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Wed, 09.25.1940

John O’Neal, Playwright, and Activist born

John O'Neal

*John Milton O'Neal Jr. was born on this date in 1940.  He was a Black playwright and activist.

His father was a teacher from Mound City, Ill., as was his mother, Rosetta (Crenshaw) O'Neal. In 1962 he received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English at Southern Illinois University. His daughter said that when he was a student at the university, his father was obtaining a master's degree there.

After O'Neal's graduation, his interest in American Civil Rights issues took him to the South, where he became an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia and Mississippi. After hatching the idea over dinner, he, Gilbert Moses, and Doris Derby started the Free Southern Theater in Jackson, Miss. "We were sitting at a table, the room was blue with smoke," O'Neal recalled in a short documentary film, "and Doris said: 'Well if theater means anything anywhere, it should certainly mean something here. Why don't we start a theater?'" 

In a documentary, he recalled telling his father he intended to be a playwright early on. He said his father expressed skepticism that he could make a living that way. O'Neal's first marriage, to Mary Felice Lovelace, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Marilyn Norton.

John O'Neal died on February 14, 2019. In addition to his daughter, a child of his second marriage, he is survived by his wife, Bertha McNealy O'Neal; a son from his second marriage, William; a brother, Wendell; a sister, Pamela O'Neal Moody; a stepson, Arnold Regas; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

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