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Richard Potter, America’s First Black Celebrity: A Talk with Scholar John Hodgeson

November 1, 2023 @ 6:30 pm - 8:00 pm


Wednesday November 1, 2023 at 6:30pm; doors open at 5:30pm

Apart from a handful of tales surrounding his life, Richard Potter is almost unknown today. Two hundred years ago, however, he was the most popular entertainer in America—the first showman to win nationwide fame. Working as a magician and ventriloquist, he personified for an entire generation what a popular performer was and made an invaluable contribution to establishing popular entertainment as a major part of American life. His story is all the more remarkable in that Richard Potter was also a black man.

The early 19th century was an era when few African Americans became highly successful, much less famous. As the son of an enslaved mother, Potter was fortunate to have opportunities at all. At home in Boston, he was widely recognized as black, but elsewhere in America audiences entertained themselves with romantic speculations about his “Hindu” ancestry (a perception encouraged by his act and costumes).

Richard Potter’s performances were enjoyed by an enormous public–including the residents of Newport at the Brick Market–but his life off stage has always remained hidden and unknown. On Wednesday November 1, 2023 at 6:30pm, the Newport Historical Society will host Dr. Hodgson to share the remarkable, compelling—and ultimately heartbreaking—story of Potter’s life, a tale of professional success and celebrity counterbalanced by racial vulnerability in an increasingly hostile world. It is a story of race relations and of remarkable, highly influential black gentlemanliness and respectability: as the unsung precursor of Frederick Douglass, Richard Potter demonstrated to an entire generation of Americans that a black man, no less than a white man, could exemplify the best qualities of humanity. The apparently trivial “popular entertainment” status of his work has long blinded historians to his significance and even to his presence. Now at last we can recognize him as a seminal figure in American history.

John Hodgson was a Professor of English, teaching at Yale, the University of Georgia, and Harvard, and then for twenty years served as the Dean of Forbes College at Princeton University. He is the author of books on Wordsworth, on Coleridge and Shelley, on the Sherlock Holmes stories, and most recently Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity.

America’s First Black Celebrity takes place at the Newport Historical Society’s Resource Center, 82 Touro Street. The talk starts at 6:30pm; doors open at 5:30pm for a cocktail reception and book signing. Admission costs $20 per person, $15 for NHS members and active-duty military.

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This program is generously sponsored by the Jailhouse Inn.



November 1, 2023
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
Event Category:


NHS Resource Center
82 Touro Street
Newport, RI 02840


Newport Historical Society