Johnna's Articles

A Special Daily Resource Shared by Kerry Ruff

Saturday, February 20th, 2021

 

 

 

Ellen E. Armstrong was born in 1914 to Mabel and John Armstrong. John was born in 1886, his father was a white slave holder, and his mother, Ellen’s grandmother was a slave. John performed magic across the South in the early 1900s and was well known as the King of Colored Conjurers. He did not have much competition, as there were few black magicians, especially working in the South at the time. He married Mabel White, who was white and they would perform together as the Armstrongs. During extreme segregation, the duo was able to find a niche performing for middle and working class black families. Mabel passed away shortly after giving birth to Ellen. John remarried and performed a mind-reading act together with his second wife. Ellen would join the show when she was six and before long, she became the mind reader of the show. Ellen went away to college, received her degree and returned to join the show. When Ellen was 25, her father, John died and she would inherit the show. She billed herself as the Mistress of Modern Magic and with the help of her stepmother; she took the show out on tour to the same black audiences as her father. It was a bold move as there was not a black female magician before and she did not know how the crowd would react but the audiences loved and accepted her. Ms. Armstrong’s fancy posters made sure to state that the show was funny; “If Laughing Hurts You, Stay Home.” In addition, she promised “250 laughs in 50 minutes” which was an impressive rate of five laughs a minute. Besides performing magic, Ellen would also refer to herself as Cartoonist Extraordinary because of her drawing ability that she would sometimes do on tour. In 1940, she married a minister, never had children and continued touring well into her 1950s and she lived through her mid-70s. Women magicians who broke through barriers were poorly documented and poorly remembered but thankfully, in a 1949 issue of Ebony magazine, she gained national recognition for an article on outstanding black magicians. Today we honor the woman who continued her father’s legacy but also made a name for herself in the world of magicians. She was not only a magician but also a low-key comedian. Thank you. Happy Black History Month.

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