiums published in the 1858 octavo suggest that at least some viewed the work not only as propaganda but also as serious drama ...


Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda was born in Puerto Príncipe (now Camagüey), in central Cuba. Her father, a Spanish naval officer, died when she was young, and her mother, a wealthy white Creole (person of European descent born in the Americas), soon married another Spanish colonial official. Avellaneda received a private education and was an avid student of French literature, absorbing the great works of the romantic movement. Her tutors included José Maria Heredia, a Cuban nationalist and romantic poet, who influenced her writing significantly and introduced her to the works of the female French novelists Madame de Staël and George Sand.

Avellaneda's stepfather feared the possibility of large-scale slave uprisings in Cuba, given the precedent of the thirteen-year-long Haitian Revolution, which erupted in 1791, and the increase in slave revolts throughout Cuba. Consequently, in 1836 the family sold their property including their slaves and ...


Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was the son of a mulatto housepainter and a Portuguese Azorian woman. His parents were free employees attached to a wealthy white family, with whom they also lived as retainers. When Machado's mother died of tuberculosis in 1849, the family remained connected to the estate, maintaining a complex relationship in which dependence was the price for access to certain benefits and opportunities. (This early, ambiguous social position would later be seized by critics, who saw it as a distinguishing trait both of Machado's life and of his writings.) Machado's youth was marked by early signs of his frail health—stuttering, nearsightedness, severe nervousness, and epilepsy would accompany him throughout his life—and by access to education afforded by the protection of the owner of the estate. His vast literary knowledge, however, was largely self-taught.

Machado s education permitted him ...


Sonia Labrador-Rodríguez

Born to free parents in Havana, Cuba, Antonio Medina received a modest but formal elementary school education. At the age of twelve he became an apprentice tailor in order to help his family after the death of his father. After completing his occupational training he secured a position as a tailor at the Tacón Theater, the most prestigious theater in Havana at the time. This job influenced him greatly, not only because it provided opportunities to meet important members of the Cuban intelligentsia but also because it likely affected his future work as a playwright.

According to Francisco Calcagno, the Cuban educator and author of Diccionario biográfico cubano (Cuban Biographical Dictionary, 1886) and Poetas de color (Black Poets, 1886), Medina formed friendships with Afro-Cuban poets Gabriel de la Concepción (“Plácido”) Valdés and Juan Francisco Manzano both of whom were directly or indirectly implicated in the ...


Efraim Barak

writer, poet, journalist, and a pioneer of Egyptian nationalism, was born in Alexandria to a lower-class family. His father, Mis.bah. ʾIbrahim, was a carpenter. He began his formal education in a traditional kuttab, and proceeded, at the age of nine, to study religion at the ʾIbrahim Pasha mosque. Nadim terminated his studies after five years due to his lack of interest. He subsisted by taking various jobs: as a telegraph operator in Banha; as a shopkeeper in Cairo; as a clerk and a teacher at a pasha’s house in the Daqahliyya district, and as an itinerant entertainer and professional satirist. His occupation of entertainer earned him the epithet of Al-nadim (instead of Nadim), which means “the entertainer.”

In Cairo, Nadim joined the circle of Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, who lived in Egypt from 1871 to 1879 Afghani a pioneer of modern Islamic thought had encircled himself with the intelligentsia ...


Alberto Arenas

Obeso was born three years before the Colombian government abolished slavery. The illegitimate son of a white lawyer and a mulatto laundrywoman, Obeso was raised by his mother in the small town of Mompós along the banks of the Magdalena River. At the age of seventeen he moved to Bogotá to study at a military academy. Just one year after his arrival, a military coup closed down the academy, and Obeso then entered the recently inaugurated National University. Even though Obeso never graduated, he received a teaching certificate and started writing his first poems.

In 1871 he released his first novel, La familia Pygmalión (The Pygmalion Family), in which he ridiculed a family that got him imprisoned for a love affair. Obeso then published articles and poems in Bogotá's most important newspapers and magazines; he gradually gained notoriety. The 1876 civil war interrupted his literary career He enlisted as ...


