Inventory of the American Negro Theatre Records
Sc MG 70
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library.
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New York, NY 10037-1801
©2000 The New York Public Library.
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. All rights reserved.
This inventory was prepared as part of an archival preservation project to arrange,
describe and catalog resources essential for the study of the African-American
theater history. The necessary staff and supplies for the Blacks on Stage: African-American Theater Arts Collection Project were
made available through a combination of funding from the National Endowment for the
Humanities and the City of New York.
Table of Contents
American Negro Theatre Records 1940-1949, 1981
Sc MG 70
American Negro Theatre
1 box (.2 linear feet
The New York Public Library
Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Gift of Frederick O'Neal
The American Negro Theatre (ANT) co-founded by Frederick O'Neal and Abram Hill, was
established to provide black actors, playwrights, directors and other
theatre-related professionals with opportunities to work in productions that
illustrated the diversity of black life. On June 5, 1940, O'Neal and Hill, and
twenty-eight other individuals met in Harlem to discuss the formation of a permanent
acting company produced by blacks. In the wake of the demise of the WPA Federal
Theatre Project (Negro Unit) in 1939, and the Rose McCleandon Players in 1941, ANT's
purpose was formulated at their second meeting in the basement of the 135th Street
Branch Library. Many members of the Rose McClendon Players, O'Neal, Ruby Dee and
Helen Martin, among them, helped to establish ANT.
O'Neal and Hill both brought a wealth of knowledge and experience in the theatre to
the ANT. O'Neal graduated from the New Theatre School and the American Theatre Wing.
He studied with such notables as Komisarjevsky, Lem Ward, John Bond and Doris
Sorrell. In 1927, O'Neal had organized the Ira Aldridge Players in St. Louis,
Missouri, and at the suggestion of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, had
moved to New York in 1936. Hill had graduated from Lincoln University in
Pennsylvania, and did further study at Columbia University and the New School for
Social Research where he studied playwriting and play analysis.
As ANT took shape, O'Neal's and Hill's goal of creating a truly diverse theatre was
reflected in the construction of ANT's governing documents; the constitution,
by-laws and aims and objectives. These documents provided for rules and regulations
in all sectors of maintaining a functioning and progressive theatre. Special
consideration was given to fund raising and audience building. ANT's program was
essentially divided into three categories: stage productions, a training program and
Considering the dilemma many black playwrights and actors faced in the 1940s, such as
the lack of professional experience, skillful preparation, and few outlets for their
works, ANT's mission was to break this cycle by providing opportunities to develop
the skills of fledgling talents. Their sense of professionalism was also exhibited
in their decision to offer classes in acting, voice and speech, body movement, stage
craft, choral singing, radio voice training and playwriting. O'Neal believed that
hard discipline was one of ANT's main contributions to black theatre. Indeed, ANT
members were fined if they were late for a rehearsal or performance, which helped to
consolidate their reputation as a serious theatre company.
For the first five years (1940-1945) ANT was housed in the basement of the 135th
Street Branch Library of the New York Public Library, known as the
“Harlem Library Little Theatre.” According to historian Ethel
Pitts, this space was especially renovated for the group with “new
lights, new seats, a larger foyer, storage room, work space and dressing
rooms.” In 1945, ANT was forced to move to the Elks Lodge at 15 West
126th Street, which was renamed as the American Negro Theatre Playhouse.
From 1940-1949, nineteen plays, twelve of them original, were produced by ANT.
“On Striver's Row,” “Walk Hard--Talk
Loud,” (both written by Hill), and “Rain” were
well-received plays. However, commercial success struck with Philip Yordan's
“Anna Lucasta,” adapted for a black cast. Starring Hilda Simms
as the wayward protagonist, the play had a successful run in Harlem, and went on to
Broadway, Chicago and London. Hill and numerous black playwrights such as Countee
Cullen (“One Way To Heaven”), Theodore Browne (“Go
Down Moses” and “Natural Man”), Owen Dodson
(“Garden of Time”), and Curtis Cooksey
(“Starlight”) were able to see full-fledged productions of
their plays. ANT also exhibited the talents of several now well-known actors and
actresses, some for the first time, including Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry
Belafonte, Alvin and Alice Childress, Hilda Simms, Earl Hyman, Isabel Sanford, Vinie
Burroughs, Helen Martin, Roger Furman, Maxwell Glanville, Clarice Taylor, Gordon
Heath and Hilda Hayes. Although primarily focused on the development of black
talent, ANT had white members and produced works by white playwrights such as Yordan
(“Anna Lucasta”), Henry and Phoebe Ephron (“Three's
a Family”, and Henry Wagstaff Gribble (“Almost
Amid their successes, ANT's financial problems were ever present. Throughout its
ten-year history, there were concerted efforts to build and establish audience
support and membership in the theater as vehicles to finance salaries, production
and administrative costs. In 1944, ANT received a John D. Rockefeller Foundation
grant for $21,500. According to O'Neal, it was the only grant ANT ever received.
