Ellen E. Armstrong has the distinction of being the first noted female magician of color. Her father was John Hartford Armstrong, who performed professionally as Professor J. Hartford Armstrong. Born in 1886, John’s father was a white slave holder and his mother was a slave. He performed magic across the South in the early 1900s. He was known as “The King of Colored Conjurers” and was quite well known. He did not have a lot of competition as their were few black magicians working in the South at the time.
He married Mabel White, and they appeared as The Armstrongs. During a time of extreme segregation, they found a niche performing for middle class and working class black families. Mabel passed away shortly after Ellen was born. She was raised by her father and his second wife, Lily Mills. Lily and John also did a mind-reading act together, and Lily provided show accompaniment on the organ.
Ellen joined the show when she was six, and before long became the mind reader in the show. She also showed off her artistic talent by doing chalk talks, which she kept in the show after she went solo. She went away to college, got her degree, and then rejoined the show. At the age of 25, her father died of a heart attack. She inherited his show, and decided to continue with it, billing herself as as “The Mistress of Modern Magic.” With the help of Lily, she took the show out on tour to the same black audiences that had been their bread and butter. It was a bold move, as there really had not been a black female magician of note before, and she had no idea how audiences would react.
Fortunately, audiences in the black community accepted her. She was able to make a decent living and keep investing in the improvement of the show. Some of the effects she performed included The Birth of Roses,” “The Mysterious Jars of Egypt,” “The Flight of Figures,” “Miser’s Dream,” “The Puzzling Parasol,” “The Sand Frame” and “Hippity-Hop Rabbits.”
There was nothing fancy about her posters, but they did make clear that the show was funny. They had lines such as “If Laughing Hurts You, Stay Home, ” “She will not pay for doctor bills if you faint from laughter,” and “Blind admitted free, one-eyed people for half price. She promised “250 laughs in 50 minutes” which is an impressive rate of five laughs a minute. She also referred to the show as her “Modern, Marvelous, Matchless Merrymaking March Through Mysteryland.”
She kept her father’s promotional line “Going Fine Since 1889,” which made little sense for her father and even less for her. He was born in 1886, so what happened when he was three that began the going fine? No one seems to know.
She married a minister in 1940, but continued to tour with the show. They had no children. She continued to perform into her mid 50s. When she died is not known, but she lived at least into her mid-70s. As is so often the case, women magicians, even those who broke through barriers, were poorly documented and poorly remembered.
She did get national recognition in a December 1949 issue of Ebony magazine. It had an article on outstanding black magicians, and she was featured along with Fetaque Sanders, Eugene Hellman and Moses Tiller.
Most of the information here came from the excellent article by Julie Sobanski in the January 2008 issue of MUM. There is also an excellent write-up of her in Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson.