“I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but I also never wanted to deny who I was,” Wilkinson, now 80, told Pointe Magazine in 2014. “If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not black.’ Some of the other dancers suggested that I say I was Spanish. But that’s like telling the world there’s something wrong with what you are.”
Early in her career, Wilkinson faced overt racism. Whites thought she had no place in the ballet. Southern blacks resented her for trying to pass for someone else. She was a target — called out for her color and banished to segregated taxis and motel rooms. And, by the late 1950s, she was face-to-face with the Ku Klux Klan.
“I remember one time in Montgomery, Alabama, the tour bus rolled into town, and everyone was running around with white robes and hoods on,” she told Pointe Magazine. “They stopped traffic, there were so many of them. There was a rapping sound on the bus door, and this man jumped on in his hood and gown. Several big strapping male company dancers got up and moved toward him. He threw a fistful of racist pamphlets all over the bus before they chased him out.
“That afternoon, when we got to our hotel in Montgomery, a bunch of us went down to the dining room for dinner. When we walked in, it was full of lovely couples, families with little children — a wonderful family atmosphere. Then, as I pulled out my chair, I realized that they all had Ku Klux Klan robes on the seats next to them. I remember thinking, here are people who can be so cruel and ugly, and yet they’re so loving toward their own families.
“In a way it made me less frightened of them. They lost some of their power in my eyes.”
It’s Wilkinson’s plight, perhaps, and her determination to overcome it that has inspired many black ballerinas. Misty Copeland, who just became American Ballet Theatre’s first female African-American dancer to reach principal status, has called Wilkinson a mentor.
“She experienced a lot more severe, life-threatening racism than other minorities experienced in the ballet world at this point,” Copeland told NPR last year.
Copeland’s children’s book called “The Firebird,” which was released last year, is about a young girl who, with Copeland’s help, finds the confidence to succeed. The story was inspired by her relationship with Wilkinson, she told the Los Angeles Times.
“A similar relationship to the one that I have with Raven, that mentor-mentee relationship,” she told the newspaper last year, “except that I would be the mentor and it would be a young brown girl who’s looking up to me.”
Wilkinson was born in 1935 in Harlem to a middle-class family. By age 9, she was studying under a well-known Russian dancer. Despite her talent, she auditioned twice for Ballet Russe with little success, she was told, because of the color of her skin. So, after high school, she enrolled at Columbia University.
“There was an overall opinion that black people can’t dance classical dance,” she told the Globe and Mail in 2005.
By age 19 or 20, Wilkinson said, she couldn’t deny her need to dance and tried out for the company a third time — and made it. “It was my dearest dream,” she told Dance Magazine.
By her second season, she had been promoted to soloist.
Wilkinson said she completed her first tour with the company without a problem. But, following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation, mounting tension in the South brought more attention to Wilkinson.
Two years into her professional career, she faced her first hurdle.
Prior to a performance, Wilkinson and her fellow dancers were checking in at a hotel in Atlanta when the hotel manager locked eyes with her. He asked the ballet company’s director, Sergei Denham, if the young black dancer was “colored.” “I thought, ‘Oh here it goes,'” she told Newsday in 2005.
She said yes.
The hotel manager called her a “colored” taxi and sent her to a “colored” motel, according to the newspaper. The next morning, Denham sent her back home to New York.
Trouble seemed to follow Wilkinson for several years.
One time while traveling from Florida to Alabama, a border guard stopped the ballet company’s bus to check for illegal fruit. “He said, `Y’all got a n—– on this bus. Get her off or you can’t come in,'” fellow Russe dancer Rochelle Zide-Booth told Dance Magazine. “What were we supposed to do — leave her by the side of the road? It was scary.” Another dancer who was riding in a car behind the bus switched seats with Wilkinson.
Another time in Montgomery, two theater workers stormed up to the stage and started yelling at the dancers: “Have you got a n—– up there?” One-by-one, they asked them, “Where’s the n—–?” according to a 2005 article in the Calgary Herald.
“I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t what they were looking for,” Wilkinson told the newspaper. “I would never define myself as what those men were looking for.”
It was also in Montgomery where she encountered the KKK. A Klansman stopped the bus and climbed aboard, shouting and slinging the dancers’ bags. The company feared for Wilkinson’s safety and told her she couldn’t perform that night.
“The company told me, ‘Stay here, lock the door and don’t come out,’ while they went to perform,” she told Dance Magazine. “I did, and from my window, I saw a cross burning outside.”
By 1961, Wilkinson had reached a breaking point. Faced with relentless racism and suggestions that she had reached the end of her career, she left the company. “You get rubbed down — raw,” she told Newsday. She tried her hand at retail. She joined a convent for six months. “I had always felt drawn to the spiritual life,” she told the Globe and Mail. “And I was at a crossroads in my life.”
But she started to miss ballet.
“You haven’t exhausted the life you had,” she thought, she told Dance Magazine. “You worked hard. You have to fight for it.”
In 1967, she packed her bags and moved overseas to dance with the Dutch National Ballet, where she stayed for seven years. By age 38, she was forced to retire and moved back home.
“I loved Holland, but I missed my own country,” she told Pointe Magazine. “I missed the very thing we complain about when we’re here — America’s diversity of philosophy, of feeling, of custom. It makes for a difficult society sometimes, and yet you feel its absence in a place like Holland, where everyone has the same history. So I came home.”
Upon her return to New York in 1973, she said, she got a call from the New York City Opera, asking her to dance. She performed with the opera from 1974 until 1985, though she remained there as a character dancer until 2011.
After decades in the industry, fighting ballet’s battle with diversity, Wilkinson told Pointe Magazine last year, “My never-ending question is: When are we going to get a swan queen of a darker hue? How long can we deny people that position? Do we feel aesthetically we can’t face it?”
Perhaps Copeland, who danced as a swan queen this year, has helped to answer her question.