Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Julie Wolf, THE ROOT



(—Who was America’s first successful stage magician?

He swallowed swords and molten lead. He danced on eggs without cracking their shells. He threw knives; he threw his voice. He was Richard Potter, the first American-born stage magician and ventriloquist, black or white. Prior to Potter’s career in the early 19th century, the performance of magic and ventriloquism had been the domain of white European men.

Born in Hopkinton, Mass., around 1783, the year the American Revolution ended, on the plantation of the slave owner Sir Charles Henry Frankland—who may or may not have been his father—Potter set sail for England as a cabin boy when he was just 10 years old. Once there, he met a Scottish magician and ventriloquist named John Rannie, and he was captivated. For years they performed in Europe, but in 1800 they traveled to America, joining a traveling circus and crisscrossing the North and South. (As Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson explain in their book Conjure Times, Potter was able to travel safely in the South because, in his assistant’s role, he was perceived as Rannie’s servant.)




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