O'Neal, Frederick, 1905-1992

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Frederick O'Neal was an African-American actor and director in theater, motion pictures, radio and television, as well as a labor leader in performing arts unions. Primarily a character actor, O'Neal began his career in St. Louis, Mo., where he organized the Aldridge Players. After more than ten years of acting in road companies throughout the West and Midwest, in 1936 O'Neal settled in New York City. In 1940, together with Abram Hill, he co-founded the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem, and in 1944 he made his Broadway debut in the role of the comic bully in "Anna Lucasta" with Hilda Simms, which was originally produced by the ANT on its stage, and later taken to London.

By the mid-1960's, O'Neal had become active in Actors' Equity Association (AEA). After serving in a number of positions with the union, in 1964 he was elected its president, a post he held until 1973. As the first African-American president of AEA, he worked with producers to end discrimination in the casting of its members. In 1969 he became a member of the AFL-CIO Council, and from 1970 until his retirement in 1988, he was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.

O'Neal was also a member of a number of organizations, including the Catholic Interracial Council, for which he served as treasurer, the Catholic Actors Guild (vice president), the Negro Actors Guild (president 1960-1964), the Afro-American Guild of Performing Artists (treasurer) and the American Committee for the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, 1966 (treasurer). He served on the board of a number of organizations including the African-American Labor Council, A. Philip Randolph Institute, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

From the description of Frederick O'Neal papers, 1914-2001 (bulk ca. 1940-1991). (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122465733

Frederick O'Neal was an African-American actor and director in theater, motion pictures, radio and television, as well as a labor leader in performing arts unions. Primarily a character actor, O'Neal began his career in St. Louis, Mo., where he organized the Aldridge Players. After more than ten years of acting in road companies throughout the West and Midwest, in 1936 O'Neal settled in New York City. In 1940, together with Abram Hill, he co-founded the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem, and in 1944 he made his Broadway debut in the role of the comic bully in "Anna Lucasta" with Hilda Simms, which was originally produced by the ANT on its stage, and later taken to London.

By the mid-1960's, O'Neal had become active in Actors' Equity Association (AEA). After serving in a number of positions with the union, in 1964 he was elected its president, a post he held until 1973. As the first African-American president of AEA, he worked with producers to end discrimination in the casting of its members. In 1969 he became a member of the AFL-CIO Council, and from 1970 until his retirement in 1988, he was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.

O'Neal was also a member of a number of organizations, including the Catholic Interracial Council, for which he served as treasurer, the Catholic Actors Guild (vice president), the Negro Actors Guild (president 1960-1964), the Afro-American Guild of Performing Artists (treasurer) and the American Committee for the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, 1966 (treasurer). He served on the board of a number of organizations including the African-American Labor Council, A. Philip Randolph Institute, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

From the guide to the Frederick O'Neal papers, 1914-2001, ca. 1940-1991, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

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 radio programs.

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 Faithful”).

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 support.

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, 1975.

From the guide to the American Negro Theatre records, 1940-1981, 1940-1950, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn M. Moran Weston Papers, 1824-1994 Columbia University. Rare Book an Manuscript Library
referencedIn Weston, M. Moran, 1910-. Papers, 1824-1994. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Paul Robeson award ceremonies collection [sound recording], 1978-1996 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Lucille Lortel papers, 1902-2000 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Actors' Equity Association Records, Bulk, 1913-1991, 1913-2007 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Guide to the Sam Reiss Photographs, circa 1930-1975 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
creatorOf Actors' Equity Association. Paul Robeson award ceremonies collection [sound recording], 1978-1996. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Frederick O'Neal papers, 1914-2001, ca. 1940-1991 The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.
creatorOf North Carolina Folklife Festival (4th : 1978 : Durham, N.C.). Collection, 1978 July 3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
creatorOf American Negro Theatre. American Negro Theatre records, 1940-1981, bulk(1940-1950). Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
creatorOf Walton, Lester A., 1882-1965. Lester Walton Papers, 1905-1977. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf American Negro Theatre records, 1940-1981, 1940-1950 The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.
referencedIn Lester Walton papers, 1905-1977 The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.
referencedIn Associated Actors and Artistes of America Records, 1909-1999 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
creatorOf O'Neal, Frederick, 1905-1992. Frederick O'Neal papers, 1914-2001 (bulk ca. 1940-1991). New York Public Library System, NYPL
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Actors' Equity Association. corporateBody
associatedWith Actors' Equity Association. Paul Robeson Award corporateBody
associatedWith AFL-CIO. corporateBody
associatedWith African-American Labor Center. corporateBody
associatedWith Afro-American Guild of Performing Artists. corporateBody
associatedWith Aldridge, Ira Frederick, d. 1867. person
associatedWith American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. corporateBody
associatedWith American Negro Theatre. corporateBody
associatedWith Associated Actors and Artistes of America corporateBody
associatedWith Associated Actors and Artists of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Catholic Interracial Council (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Childress, Alice person
associatedWith Coordinating Council for Negro Performers. corporateBody
associatedWith Dodson, Owen, 1914- person
associatedWith Glanville, Maxwell person
associatedWith Gribble, Harry Wagstaff, b. 1896 person
associatedWith Harlem Cultural Council. corporateBody
associatedWith Hill, Abram, 1911-1986 person
associatedWith Jeannette, Gertrude, 1914- person
associatedWith Lortel, Lucille person
associatedWith Negro Actors Guild of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Norford, George, 1918- person
associatedWith North Carolina Folklife Festival (4th : 1978 : Durham, N.C.) corporateBody
associatedWith Perry, Shauneille person
associatedWith Perry, Shauneille. person
associatedWith Reiss, Sam. person
associatedWith Saddler, Donald person
associatedWith Simms, Hilda, 1920- person
associatedWith Simms, Hilda, 1920- person
associatedWith Walton, Lester A., 1882-1965. person
associatedWith Weston, M. Moran, 1910- person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (State)--New York
Harlem (New York, N.Y.)
United States
Subject
African American entertainers
African Americans--Social conditions
Black author
African American theater
Labor unions
African Americans--Segregation
African American actors
Theater and society
Actors--United States
African American theater--New York (State)--New York
Actors
African Americans in the performing arts
Discrimination in employment
African American labor leaders
Acting--Study and teaching--New York (State)--New York
Labor unions and the arts
Occupation
Activity

Person

Birth 1905

Death 1992

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