Ella Madison was born in 1854 in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her parents were John and Caroline Robinson. Her sister, Caroline Victoria (usually called Victoria) was married to Solomon Northup‘s son, Alonzo. (Alonzo and his family later moved to Weedsport in Cayuga County). It was reported that Ella, while a teenager, had relocated to New York City, and marched in a parade in 1869 that commemorated the passage of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship rights to former slaves. Her mother died that year, while visiting her daughter, Caroline, in Washington County, New York.
In the 1870s, Ella got involved in show business, playing the role of Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When the production went overseas, Ella went with it, and she performed in England, Germany, and Switzerland. She came back to the U.S. but sailed for Europe again, late in 1889, when she traveled to Holland to fulfill an engagement at one of Amsterdam’s leading theaters. Then, back in America, she toured with a man named Charles Asbury. They performed as an act called “The Virginia Duo.”
An 1894 newspaper noted that they gave “excellent character representations of Southern plantation life.” She also appeared again in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, since a 1902 notice in the Indianapolis Freeman lists her among the cast of a “mammoth” production at the American Theatre. The play included many “clever singers and dancers.” She also performed as a member of Herman Lindy’s “Female Quartet.”
At some point, Ella married a man named John Madison. Madison worked as a groom for Bob Stickney, who was a well-known circus bareback rider (it is not clear whether Madison worked for Bob Stickney, Sr. or Bob Stickney, Jr.–both, however, were circus riders). The couple had one daughter, who died when she was only in her teens. Ella lost her husband as well.
There then followed a period when she was employed as a domestic worker. Around 1916, she was hired by Greenwich Village artists William and Marguerite Zorach to take care of their children, Tessim and Dahlov. (Marguerite even painted a portrait of Ella, as she lovingly held an infant Dahlov, in a work titled “Ella Madison and Dahlov.”) Dahlov remembered Ella as a “large, black woman with crinkly gray hair,” who “gave us love, taught us good behavior and moral precepts, and entertained us with marvelous spirituals.” Ella’s love of performing was still present, as she would take the children to Washington Square Park and stage “street theater,” by having young Tessim Zorach insult her so that she could improvise a dramatic reaction for other people in the park to see.
In 1927 New York’s Guild Theatre planned to produce a play based on DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, which was about African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. When auditioned by director Rouben Mamoulian, she was asked to sing “some old Negro folk-songs.” Calling for a guitar, she played and sang “in a charming and graceful manner” and was hired on the spot. The play included numerous African American characters, many of which were played by amateur actors. With Ella’s previous work in show business, she was one of the more experienced performers. In 1930, writer Edward G. Perry called her “the grand old lady of the Negro Theatre.” As a woman in her 70s, she became the “mother” to everyone in the cast, who celebrated birthdays with her while the show was on the road: in Philadelphia in 1928, and in London, England in 1929.
Ella’s age may have been a factor in the way she acted the role of Annie in the play. Perry noted that if she could not remember one of her lines, she would deliver a “line that was not in the script, but one that was nevertheless very clever.” Therefore, she was allowed to “create her own lines and bits of atmosphere if they fitted in.” Author DuBose Heyward noted that one scene in the play that was not taken from his book was an argument conducted between two characters, which was “a spontaneous collaboration between Annie (Ella Madison) and Jake (Wesley Hill).” In 1929, critic Robert Littell commented in the New York Evening Post on Ella’s Porgy performance, saying that ” Miss Ella Madison’s presentation [was] one of the most skillfully and sharply etched portraits seen on the stage this season.”
After a run in New York that lasted more than a year, the play took to the road. It must have been arduous for a woman in her 70s, but her participation in the production had its advantages. The great Paul Robeson, though not in the cast, sometimes sang during performances, which undoubtedly was a treat to Ella and the rest of the cast. In the spring of 1929, the play went to London for a three-month engagement — it was Ella’s tenth trip to Europe. Finally, in 1929 when the play was at Rochester, New York, Ella squeezed in a trip to Weedsport and visited her sister Victoria, whom she had not seen in about 40 years. A visit the actress paid to her sister was mentioned in the Cayuga Chief on June 21, 1929. According to Perry’s profile of Ella, published in 1930, they may have talked about how Victoria’s father-in-law, Solomon Northup, had worked on the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman.
In the 1930s, Ella understood that she was growing older, and she had been setting aside money so that she could go into an old folks home (which a Canadian newspaper said she jokingly described as a “home for delinquent women”) when she could no longer take care of herself. Ella’s death came a few years after the Porgy tour had taken her from New York City in 1927 and 1928; to Buffalo and Milwaukee in 1928; Baltimore, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Rochester and London in 1929; and Brooklyn in 1930.
Ella’s death was recorded as having occurred on April 14, 1933 in New York City. Municipal records indicate she was buried in Emanuel Cemetery, at the Larksburg community in Putnam Valley, New York. This cemetery had been established in 1927 as a burial place for African Americans. Unfortunately, very few markers remain to denote the final resting places of those buried there.
Ella Madison during the Picnic scene from Porgy (in the foreground, fourth from the right), New York Public Library.