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Ellen Armstrong - First African American Female Magician

Ellen Armstrong came from a family of performers from Spartanburg, SC. On one poster, she was billed as a magician and cartoonist.

Daughter of Prof. John Hartford Armstrong, she got her start at the age of six as assistant in her father's show. As a young child, she showed great skill as a "psychic" performer, and even had her own mindreading segment of the show.

By her teens, she was also doing a routine known as "Chalk Talk", in which she told stories by drawing characters on a chalk board. With the addition of a few strokes of the chalk, each picture would completely change to a new character, adding to the story.

When her father died suddently in 1939, Ellen took over his show, becoming the first (and only) African American female magician touring with her own show.

For 31 years, she continued to perform the Armstrong show up and down the East Coast, mainly at black churches and schools. Her tricks were common magic fare, but some had a cultural twist. For example, when she magically produced a photograph in the Sand Frame illusion, the photo was of boxer Joe Louis, the black sports hero.

Her cartoon skills became more and more popular, and eventually became the major part of the show.

She spent her final years in retirement in South Carolina.

An excellent account of her life story is found in the book, Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson.

Most of the black performers exist only as names on old playbills or in newspaper advertisements, according to the book “Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America.” The book appears to have a list of them.

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