Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre is founded

On January 22, 1940,  Agnes de Mille choreographed the ballet Black Ritual (Obeah) for sixteen Black dancers: Lawaune Kennard, Lavinia Williams, Ann Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, Valerie Black, Leonore Cox, Edith Hurd, Mabel Hart, Maudelle Bass, Clementine Collinwood, Carrole Ash, Bernice Willis, and Muriel Cook. Black Ritual was set to the scoreLa Création du monde” (1923) by Darius Milhaud.

The Ballet Theatre was founded in 1940 to be representative of the budding American style of ballet while nodding to the classical European form. New works by American choreographers and European choreographers filled the repertoire. Some notable choreographers who worked with the Ballet Theatre were Russians Michel Fokine and Bronislava Nijinska, Englishmen Andrée Howard and Antony Tudor via Ballet Rambert, and Americans Eugene Loring and Agnes de Mille.

The collaborative and collective company was expansive: 20 principal dancers, 15 soloists, a company of 56, 11 composers, 11 designers, 11 choreographers, 18 composers, a Spanish unit of 19 dancers, and an all-Black unit called the Negro Unit of 14 dancers. These dancers were Lawaune Kennard, Lavinia Williams, Anne Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, Valerie Black, Leonore “Azelean” Cox, Edith Hurd, Mabel Hart, Maudelle Bass, Clementine Collinwood, Carole Ash, Bernice Willis, and Muriel Cook.

The lack of a singular artistic force was the downfall of the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre, but it was modeled after a government funded arts initiative by US President Franklin Roosevelt, which was called the Federal Theater Project.

*Note that some sources list alternate spellings for the names of Anne Jones, Clementine Collinwood, and Carole Ash.


Ballet Theater after Fifteen Years, R.J. Austin
Ballet, Race, and Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, The Musical Quarterly
Federal Theater Project (Negro Units) by Dr. Anthony D. Hill, Black Past

Other Happenings in 1940

American History

Sept 16: The Burke-Wadsworth Act is passed by Congress along with the first peacetime draft in the history of the United States.
Oct 27: Mafia boss and future head of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti is born in the Bronx, New York.
Apr 7: The first Black person appears on a US stamp (Booker T. Washington).
May 15: Richard and Maurice McDonald open the first McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California.
Jul 18: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is nominated for an unprecedented third term.

World History

Aug 20: Exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky is assassinated in Mexico City.
Sept 7: 300 German bombers attack in a blitzkrieg (lightning war).
Dec 29: At the hands of Germany, London is attacked in its most devastating air raid.

Arts & Sciences

Feb 23: Folk singer Woody Guthrie pens “This Land is Your Land.”
Feb 29: Hattie McDaniel wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone With the Wind.
May 6: Author John Steinbeck wins a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Sept 12: Near Montignac, France, a collection of prehistoric cave paintings is discovered in the Lascaux Grotto.

Human & Civil Rights

Apr 27: Himmler orders establishment of Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
Jun 4: The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk on the Belgian coast is successful, saving 338,000 troops from Nazi capture.


Apr 16: Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians pitches his first no-hitter.
Dec 8: The Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins in the Championship with a score of 73-0.

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