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Black Lives And Mr. Booth

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

The 17-year-old Edwin Booth.


On Sunday, June 7, just as Mayor de Blasio announced that he was lifting the citywide curfew, a large group of demonstrators marched by my building on the Lower East Side. I was tempted to join them but I stayed indoors, grading papers for an online course I am teaching at the Fashion Institute Of Technology, "American History Through Fabric, Fashion, And Dress." As it just so happened, this week's subject was the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Since the papers I was grading dealt with the failures of Reconstruction -- including America’s failure to deal with the aftermath of slavery -- the slogans I heard through my window made a great deal of sense. A little later that evening, I picked up a book that has been sitting on my nightstand for a long time: Prince of Players: Edwin Booth, by Eleanor Ruggles. I had been reluctant to read it, perhaps afraid I'd be bored and that the disappointment would color my perception of our founder. But I got hooked right away, though perhaps not in ways the author intended. The book, which was published in 1952, is a reflection of its time. A time capsule, one might say.

On page 4, Ms. Ruggles writes that Junius Booth settled in Maryland in 1824 with "a young girl he called his wife" and two tiny children. As more children arrived, he added more rooms, and he “built quarters for the Negroes.” The term “Negro” would have been the polite way to refer to black Americans in 1952. The term was used by W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 20th century, and by Martin Luther King in his “I Have A Dream" speech in 1963. But who were these “Negroes” on Booth’s farm?

By 1755, about 40% of Maryland’s population was black, and the vast majority were slaves. But after the Revolutionary War, many of Maryland’s slaveholders began to free their slaves. Thus, by the Civil War, half of the black population in Maryland was free. It is possible that the “Negroes” Ms. Ruggles writes about were hired hands, but it is also possible that they were not. In fairness, as far as I know, there is nothing to indicate that Junius Booth owned slaves or favored the institution.

We all know, however, that one of Junius’s sons not only came to favor slavery and the Confederacy, but also changed the course of American history in his fervor. Therefore it is remarkable that the author fails to discuss the issue. Ms. Ruggles doesn't merely skirt the subject; she doesn’t even acknowledge its existence. Of course, neither did most Americans in 1952. The slow process of change would begin three years later, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi and his killers set free.

In the following chapter, Ms. Ruggles writes about Edwin’s education. Junius did not want his children to become actors. He had higher hopes for them, and thus carefully managed their education. Edwin was sent to a number of different schools and tutors. A French naval officer taught him fencing, an Italian taught him to play the violin, and “a friendly Negro taught him to sing plantation songs and thrum the banjo like a professional . . . "

Six years later.

Since Junius spent so much time on the road, and since Edwin’s mother not only had to manage the farm but also care for four children, it seems likely that Edwin spent a good deal of his first decade in the care and company of the African Americans who lived and worked on the farm. Furthermore, the farm was isolated, far from neighbors. As any child, Edwin would have played with as well as listened to and learned from those around him. No doubt the influence of black culture on Edwin went beyond that of music. But because none of this is discussed in Ms. Ruggles' book (which was the source for the 1955 film starring Richard Burton as Edwin), we cannot say exactly what or how much of this influence he brought with him from Maryland and onto the stage.

What we do know is that the black experience helped shape Edwin Booth. It is a part of him, as it is a part of America, as it is a part of The Players.

Carl Rutberg, Ph.D, is the Creative Director of Lindman New York, a full-service neckwear company, as well as adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where he teaches courses on American history, culture, and fashion.  He serves on the Membership and Communication Committees.

1 Comment

Linda Porto
Jun 15, 2020

Most interesting Carl, thank you for posting!

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