J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Bite of Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit

As I mentioned back here, I scripted one of the stories in the new anthology Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750. I wrote that script with the artist Joel Christian Gill in mind, and was lucky enough that he agreed to work on the project.

Joel is a professor and now chair of the Foundations Program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. For years he was creating and publishing short comics about African-American history. As part of the process that led to Colonial Comics, the same publisher saw Joel’s mini-comics and signed him up for multiple books.

Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History came out earlier this year. It has a foreword by Prof. Henry Louis Gates and has been getting fine reviews. Its subjects include Marshall “Major” Taylor, a cycling champion; Theophilus Thompson, a child born into slavery who became a chess master; the Malaga Island community of Maine; and more.

One of those stories has its roots in Revolutionary New England: the career of Richard Potter, America’s first professional magician. Potter was a light-skinned African-American, able to portray a “Hindu” in his performances during the early 1800s.

According to traditions going back to the late nineteenth-century, Potter was raised in Hopkinton, son of a servant woman or slave named Dinah and a baronet, or hereditary knight. Hopkinton was home of the baronet Sir Charles Henry (Harry) Frankland, and in the past authors have suggested Frankland was Potter’s father. However, the magician’s gravestone indicates he was born in or around 1783, and Frankland died in 1768, so that’s out.

The 2004 book Black Portsmouth suggests that Potter’s father was Henry Cromwell, a young man in the Frankland household. Most sources identify Cromwell as Sir Harry Frankland’s illegitimate son (though one says he was the illegitimate son of the previous baronet, Sir Harry’s uncle). As for Henry Cromwell’s mother, most sources suggest she was Sir Harry’s mistress before he met the love of his life, Agnes Surriage, in a Marblehead tavern. In Marblehead’s Pygmalion: Finding the Real Agnes Surriage (2010), F. Marshall Bauer digs deepest into those relationships and concludes that Agnes, the future Lady Frankland, probably bore Henry Cromwell out of wedlock as a teenaged mother.

That still leaves the question of how Henry Cromwell might have fathered Richard Potter. Cromwell left America with Lady Frankland during the siege of Boston. At the end of the war, he was busy as a captain in the Royal Navy, participating in the Second Battle of Ushant. He was unlikely to be found in Hopkinton in 1782 or ’83.

Eventually Cromwell became an admiral and retired to the English countryside. In 1805 Sir Harry’s younger brother William left his estate to Cromwell on the provision that the retired admiral change his surname to Frankland, as he quickly did. Thus, although Henry Cromwell Frankland was never a baronet, he was the son of a baronet, an admiral, and a big English landowner, which added up to nearly the same thing.

So did Henry Cromwell leave Massachusetts with the enslaved woman Dinah, and they had Richard Potter far away from Hopkinton? Was Potter born in Hopkinton to another couple altogether, and did he later add an aristocratic pedigree? Did Potter shave a decade off his age, meaning he was really born in 1773? Firm answers are illusory. In Strange Fruit, Joel Gill focuses instead on Potter’s theatrical career, conjuring feats, and manipulation of racial identities within nineteenth-century America.

Joel’s second book this year, Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth, Volume 1, tells the life of a highly successful Texas lawman. It makes some remarkable uses of the comics form, especially in conveying racist language without using it. That book makes its debut this weekend at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo in Cambridge. Right now, as I understand it, Joel is touring the Midwest, wowing audiences with his talks before returning to New England in time for that exposition. Richard Potter would be proud.

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