Name an African-American magician. If you can't, you're not alone. But Walter King, aka "The Spellbinder," is trying to change that.
King, a full-time illusionist magician who runs his magic business out of Oak Park, said that even today many people are surprised to meet a magician of color. Along with performing around the Chicago area (he does large scale stage tricks, including levitation), King has also developed two special shows for schools: an African-American magician history show and a magic show promoting drug awareness for schools.
During his history show, King performs magic tricks from classic African-American magicians, and teaches the students about the history of those magicians. The show has become an attraction for many schools, and some even use it as part of their black history month curriculum.
King also founded an organization called the Brotherhood of American Minority Magicians (BAMM). He says the group's goal is to bring together magicians of color to share ideas and experiences. Currently, there are eight members, all from Chicago.
While there are national brotherhoods of magicians, there are few minority organizations. King said his group has people coming from all over the country to talk to them and learn new tricks.
The African American magician presence in Chicago is small, he noted. He's one of the few African American full-time illusionist magicians in the Midwest.
There are reports that Harry Houdini learned some of his more famous feats from other magicians who had difficulty practicing the trade because of their race.
"There was very little documented," said Jim Magus, a Georgia magician whose book, Magical Heroes: The Lives and Legends of Great African American Magicians, is one of the few history books about African American magicians. Magus became interested in the topic in college. After he received an overwhelming response to his first book, Magus said he will continue his research.
"It's a history you won't find in any book," Magus said. "A lot of it wasn't written down."
Historians credit Richard Potter as not only being the first African-American magician, but perhaps the first American-born magician. Born to a slave mother and her owner in Massachusetts in 1783, Potter was taught the trade by a Scottish magician. He was able to create a large following by using strategic advertising and putting on an exciting show. Legend has it that Potter was even able to perform in the south while slavery was still in existence.
King, who became familiar with Potter's work, got his start in theater, and has used his background to influence his stage presence, using music and dance to complement the tricks.
Magus explained that historically, many black magicians were accepted by other magicians. In 1926, an African-American magician was invited to perform at the International Brotherhood of Magicians yearly convention. Magus said at the time "it didn't seem that controversial."
"They've been very open," Magus said. "I've never seen racism in magic."
"I haven't really experienced any prejudice. It's the promoters and the producers," he said, explaining that he has always been well-received by other magicians and by the crowds, but has had promoters and agents who are uncomfortable with his race.
He recalled a corporate sponsor booking him for a performance in Chicago after hearing about his act. When he met the promoter, King said the promoter was worried the act wouldn't be accepted by a white audience. According to King, the promoter told him, "I didn't tell [the sponsor] you were black."
King eventually performed and got a standing ovation from the crowd.
Five years ago, Ted Lee, a mortician and magician in White Plains, N.Y., began researching past and current black magicians for a calendar he later produced.
"I reflected back on the many magicians whom I've met over the years," Lee wrote. "I've always noticed the small percentage of black magicians."
Lee's first calendar was so popular, he produced a second one in 2004. The calendars feature stories about the history of African-American magicians as well as news about new magicians.
For King, the racism he has experienced only makes him want to work harder. "It just fuels the fire," he said. "We're just going to have to break through ourselves. We know there's a market for it."