Honoring the Legacy of Abram Hill, Co-Founder of the American Negro Theatre

By Candice Frederick
November 12, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Megan Goins-Diouf,  Contributor of our current exhibition, The 75th Anniversary of the American Negro Theatre, remembers Abram Hill, Co-Founder, Executive Director, playwright and producer for the legendary playhouse. 

Abram Hill directing a rehearsal of an American Negro Theatre production, 1944, Photographer unknown

Abram Hill was born on January 20, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, and made his first onstage appearance in the chapel of Morehouse College. His family moved to Harlem, New York,  when he was thirteen, and he attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the South Bronx and City College of New York for two years. After working a series of occasional jobs including a photographer’s assistant and elevator operator at Macy’s, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania as a pre-med student in 1934. And in 1936 he secured a job in drama with the Civil Concentration Corps (CCC) where he directed plays.

For the next two years, Hill shuttled between working at the CCC and toward a Bachelor of Arts degree at Lincoln where he studied drama under J. Newton Hill. While there, he produced his first play in 1937, Hell’s Half Acre.  After graduating in 1938, Hill worked as a play reader and Administrative Aide to the National Director of the Federal Theater (part of the Works Progress Administration).  His second play, On Striver’s Row, was produced by the Rose McClendon Players in 1939, just one year before he co-founded the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in 1940.

Hill was most known for his plays which explored cross-cultural experiences, including On Striver’s Row, Walk Hard, and Anna Lucasta. In celebration of our commemorative exhibit, and the ANT's successful near decade run, Hill continues to be lauded for his capital investment in the development of "Harlem's Little Library Theatre," as well as his cultivation of the black genre of American theater.  

As the Executive Director, Hill established and steered the training school, which included speech, design, choreography and acting classes that further propelled the talent that defines the ANT. His biography, alongside co-founder Frederick O’Neal’s, highlights his dedication to create opportunities for African Americans in all aspects of theater, and his passion for making the theater relevant and accessible to all Harlemites. His legacy offers us a foundation for the struggle for African-American storytellers to tell their own stories, and emphasizes the importance of honest depictions of black life.

Hill passed away in Harlem on October 13, 1986.

Learn more about our exhibition The 75th Anniversary of the American Negro Theatre