Actors' Equity was one of the first unions to stand up against "Jm Crow."

In 1944, the union created a committee to assist minority actors turned away on the road from segregated hotels. Jose Ferrer, who co-starred with Paul Robeson in Othello on Broadway, was outraged by segregation and announced he'd never perform in front of a segregated audience.

Two years later, Ingrid Bergman and the cast of Joan of Lorraine, complained to AE about audience segregation at the legit theaters in Washington. The union took a strong stance stating that unless the situation was remedied, they would forbid members to play there. The policy was reversed, a milestone in the early days of the civil-rights movement.

Equity continued to monitor segregation and announced in 1952 that its members would not perform in South-African theaters while apartheid existed. AE sponsored showcases for casting directors and producers to push non-traditional casting. The union also used its clout to defeat racism through collective bargaining. In 1961, AE and the League of American Theaters and Producers (now the Broadway League) agreed that no member of Equity would be required to perform where discrimination was practiced, and the Ethnic Minorities Committee was formed.

In 1964, Fredrick O'Neal, one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild, became the first African-American president of Actors' Equity. By 1980, all Equity contracts contained clauses encouraging the casting of actors of color, actors with disabilities, women and seniors.


Key Subjects: 
Actors' Equity, racism, Frederick O'Neal, Paul Robeson, Jose Ferrer, Ingrid Bergman
Ellis Nassour
February 2008
The Performers' Union and its Role Battling Segregation