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The Circus Performer Who Would Become Prophet and the Spark of America’s Black Muslim Movement

Walter Brister as Armmah Sotanki, leader of the Sotanki’s troupe of “Hindoo” fakirs starting in 1898.
Walter Brister as Armmah Sotanki, leader of the Sotanki’s troupe of “Hindoo” fakirs starting in 1898.

Once upon a Gilded Age, Americans treated Islam and Muslims with both fascination and respect. Hard to believe in our post-9/11 timeline, but it’s true. Swept by romanticized images of Muslims found in most popular entertainment at the time and Arabian Nights, thousands of Americans were enthralled by the Islamic Orient. Some, in fact, saw Islam as a global antiracist movement uniquely suited to people of African descent living in an era of European imperialism, Jim Crow segregation, and officially sanctioned racism. Some, like enigmatic circus performer John Walter Brister, who would found the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1925, the prequel to the Black Muslims of the Nation of Islam. By then, he was known as Prophet Noble Drew Ali. Thus, at this moment in US history, the Black Muslim movement in America began.

The story of Brister’s transformations from the first Black child star on Broadway in 1893 to Noble Drew Ali is staggering, and historian Jacob S. Dorman vividly brings it to life in The Princess and the Prophet: The Secret History of Magic, Race and Moorish Muslims in America. Dorman traces Brister’s winding path through the world of Arabian acrobats and equestrians, Muslim Fakirs, Wild West shows, and eventually, Chicago politics. Working as a “Hindoo” magician, Brister traveled across the country to perform feats of strength and escape magic. This is how he met his wife Eva, who performed as Princess Sotanki. Famous as the first Black woman lion tamer and for her “Sacred Indian Snake Dance,” she would play a vital role in helping him found the Moorish Science Temple. Throw in a faked death, a new identity, and the anti-immigrant “America First” politics of the time—sound familiar?—to the mix of circus acts, and you have a life story that has to be read to be believed.

The Princess and the Prophet also features photos and poster art from the era. One curious thing becomes clear while looking them. Dorman writes, “As the first Black child star on Broadway, and then the founder of the first Muslim mass movement in America, Walter Brister was incongruously both the forerunner of the blond tap-dancing cherub Shirley Temple and of the militant Black Nationalist icon Malcolm X.” Take a gander at the life and times of Noble Drew Ali! You can take a deeper dive into the archives at princessandprophet.com.

Wangdoodles Bridgeman SSI 2428026 copyThe Woodlawn Wangdoodles, the Black juvenile band that starred in the hit Broadway show In Old Kentucky starting in 1893. Note diminutive bandleader Walter Brister holding a cornet.

 

Walter Brister Hindu Fakir 1900

A photo of Walter Brister as “Armmah Sotanki,” a “Hindoo Magician,” used for the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show and the John Robinson Circus 1900-1902.

 

Princess Sotanki Hindoo Lion TamerPrincess Sotanki, aka Eva Brister, from the 1902 route book of the John Robinson Circus. The picture is the same as the one that ran in the 1900 Pawnee Bill Wild West Show route book, which identified her as E. Brister. This one is notable in that the book identifies her as a “Hindoo lion tamer.”

 

Ali Brothers

The five Ali Brothers, members of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show of 1899, and a typical group of Arab acrobats and equestrians commonly found in American and European circuses near the turn of the twentieth century.

 

1928 Convention Small Version nypl

Members of the Moorish Science Temple of America posing before Unity Hall during their first annual convention, October 1928. Note Prophet Noble Drew Ali, founder of the MSTA (first row, standing, fifth from left), and Eva Allen, the former Eva Brister, a.k.a. Princess Sotanki, seated next to him.

 

NDA with Politicians Retouched BW

Prophet Noble Drew Ali (back row) seated between leading South Side politicians Louis B. Anderson (left) and Oscar DePriest (right). Aaron Payne is seated at bottom right. First Annual Convention, October 1928.

 

About Jacob S. Dorman

Jacob S. Dorman is a professor of History and Core Humanities at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of the CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford University Press, 2013), which won numerous book prizes. Dorman has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and many others.

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