Eric K. Washington

Historian delves into the life of E.J. Perry, African-American silhouette artist at Luna Park

Eric K. Washington
Interview Date:
May 20, 2016


Historian Eric K. Washington's 2013 essay "E.J. Perry, African-American Silhouette Cutter of America's Leisure Circuit" brought the long forgotten Perry into the public eye once again. Called "America's most famous silhouette cutter" by The Billboard in the early 20th century, Perry had a concession at Coney Island's Luna Park, where it was said "he is there with a nice spiel and and he cuts your picture with the scissors in a minute." The silhouettist also worked at Coney Island's Dreamland, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

Washington, whose area of interest is Harlem and Upper Manhattan history, recalls how he first came across mention of Perry while researching Harlem's Hotel Olga, where the artist had a seasonal job as a chef when it was called the Hotel Dolphin. This year, an elusive piece of information, Perry's full name -- Essaias James Perry -- finally came to light and has led to the discovery of land conveyance records for property in Coney Island and a passport photo. "I think he's still an enigma, but bit by bit he's getting clearer," says Washington. "I think a bigger story or a popular story could easily come out of this man's life."

Eric K. Washington is a Fellow at Columbia University's Community Scholars Program and the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, to be published in October 2019.