John O’Neal Papers Open for Research

“Art and politics are complementary, not opposing terms.”

These are the words and philosophy of playwright and social activist, John M. O’Neal, Jr., one of the leading figures of Black theater in the South and co-founder of the Free Southern Theater (FST). The Amistad Research Center is proud to announce the opening of the John O’Neal papers and the inclusion of the collection finding aid in the Center’s online database.

SNCC flyer likely produced in support of the Freedom  Summer project of 1964.  From the papers of John O'Neal.

SNCC flyer likely produced in support of the Freedom Summer project of 1964. From the papers of John O’Neal.

Born in Mound City, Illinois, John M. O’Neal Jr. earned a BA degree in English and Philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1962, where he also studied playwriting. With deep sentiment and strong convictions about the nonviolent civil rights movements in the South, O’Neal moved to Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after graduation and became a Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia and Mississippi. O’Neal also served as the Committee Chairman and Coordinator for the Freedom School Program of the Council of Federated Organizations’ Freedom Summer in Mississippi project in 1964. After extensive contributions to SNCC, the Council of Racial Equality (CORE), and other civil rights organizations, and as a result of his work as a socially active student at Southern Illinois University, O’Neal helped established the Free Southern Theater (FST) in 1963.

FST began as the Tougaloo Drama Workshop, co-founded by O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in October of 1963. For a number of practical reasons, the theater relocated from Mississippi and established its headquarters in New Orleans in 1965. FST played a pivotal role for African Americans and oppressed people in the South by using theater as a tool of social justice. The touring repertory company inspired its cast members to become activists, as well as artists. FST eventually produced its last play in 1980. That same year marked the creation of FST’s successor, Junebug Productions, which was led by O’Neal for many years.

John O'Neal as Junebug Jabbo Jones, 1985.

John O’Neal as Junebug
Jabbo Jones, 1985.

The John O’Neal papers comprise 25.94 linear feet of an array of correspondence, brochures, flyers, newsletters, news clippings, press releases, position papers, pamphlets, field reports, committee meeting minutes, notebooks, writings, and collected publications. The bulk of the theater files highlight Black arts theater groups in the South, as well as other ethnic theater groups O’Neal contributed to as a playwright, director, and performer. In addition, the writings series is comprised of drafts of his plays, including “Don’t Start Me To Talking Or I’ll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones” and “Hurricane Season.”

O’Neal’s papers provide insight into the personal and professional life of John M. O’Neal, Jr. and document O’Neal’s artistic style and vision as an African American actor, director, playwright, and community and civil rights activist. The papers are of interest for studying the southern Black Arts Movement and more specifically the Black Theater Movement; the Free Southern Theater; the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the southern states and New Orleans; voter rights registration; race relations; literature; and community organizing.

For a new archivist, it is a wonderful feeling to complete the processing of the John O’Neal papers and to provide access to the many historical treasures found within his papers, both through the online finding aid and the sampling of digitized materials that are currently being added to Amistad’s online database.

Posted by Felicia Render

(Images from the John O’Neal Papers. Not to be used without permission.)

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