Ira Aldridge was an American and later British actor, playwright, and theatre manager born in New York City in 1807.
In the early 1820s he started acting in the African Company which built its own theatre but, confronted with persistent discrimination which black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Britain in 1824. Parliament had already outlawed the slave trade and was moving toward abolishing slavery in the British Empire, which increased the prospects for black actors.
He appeared on stages in London and Europe playing especially Shakespearean roles. He also played a number of anti-slavery roles and often addressed his audiences on closing night, speaking passionately about the injustice of slavery, as did other touring Black abolitionists.
In 1828 Aldridge became Manager of the Coventry Theatre. He was the first black person ever to run a British theatre. His performances and the plays he presented led the city to petition Parliament to abolish slavery.
He also toured in Europe and was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honours from heads of state.
He had apparently been planning a 100-show tour of the United States after the end of the Civil War but unfortunately he died while on tour in Poland in 1867.
Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the thirty-three actors of the English stage honoured with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He has become an inspirational figure for artists from Paul Robeson to Adrian Lester.