Despite the company's consideration of undertaking a major fund raising campaign in
1948, O'Neal observed that there was never a full canvasing of the community for
In 1949, ANT's Reorganization Committee worked to find new ways to address the
company's administrative and financial problems. Although ANT continued to produce
plays, many members, including founders Hill and O'Neal subsequently resigned. In
1950, ANT made its final move to a loft on West 125th Street, and according to
O'Neal, officially went out of business a year later.
- Pitts, Ethel Louise. “The American Negro Theatre,
1940-1949.” Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri/Columbia,
Scope and Content
The American Negro Theatre records span the years 1940-1981 (bulk dates 1940-1949)
and illustrate various aspects of ANT's mission.
ANT's constitution and by-laws, 1940, and its aims and objectives, n.d., map out a
strategy to establish a permanent acting company in Harlem. The constitution
describes the function of the governing body, the production staff, legal advisors,
membership and trustees. Also included is an organizational chart.
A large amount of the Correspondence, 1940-1981, was generated by or to Frederick
O'Neal. Authors of the letters include Abram Hill, Austin Briggs-Hall, Hattie
King-Revis, Alice Childress, Bill Downer, Harry Wagstaff Gribble and Hilda Hayes.
Subject of the letters include constitutional revision disputes; broken contracts;
internal feuding; resignation letters from O'Neal, Donner and others; performance
reviews; the discontinuation of the use of the 135th Street Branch Library building
in 1945; and the subsequent demise of ANT.
Included in the Programs, 1940-1942, 1944-1946, n.d., file are flyers and programs
for productions such as the critically acclaimed “On Striver's
Row,” “Sojourner Truth,” “Tin Top
Valley,” “The Washington Years,” “Henri
Christophe,” “Natural Man,” and the popular
“Anna Lucasta.” A more complete file of programs can be found
in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, in the Programs and Playbills
collection filed under the production's name.
The Board of Directors, 1944, 1946-1947, 1949, file contains reports, minutes, and
information about the Planning Committee, 1947. ANT's Financial Records, 1945-1949,
1951, n.d., contains operating plans, production costs, membership and pledge
information, invoices, a proposal for the construction of a permanent site for ANT,
a list of loans made to ANT members, fiscal year reports, and other documents
concerning miscellaneous administrative production expenses.
Articles, 1945-1948, 1978, n.d, features pieces and clippings about ANT's history and
contain reviews of productions from the newspapers and magazines Big Red, Smith College Spectator, The New York Sun, New York
World Telegram, Variety and Rhythm Magazine.
Within the Fund Raising Campaign, 1947, file is a proposal and unsigned contract with
Carter-Johnson and Associates for a fund raising campaign with notes via radio and
The School of Drama, 1947-1948, n.d., file contains the school's aims and purposes.
This document features courses on acting, voice and speech, body movement,
directing, stage craft. Also included are notes from class.
Minutes contained within the Administrative Committee, 1949, file reveal efforts by
O'Neal and other staff members to both revive and reconstruct the company. Many of
those efforts were also chronicled in the minutes, notes and by-laws found in the
Reorganization Committee file, 1949. The content of this file includes information
about the Harlem community's lack of support, inaccurate financial records and ANT's
inability to maintain organized activities.
In tandem with the Reorganization Committee, the Audience Building Committee, 1949,
focused on redirecting efforts to increase sponsorship and attendance of ANT's
productions as noted in minutes, letters and other materials.
The Theatre Renovations, c. 1940s, n.d., file has proposals concerning operating
expenses, personnel, productions and facilities for the 135th Street Branch Library
at Lenox Avenue.
The Playreading Committee, n.d., file includes reports for analysis of plays,
recommended plays and evaluations of “Freedom Road,” by Dan
James; “Providence and a Girl,” by Eugene Coleman;
“Canaries Sometimes Sing,” by Frederick Longsdale.
American Negro Theatre Scrapbook, MG 363
American Negro Theatre Alumni Collection, MG 535
Hilda Haynes Papers, MG 626
The Frederick O'Neal Papers, MG 427
Hilda Simms Papers, MG 539
American Negro Theatre Records
b. 1 f. 1
Constitution And By-Laws, 1940, Aims And
b. 1 f. 3
Programs, 1940-42, 1944-46, n.d.
b. 1 f. 7
Executive Committee, 1944
b. 1 f. 8
Financial Records, 1944-45, 1951, n.d.
b. 1 f. 10
Articles, 1945-48, 1978,
b. 1 f. 11
Membership, 1945, 1949, n.d.
b. 1 f. 13
Board Of Directors, 1946-47,
b. 1 f. 15
Board Of Directors, Planning Committee,
b. 1 f. 16
Fund Raising Campaign, 1947
b. 1 f. 17
School Of Drama, 1947-48,
b. 1 f. 19
Executive Committee, 1949
b. 1 f. 20
Reorganization Committee, 1949
b. 1 f. 21
Audience Building Committee,
b. 1 f. 26
Theatre Renovations, n.d.