After Abolition:
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The Negro Theater Project, 1935-1939

1935 proved to be a great year for Black Theater in America.
FDR's Works Progress Administration (WPA), created to put America back to work digging ditches, building bridges, and creating parks decided, on a suggestion from Eleanor Roosevelt, to employ actors, writers, musicians and artists through a number of federal projects. Among these were the Federal Writers Project, The Federal Music Project, The Federal Art Project and the Federal Theater Project. Eleanor Roosevelt believed that actors were just as important to the moral fabric of America as civil workers and supported the main purpose of the project: to bring serious drama to the masses and present plays about the daily life of average Americans. The inclusion of a "Negro" unit in the Federal Theater Project was one of the most important developments in the history of Black theater.

Before the WPA, Boston's black theater had been under the direction of Maude Cuney Hare, a transplanted Texan who started the Allied Arts Players (1925-1930), Boston's first African American semi-professional theater group. It gave talented black actors a beginning in theater.

The "Boston Players" followed the Allied Arts Players and was a more professional theater troupe modeled after the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. The "Boston Players" performed in and around Boston and were signed to do a play by Paul Green in New York City.

By 1935 Federal Theaters were established in major cities across the country and many of the Boston Players were placed on the payroll of the Negro Federal Theater of Massachusetts. One of them, James W. Henderson, was named an administrator and assigned to the main office on Boylston Street, allocating jobs, programs and services. Another, Ralf Coleman, was appointed Director of the entire Negro Federal Theater of Massachusetts, thus becoming the first and only Black director in the Federal Theater project.

The Black unit consisted of fifty dramatic actors and actresses, also writers and playwrights. In a 1960 interview Coleman declared that "this was not welfare but pay for services rendered and for the first and last time in the history of this country, the government subsidized theater."

The project ended in 1939 amidst controversy of possible Communist influence, when Congress shut down funding for the entire Federal Theater.