The history of African American performers in the "circus" starts in the world of museums and side-shows.

The side-show traveled with a circus or carnival but was usually secondary and displayed "human oddities", such as people with body modifications, conjoined twins, people with dwarfism, and people whose appearance did not fit what society considered to be normal.  During the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, African Americans were unlikely to get jobs as performers in the circus unless it was as part of the side show.  

The first well documented African American in this setting was Joice Heth. In 1835, Heth was sold to PT Barnum by her enslaver in Kentucky. She was in her late 70s or early 80s, was nearly blind and mostly paralyzed. PT Barnum took Heth to museums and charged money for people to look at her, claiming she was the 161-year-old nurse to George Washington. After her death in 1836, Barnum staged a public autopsy, charging people $.50 (about $15 in today's currency). At the autopsy, the coroner revealed that Heth was around 80 years old, instead of the 161 years Barnum claimed. Though at the time he blamed Heth for lying, he later admitted the hoax. This was Barnum's first foray into sideshows, museums, and circuses. One of Millie-Christine's first appearances would be at Barnum's museum in New York City.

Barnum also recruited William Henry Johnson, displayed as "Zip the Pinhead". Originally from New Jersey, Johnson may have had a condition known as microcephaly, where one's head is smaller than the rest of the body. Barnum dressed Johnson in a fur suit and billed him as "The Missing Link", accompanied by the phrase "What Is It?". Johnson was a regular with Barnum's museums and sideshows and performed at Coney Island as he got older.

William Henry Johson, top row, second from left, stands next to one of the Muse brothers. The other brother is in the top row, third from the right.

William Henry Johnson and The Muse Brothers

Public Domain

For at least a year, Johnson performed with a pair of Albino African American brothers named Willie and George Muse. The Muse brothers were taken from their hometown near Roanoke, Virginia by the Ringling Brothers circus sometime between 1911 and 1914. They were put on display as Eko and Iko, Ecuadorian cannibals or men from Mars. The brothers were still children when they were kidnapped, and told their mother died to stop them from asking about her. In the fall of 1927, Ringling Brothers made their way to Roanoke once again and they saw their mother, Harriett Muse, for the first time in over a decade. Harriet sued Ringling Brothers for $100,000 and won. The Muse brothers rejoined the circus and traveled around the country performing. They were talented musicians and played banjo as part of their act. In their retirement, they moved back to Roanoke and lived a quiet life there. Though Willie Muse died in the 1970s, George lived until 2006.

While most African Americans were resigned to the "freak show" portion of the circus, Ephriam Williams created the first African American circus in Milwaukee in the 1880s. This marked the advent of African American circus troupes, that traveled from city to city, performing acrobatics, opera, and comedy. Williams refused to make minstrelsy part of the show.

Today, the UniverSoul Circus is a Black-owned circus based out of Atlanta, Georgia. It was started in the early 1990s by Cedric Walker, a performer from Baltimore, and continues to perform throughout the country. Over 125 people are involved in the UniverSoul Circus, and the emphasis is celebrating diverse cultures. The circus acts are cultural performances representing distinct parts of the African diaspora, as well as traditional acrobatics.

Share this page