Leyla Keough

Aleksandr Pushkin was of high birth: his father came from a long line of Russian aristocracy, and his mother was the granddaughter of Abram Hannibal, who proclaimed himself to be an African prince. Sold into slavery in the early eighteenth century, Hannibal became an engineer and major general in the Russian army and was a favorite of Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great).

Enchanted with his African ancestry, Pushkin often employed the subject in his poetry, to the point of exaggeration and obsession, according to his critics. In 1830Faddey Bulgarin berated Pushkin for bragging about a nobility stemming from a “Negro” who had been “acquired” by a skipper in exchange for a bottle of rum. Pushkin replied sharply to “Figliarin” (which translates roughly into “buffoon”) in a poem entitled “My Genealogy”:


Figliarin, snug at home, decided

That my black grandsire, Hannibal,

Was for a bottle ...


L. Lital Levy

Egyptian journalist, dramatist, and political agitator, also known as James Sanua, is considered the founder of modern Arab theater and a forerunner of Arabic satirical journalism. He is also the most influential modern Jewish writer of Arabic.

Sanuʿ was born in Cairo to an Egyptian Jewish mother and an Italian Jewish father who served as adviser to a grandson of Mehmet Ali (Muhammad ʿAli); the family name Sanuʿ derives from the Hebrew tsanu’a (“modest”). Sanuʿ was schooled in the rudiments of Judaism and Islam, with knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, and European languages. Upon hearing a panegyric poem of the young Sanuʿ’s composition, his father’s employer underwrote his education in Livorno from 1852 to 1855, where he studied arts and sciences and mastered Italian and where he was first exposed to the theater and to nationalist thought.

In 1863 the year of Khedive Ismaʿil s ascension Sanuʿ became a ...


Philip Barnard

and recipient of the French Legion of Honor. The most distinguished African American writer of nineteenth-century Louisiana, Victor Séjour's lengthy career as a successful dramatist in Paris makes him a unique figure, important to both the history of African American writing and the history of French theater in the Second Empire (1851–1870).

Juan Victor Séjour Marcouet Ferrand was born a free Creole of color in New Orleans, son of prosperous merchant Juan Francois Louis Séjour Marcou, a free mulatto from Santo Domingo, and Eloisa Phillippe Ferrand, a free octoroon born in New Orleans. After secondary education under black writer and journalist Michel Séligny at New Orleans's Sainte-Barbe Academy, Séjour departed for Paris, like many other elite Creoles, to pursue further education and a career unencumbered by the racial constraints of American society.

In Paris Séjour entered literary circles where he associated with influential figures Emile Augier ...


Nadine D. Pederson

Victor Séjour was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Louis Victor Séjour Marcou, a small businessman, and Eloisa Philippe Ferrand. His father was a black native of the West Indies, and his mother a Creole from New Orleans. Séjour attended an academy in New Orleans for the children of free men of color. As a young man he was an active member of the Artisans, a middle-class Creole society. In 1836 Séjour was sent to Paris to finish his studies. In that same year, his short story “Le Mulâtre” was published in La Revue des Colonies (Paris). Another early literary success was a poem, “Le Retour de Napoléon,” first published in Paris (Dauvain et Fontaine, 1841), then in New Orleans (H. Lauve et Compagnie, 1845).

Séjour made his playwriting debut at the Théâtre-Français on July 23, 1844 with Dégarias The central ...


Nadine D. Pederson

playwright, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Juan François Louis Victor Séjour Marcou, owner of a small business, and Eloisa Philippe Ferrand. His father was a black native of the West Indies, and his mother a Creole from New Orleans. Séjour attended an academy in New Orleans for the children of free men of color. As a young man he was an active member of the Artisans, a middle-class Creole society. In 1836 Séjour was sent to Paris to finish his studies. In that same year his short story “Le Mulâtre” was published in La Revue des Colonies (Paris). Another early literary success was a poem, “Le Retour de Napoléon,” first published in Paris (Dauvain et Fontaine, 1841), then in New Orleans (H. Lauve et Compagnie, 1845).

Séjour made his playwriting debut at the Théâtre-Français on 23 July 1844 with Dégarias ...