Black History Month Series

The History of Blacks in the Circus from the Unpaid Sideshow Slave to the Ringmaster

The circus is a place where we can be amazed by the miraculous ability of the human body, dazzled by acrobatics and pushed to the edge of comfort by the threat of danger. The circus is fun because there we have a chance to come face to face with abnormalities that we don’t get to encounter during our daily lives. The circus wasn’t always a welcoming place for Blacks, in fact there have been instances where we on the ‘dangerous’ and ‘abnormal’ end of the rink, lumped together with the animals and the acrobats. 

This was a story I’d read about a few years ago but never got the chance to fully delve into. The story of Muse Brothers, George and Willie Muse, is an account about two albino black brothers living in the Jim Crow South of Roanoke, Virginia during the 1800s. At the ages of 6 and 9 years old they were kidnapped by a bounty hunter working for a sideshow promoter. After being taken from their mother they were told she was dead, forced to work for the circus and placed into the “human oddities” segment without pay for over 18 years. In addition to never being paid for their work, the boys were sold among promoters like slaves. They grew their hair to be styled in long white locs and they were marketed under a series of different acts. First they toured with the Al G. Barnes Circus as the “White Ecuadorian Cannibals” and then the “Sheep Headed Cannibals”. After being sold into the Ringling Brothers circus they were promoted as the “Ambassadors from Mars” and the “Men from Mars”. They were dressed in tuxedos to justify the diplomatic title. After years of being sold and marketed like animals, finally in 1927 their tour stopped in their hometown and after 18 years of searching their mother Harriet Muse was reunited with her sons. She was devastated by the fact that they were stolen as slaves, she hired a lawyer and attempted to sue for $100,000. After winning the case and reuniting with their family the boys, who’d been raised in the circus, went back to performing in their 30s and worked with the Dreamland Circus sideshow in Coney Island touring through Europe and the Far East. They finally retired in 1961 after working with Clyde Betty, a famous lion tamer and animal trainer from Ohio. Both never married, the older brother, George passed away in 1971 while Willie lived to be 108 passing away in 2001. 

The boys, originally exploited, were later admired for their unintentional role in human rights. Their being taken and held captive for the benefit of white promoters or the gawking eyes of spectators revealed the dark side of circus performing. The boys were treated like animals because of their ethnicity. They were not respected as human beings and this was a trend for the treatment of Blacks in the Jim Crow South, but the exploitation took it to another level.  Like the Muse brothers, Black children have been stolen from their parents throughout American history. The bond between Black parents and their children has been constantly abused in Western culture by whites: throughout the slave era when children were sold from their mothers; through the Jim Crow era when the government denied parents the right to give their child an equal education; and even today as black parents are imprisoned at an alarmingly high rate for non-violent crimes, leaving suffering children to develop in a broken home. Throughout American history our system has sustained institutional forces of oppression that have heavily attacked back communities for centuries. Even in the media the concept of a whole and happy Black family is attacked and misleadingly underrepresented.

Finally in 1999 Johnson Lee Iverson became the first African-American ringmaster of a major U.S. circus at the age of 22 when he won the position at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Iverson was born in New York City and started his career as a part of the Boys Choir of Harlem as the lead tenor. After graduating from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School in 1998 his plans to travel to Europe and sing opera changed after auditioning for and receilving the ringmaster position. He was recognized as one of Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People of 1999.

“I never perceived the circus as a career,” Iverson told interviewers from the Burton Wire in 2013, “It never dawned on me that it would be something I could possibly do. It’s a terrific form of energy that you get when you realize what you’re giving is a service when it’s your craft.” It’s amazing how we fail to imagine ourselves in the roles that we can be perfect for, simply because we’re never introduced to the idea. Having never seen a Black ringmaster, how could a young black boy see himself in that role? Even if it’s his greatest desire, the lack of a role model to follow restricts a person’s ability to see themselves in that position. This is why it’s so important to see representation of Blacks leading in every area, even the circus. 

Today Blacks have a new place when it comes to the circus. The first circus I’d ever attended was in grade school when the UniverSoul circus came to Detroit. It was incredible to see a stage full of people of color dancing, singling, jumping, flipping, taming animals and engaging the crowd in a way that made me want to jump out of my seat. Here is a detailed article about the experience from the Washington Post. The Soul Circus was founded in 1994 by Cedric Walker, originally a concert promoter, his circus is the only African American owned circus in the world. There will never be a time that I’ll miss the soul circus in my city. 

Walker started the circus in order to give Black performers a chance to showcase black culture and talent. The Black person’s role in the circus went from being a slave, an unpaid marketed ‘product’ of fascination, to the ringmaster, the director of circus performance. This is a tall ladder that we’ve climbed, and we can see how the perceived obstacle of Blackness has had an effect in every realm of Western Culture, even in the most ‘magical’ set on earth, the circus.  

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