Celebrating Unsung Black Magicians – The Brookhaven Courier

Magic is an art form that suspends belief and engages the audience. Most have heard of magicians like Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, and Penn & Teller. But other magicians like Henry “Box” Brown, Ellen Armstrong or Eric Dockery did not receive the same recognition.

One of the first black magicians in the United States was Brown. In 1849, Brown escaped slavery by boarding a box on a train from Richmond, Virginia to Pennsylvania. Brown’s bold escape to freedom earned him the stage name Box Brown.

Brown toured the United States as a lecturer and abolitionist magician. During her act, Brown would perform magic. His work paved the way for many black magicians. His work inspired performance magic and opened a door for others to follow, according to magictricks.com.

Throughout America’s rich magical history, there have been female illusionists. Ellen Armstrong, born in 1914, was one of the first black female magicians. Armstrong has entertained audiences all across the East Coast for over 30 years.

She started acting in her father’s show as an assistant. In 1939, after the death of her father, she took over the show and became the first and only black magician to tour his magic show.

Armstrong performed common tricks of the era but made them his own by giving his act a cultural twist.

Today, black magicians like Eric Dockery continue to share their art and find unique ways to amaze audiences.

Dockery is originally from New Jersey but now lives in Allen, Texas. He said he grew up reading classic magic books, practicing close-up magic, and visiting New York magic shops. He hung out with other magicians who frequented the same magic shops around town.

Dockery said he finds his work appealing to a wide range of audiences. Dockery said, “I always tried to do a family-type show that your grandmother wouldn’t be embarrassed to see.”

After spending many years playing, he has learned which magic suits him best. Dockery said he uses sleight of hand to entertain his audience.

Some performances can be a challenge, like the time Dockery hit the streets in Lynchburg, Virginia. He said, “I see a bunch of people who don’t look like me, don’t they, looking at me. And I watch them. Dockery diffused the situation by going over and performing magic for the group. Soon he had everyone laughing and having a great time.

For many years, Dockery was a regular performer with the Main Street Magic and Fun Company in McKinney until the shop closed in 2017.

Since the business was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, many magicians have turned to performing their acts online. Dockery said, “When I grew up, the internet didn’t exist.” Now Dockery can follow other magicians on social media and track today’s tricks.

Dockery said artists need to be able to create a show and understand the business side of performance magic.

He said, “You have to get to work. You have to work hard. It’s not instant gratification.

Besides Box Brown, other black magicians paved the way for artists such as Dockery. Armstrong entertained audiences for 31 years beginning in the 1930s.

She traveled along the East Coast performing mostly in black churches and schools, according to magictricks.com.

Armstrong performed common tricks of the day, such as producing a photograph in an empty frame. Armstrong’s magic incorporated black cultural icons. The photograph she magically produced in an empty frame was of famous boxer Joe Louis.

Brian L. Hartfield