Today in Black HERstory: Anne Raven Wilkinson
In today's Black HERstory, Anne Raven Wilkinson (1935-2018) became the first African American woman to receive a contract to dance full time with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City, New York. She was just 20 years old when she reached the milestone.
Wilkinson was born to a middle-class family in Harlem, and developed a love for dance at the age of 5. On her ninth birthday an uncle gave her the gift of ballet lessons to the Swoboda School (later known as the Ballet Russe School), where she studied under the direction of well known dancers from Russia‘s Bolshoi Theatre.
Seeking to become a professional dancer, Wilkinson first auditioned for a position with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1954. Twice she was rejected but Wilkinson persevered. On her third try, Sergei Denham, the company’s director, informed her that she would be accepted into the Company. Performing with the Company also meant, as Wilkinson would soon discover, touring throughout the U.S. including the still racially segregated South.
Wilkinson had pale skin and in order to perform in the south with the Company, Wilkinson was asked not publicize her race. In 1957 an owner of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, asked Wilkinson if she was black. When she refused to lie, she was barred from staying at the hotel with the rest of the Company.
Nonetheless as word of Wilkinson’s racial identity became generally known, she was not allowed to participate in performances in Southern cities partly to ensure her own safety. In 1961 Wilkinson left the Ballet Russe Company, and was never hired by another American ballet company again.
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We salute you, Anne Wilkinson! #YouGoGIRL