Ira Aldridge was born in New York on 24th July, 1807. His father, a church minister, sent him to the African Free School. As a young man Aldridge developed a love of the theatre. Aware that a career as an actor in America would be difficult he decided to emigrate to England. He obtained employment as a ship's steward and arrived in Liverpool in 1824.
Aldridge appeared as Oroonoko in A Slave's Revenge at the Royal Coburg Theatre in October, 1825. The reviews were mixed and although The Globe found his voice "distinct and sonorous" The Times reviewer complained that he could not pronounce English properly "owing to the shape of his lips".
Over the next few years appeared in plays in Manchester, Sheffield, Halifax, Newcastle, Liverpool, Hull, Sunderland and Belfast. After his performance in Othello in Scarborough he was described as"an actor of genius". He also appeared in several white roles as Shylock, Macbeth and Richard III.
In 1833 newspaper critics began to make openly racist comments about Aldridge. One critic protested "in the name of propriety and decency" about the decision to pair Aldridge with the actress Ellen Tree. He added that he disliked Tree being "pawed about on the stage by a black man."
As a result of these attack London theatres refused to employ him. However, he was in great demand in the provincial theatre and one newspaper described his performance as Othello as being so good that it could only "be equalled by very few actors of the present day."
Frustrated by being blacklisted in London he decided to leave England and appeared on the stage in Brussels, Cologne, Basle, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Danzig, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Munich. While in Russia he became one of the highest paid actors in the world when he received £60 for every performance. One Russian critic stated that the evenings on which he saw Aldridge's Othello, Lear, Shylock and Macbeth "were undoubtedly the best that I have ever spent in the theatre".
Ira Aldridge died while on tour in Poland on 7th August, 1867.