Celebration in Andover to remember America’s first Black celebrity

  • Andover Historical Society celebrates its 40th Anniversary on August 7 with the return of the Old Time Fair. In collaboration with the Black Heritage Trail of NH, the AHS will commemorate early-19-century magician and ventriloquist Richard Potter and unveil a new historic marker. Grace Schust—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/22/2022 4:03:11 PM

Some 200 years ago, Andover was home to the man widely known as the country’s first Black celebrity.

His name was Richard Potter and he was a multi-faceted performer whose career touring on two continents left him able to build an estate here known as Potter Place. It was so well-known that a station was named for it when the railroad came to town.

“He learned how to do slackwire work … He learned fire-eating, ventriloquism, magic – anything that a performer was doing in the late 1700s. He learned from a couple of the best,” said Andrew Pinard, a magician and performer who founded Hatbox Theatre.

Pinard will perform some “19th-century magic” based on Potter’s repertoire on Sunday, August 7, at the Andover Historical Society’s Old Time Fair, part of a ceremony honoring Potter.  That includes the placement of a marker commemorating his life and works that will be part of the state’s Black Heritage Trail.

Potter was born in 1783, son of a white man from Boston and a black female slave. Details about his early life are obscure but at some point, he went to Europe and joined John Rannie, a Scottish ventriloquist and magician, who came to the United States in 1800. Potter created his own act and toured the U.S. and Canada for years. 

It’s a testament to Potter’s abilities that he was able to overcome racial prejudice and become so successful, said JerriAnneBoggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail.

“He was skilled, he was able to deliver on this entertainment that the masses wanted, to thrill them with his skills,” she said. “Being a man of color added to the intrigue.”

In 1814, Potter bought about 175 acres in Andover and built a large house, which has since burned down. He died in 1835 and he and his wife, Sally, who sometimes toured with him, are buried there.

While Potter is less well known today, he hasn’t been forgotten. One of the state’s earliest historical markers is at Potter Place and calls him “noted magician, ventriloquist and showman” although it goes on to give the slightly confusing description of Potter as “19th century master of the Black Arts.”

He has been the subject of a number of books and articles, notably “Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity” by local historian John Hodgson, who will present a talk at the ceremony about Potter’s impact.

The Black Heritage Trail marker is one of five scheduled to be placed in the state this year after three were placed last year, including one in Warner honoring that town’s Black history.

“There are 18 towns across the state where we will be putting markers up, and we keep getting calls,” said Boggis, who noted that the project has led to new discoveries. “The one in Windham was not even on our radar. We got a call from the historical society, working on Black history in their cemetery, and we didn’t know anything about it.”

“We keep finding these stories, these little hidden gems we have here,” she added. “Creating these visible sites of Black history in our state helps us see that we’re more inclusive than people think.”

The ceremony will also include African drumming and the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem. Fairgoers can enjoy food, live music, miniature train rides for children, and old-fashioned pumper car rides. It will be Sunday, August 7, at 10:30 a.m., at the Andover Historical Society’s Old Time Fair. Fairgrounds will be open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Potter Place on 105 Depot Street in Andover. The event is free and open to the public.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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