Who Was the 1st Black Ventriloquist?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet the original magical character named Potter.

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ventriloquism
A broadside of one of Richard Potter's shows in Boston in 1811

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Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 72:  Who was the first American-born black person to draw crowds using sleight of hand—and voice?

Almost 200 years before J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard made the name “Potter” famous, Richard Potter emerged as the first (known) American-born magician and ventriloquist to tour the United States. Although audiences weren’t sure what to make of his background—was he black, Native American, West Indian or perhaps Hindu?—they marveled at his array of magic tricks, including an uncanny ability to throw his voice across a room. Before Richard Potter ever stepped onto a stage, however, his mother was “tricked” into a far crueler fate—slavery.

The Son of ‘Black Dinah’

Richard Potter was born in Hopkinton, Mass., in 1783, the last year of the American Revolution. Although the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would not officially outlaw the slave trade until 1788, emancipation was in the air and in the courts, with the slaves Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman) and Quok Walker suing for freedom under the state’s new constitution, which stated, “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.”  

It must be remembered, though, that those rights didn’t magically appear. But they could be stolen—a reality that Potter’s mother, “Black Dinah,” knew firsthand. In Charlie Tomlinson’s entry on Potter in the African American National Biographywe learn that Dinah Swain was a slave who had been “kidnapped by Dutch slave traders during her childhood, sold at an auction, and taken to Boston as a slave by Sir Charles Henry Frankland, a tax collector for the Port of Boston.” A rare glimpse of Dinah is found in the poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a Harvard Medical School professor who visited the Frankland estate in later years and, in his 1861 ballad “Agnes,” wrote, “Black Dinah, stolen when a child/And sold on Boston pier/Grown up in service, petted, spoiled”  (a tip I found in James Haskins and Kathleen Benson’s 2001 book, Conjure Times: The History of Black Magicians in America).

Whatever Holmes meant by this, we know that Richard Potter was born to Dinah 15 years after Frankland had died in England, leaving his wife—and later son Henry—to manage the family’s Massachusetts estate. In local church records, according to the Andover Historical Society, Richard’s father was actually listed as a white clergyman named George Simpson, leaving Potter’s surname a mystery, according to Tomlinson. 

The Ventriloquist’s Apprentice 

One of five children, Potter appears to have received some schooling in Hopkinton before sailing to Europe as a cabin boy at age 10. In Liverpool, England, according to Haskins and Benson, Potter was enthralled by Scottish magician and ventriloquist John Rannie and, expressing his enthusiasm, became Rannie’s apprentice after the Scotsman’s younger brother James struck out on his own. It was from “Rannie the Elder” that Potter learned the tricks of his trade.  

(Rannie was not the inventor of the form, I should note. Indeed, according to George Schindler, author of the 2011 book Ventriloquism: Magic With Your Voice, the practice of throwing one’s voice dates to Egypt 2000 B.C., at least. And the term “ventriloquism” derives from the Latin words for “belly” (venter) and “speak” (loqui), with references in the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as 1584 C.E. The practice’s roots are religious, Schindler explains; as entertainment, it grew up alongside magic shows in 18th-century Europe.)    

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