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Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) was formed in 1936 and began operation in 1937[1] to create better opportunities for black actors during a period in America where the country was at a crossroads regarding how its citizens of color would be depicted in film, television and the stage. It originated in New York City, post the Great Depression during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and the NAG sought to eliminate stereotyping of African Americans in theatrical and cinematic performances. Organizations to benefit the black actor had been formed well previously[2] though the NAG brought itself to be the first in the United States of such organization to receive state incorporation. The NAG stressed in its formal articles within the Certificate of Incorporation the need for more realistic roles for people of color, helped foster the skills of African American actors, and worked to generate more acting opportunities for blacks.[3]

Fredi Washington, a black stage and film actress, who was resentful of the limitations of African Americans in the film industry, brought together a talented, diverse group of artists from stage and screen. Members included Noble Sissle, an African-American jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer and playwright.W.C. Handy, an African-American blues composer and musician widely known as the "Father of the Blues", vaudeville novelty act performer Alan Corelli, Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors' Equity Association, and Dick Campbell, a key figure in theater and a tireless advocate for black actors in general.

Noble Sissle served as the organization’s first president, while Washington served as the Guild’s executive director and secretary. Washington dedicated much of her life to the organization, even sacrificing her acting career for the advancement and prosperity of the Guild. Leigh Whipper succeeded Sissle in 1957 as the Guild’s president. He later caused some controversy when he accused Otto Preminger, the director for the film, Porgy and Bess, of discriminating against African Americans.

The Guild served as one of the primary financial and social resources for African American entertainers. It provided health care, arranged transportation and hotel accommodations, and financed funeral services for the black thespian community. Much of the funding for the Negro Actors Guild came from the Federal Theater Authority and internal fundraising. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was instrumental in fundraising efforts, often performing in benefit concerts on Broadway for the Guild. Robinson later served as the Guild’s first honorary president

By the early 1940s, the Guild had more than seven hundred members. Among their famous members were Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Bert Williams, and Lena Horne. By the 1970s, the organization slowly faded as the film and theater industries became increasingly integrated. It found its dissolution in 1982.[4]


  1. ^ Negro Actors Guild of America – records. The New York Public Library.
  2. ^ The African American Theatre Directory, 1816–1960.
  3. ^ The Negro Actors' Guild – Jonathan Dewberry. JSTOR 41067679.
  4. ^ Negro Actors Guild of America – records. The New York Public Library.