Last year, Jennifer Stoy, a genealogical researcher, contacted a woman in Washington state to discuss the woman’s step grandmother, Ellen Armstrong, being a renowned magician. In fact, she was the first Black woman magician to have a touring solo act.

The woman and her siblings, however, had never heard those stories until she met Stoy. Armstrong died in 1994 in Columbia, South Carolina.

 “It was exciting, and I’m glad they were happy to hear about it,” Stoy says. “I was surprised no one reached out to them before. I was floored.”

Stoy, who has spent the past year working on a documentary titled “Going Fine Since 1889: The Magical Armstrongs,” will discuss Armstrong and her family to kick off Wofford College’s Black History Month celebrations at 6 p.m. on Feb. 6 in Leonard Auditorium.

Ellen Armstrong, her father, John Hartford Armstrong, and her stepmother, Lillie Belle Mills, performed as “The Celebrated Armstrongs” in magic shows across the South and up and down the East Coast during the Jim Crow Era.

They also lived a short distance from Wofford’s campus on College Street.

In addition to being a genealogical researcher, Stoy has been a casting director for major film and television projects. She’ll show the trailer for her project on the Armstrongs during her discussion at Wofford.

“It’s important to look back at that time period and see people who did their own thing despite the challenges they faced while finding a way to flourish,” Stoy says.

John Armstrong performed from 1894 until his death in 1939. Ellen continued performing until the 1950s.

“Longevity is difficult to achieve for a magician because it’s a craft,” says Stoy, who marvels at the family’s ability to perform over a few decades.

Stoy, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina, stumbled across information about the family while researching another project at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.

“I stopped and read about them and bookmarked it while continuing the work that I was doing,” Stoy says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about their story.”

She contacted Dr. Dwain Pruitt ’95, Wofford’s chief equity officer, last summer to interview him about Spartanburg during the 1880s to 1930s. Pruitt is the author of “Things Hidden: An Introduction to the History of Blacks in Spartanburg.”

Pruitt quickly became fascinated with Stoy’s project.

“History classes often treat minority groups’ experiences by focusing on their treatment by the majority community instead of the institutions and opportunities that minorities created for themselves,” Pruitt says. “The story that Jennifer is reconstructing is a fantastic reminder of how African Americans built creative and intellectual lives for themselves and is also another example of how Spartanburg has been home to influential Black artists.”

Stoy originally planned to write a book about the family, but she’s uncovered enough photos, scrapbooks and family props, including some belonging to Dr. Michael Claxton, an English professor at Harding University, who also is a magic collector and historian, to make the story visually appealing for a movie.  

Randy Shine, a magician and magic historian, is serving as a technical advisor for the film while researching and demonstrating the tricks performed by the Armstrongs. Kenrick “Ice” McDonald, an international master magician and the first Black person to be inaugurated as the president of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) also is contributing to the project.

The project is receiving funding from South Carolina Humanities and is seeking other sponsors.

The Armstrongs are known in magician circles, but Stoy said there’s a lot of mystery and misinformation surrounding John Armstrong. One of her goals is to correct the embellishments while exposing more people to their inspirational story. 

“It’s a piece of Americana that needs more attention,” Stoy says. “It will resonate with people today who are overcoming obstacles.”