The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Billie Allen

Actor, dancer, director Billie Allen was born Wilhelmina Louise Allen on January 13, 1925 in Richmond, Virginia to Mamie Wimbush Allen and William Roswell Allen. Allen grew up in Richmond’s West End, attending Randolph Street School and Elba Elementary School before graduating from Armstrong High School in 1941. At Hampton University, Allen was inspired by Romare Bearden and mentored by Billie Davis. Drawn to show business, Allen moved to New York City in 1943 to take ballet classes and to study acting at the Lee Strasbourg Institute. Soon, Allen was dancing professionally and auditioning for stage roles.

In 1949, Allen was featured in the film Souls of Sin with Jimmy Wright and William Greaves. In 1953, Allen performed in the Broadway play, Take A Giant Step with Lou Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge and Lincoln Kilpatrick. She was cast as “WAC Billie” in five episodes of television’s Phil Silvers’ Show from 1955 to 1959. During this period, she also played Ada Chandler in the soap opera, The Edge of Night. In 1964, Allen was cast in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, and in 1990, directed the play’s revival. She also portrayed “Vertel” in the movie Black Like Me in 1964 and appeared on stage in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. Since the 1960s, Allen was cast in a number of movies and television programs including Route 66, Car 54, Where Are You, The Wiz, Winter Kills, The Vernon Johns Story, Eddie Murphy Raw, and Law and Order. In the early 1980s, Allen directed the off-Broadway play Home featuring Samuel L. Jackson, and in 2001, she directed Saint Lucy’s Eyes starring Ruby Dee.

Allen was a founding member of the Women’s Project and Productions and served as a founding member and co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women. In 1973, Allen with Morgan Freeman, Garland Lee Thompson and Clayton Riley founded Harlem’s Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop. She interviewed Rosetta LeNoire, Julia Miles and Ruby Dee for the theatre archives of the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and in 1999 and 2000, served as a voting member of the Tony Awards nominating board. Allen married the late composer, Luther Henderson with whom she received the 2002 Audelco “VIV” Pioneer Awards. She had two children.

Allen passed away on December 29, 2015 at age 90.

Accession Number

A2007.142

Sex

Female

Interview Date

4/16/2007

Last Name

Allen

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Armstrong High School

Elba Elementary School

Hampton University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Billie

Birth City, State, Country

Richmond

HM ID

ALL04

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

St. Martin

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

1/13/1925

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Yankee Bean Soup With Meatballs

Death Date

12/29/2015

Short Description

Actress and stage director Billie Allen (1925 - 2015 ) performed in The Wiz, Route 66, and Law and Order. Active in promoting the arts, Allen was a founding member of the Women's Project and Productions, and served as a founding member and co-president for the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Favorite Color

Royal Blue

Timing Pairs
0,0:1300,42:1816,50:2246,56:8782,198:14456,251:20592,299:21450,316:21918,323:23166,350:23868,361:25194,373:25818,382:26676,394:27066,400:28626,438:29094,445:30264,462:30654,468:32214,496:35100,558:37908,610:38922,628:39234,633:39546,638:40326,651:41028,666:49442,682:60746,788:61038,793:69436,882:70228,916:79058,1083:79330,1088:82186,1136:82594,1144:83138,1155:84294,1189:96442,1310:96882,1316:114429,1571:114745,1576:116088,1607:116641,1615:117036,1621:117589,1631:118221,1641:118853,1647:119169,1652:119564,1662:132642,1756:133216,1764:134840,1769:136062,1785:136532,1791:137002,1797:139674,1823:142610,1844:147910,1884:159576,2054:159931,2060:161635,2081:162132,2089:169871,2243:178012,2356:197480,2597:198280,2613:202507,2648:202855,2653:203812,2666:211360,2732:211680,2737:212000,2742:214376,2803:214811,2809:218204,2849:219074,2859:220466,2876:226382,2963:226730,2968:227600,2980:228122,2987:228557,2994:229079,3001:235992,3053:236304,3060:237786,3080:239814,3117:240126,3122:240438,3127:242076,3150:244416,3196:244806,3202:245586,3214:245976,3220:247146,3237:247536,3243:247926,3249:257484,3332:257812,3337:260846,3385:262978,3421:263388,3427:266750,3525:267324,3533:268144,3548:268472,3553:269210,3564:270358,3581:270686,3586:275842,3597:277064,3609:283730,3670$0,0:195,2:715,13:975,18:1235,23:1495,28:1820,34:2405,44:7104,121:7440,126:13514,235:16156,252:18697,309:19005,314:19313,319:20160,334:20776,345:22470,396:23702,416:39760,632:40570,642:40930,647:42373,659:49516,778:51144,817:55170,870:57260,879:61076,908:63556,962:71498,1057:72389,1070:80110,1184:80490,1193:81440,1207:89488,1337:89944,1378:91768,1411:92604,1428:92908,1433:103223,1579:103769,1586:104133,1591:105680,1616:107591,1646:108137,1653:123884,1906:124232,1911:124928,1921:129017,1989:129365,1994:132730,2143:133900,2183:165790,2595:194815,2881:210100,3033:232374,3285:234108,3309:242473,3536:245230,3590
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Billie Allen's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Billie Allen lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Billie Allen describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Billie Allen describes the women in her maternal family

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Billie Allen describes her mother's civil rights activism

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Billie Allen describes her mother's teaching career

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Billie Allen describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Billie Allen describes her parents' involvement in African American society

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Billie Allen describes her parents' personalities

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Billie Allen describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Billie Allen describes her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Billie Allen describes her family's move to Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Billie Allen describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Billie Allen recalls her grade school experiences in Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Billie Allen talks about the role of music in her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Billie Allen describes her early activities in Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Billie Allen recalls the entertainers she admired

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Billie Allen remembers the release of 'Gone with the Wind'

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Billie Allen remembers Armstrong High School in Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Billie Allen recalls her influential teachers at Armstrong High School

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Billie Allen recalls the segregated transit system in Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Billie Allen describes her studies at Armstrong High School

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Billie Allen remembers the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Billie Allen describes her social life at the Hampton Institute

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Billie Allen recalls her decision to move to New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Billie Allen recalls the arts community in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Billie Allen recalls meeting African American actors in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Billie Allen recalls her first film role

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Billie Allen remembers training under Lee Strasberg

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Billie Allen talks about her role on 'The Phil Silvers Show'

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Billie Allen recalls being cast in a soap commercial

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Billie Allen describes her role in 'The Edge of Night'

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Billie Allen talks about the play 'Blues for Mister Charlie'

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Billie Allen remembers acting in 'Funnyhouse of the Negro,' pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Billie Allen remembers acting in 'Funnyhouse of the Negro,' pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Billie Allen talks about her career as an actress in New York

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Billie Allen recalls the Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Billie Allen talks about her screen acting career

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Billie Allen talks about her recent acting roles

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Billie Allen describes her organizational affiliations

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Billie Allen reflects upon the variety of her character roles

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Billie Allen talks about her plans for the future

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Billie Allen describes her hopes for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Billie Allen reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Billie Allen talks about her family

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Billie Allen describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Billie Allen narrates her photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Billie Allen narrates her photographs, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Billie Allen narrates her photographs, pt. 3

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

5$4

DATitle
Billie Allen describes her mother's civil rights activism
Billie Allen recalls her first film role
Transcript
Now was your mother [Mamie Wimbush Allen] like an early member of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]?$$Oh yes, oh yes and she, she was like the mentor to Gloster Current [Gloster B. Current]. And the Church of the Master, was that Jimmy--and we--the NAACP was a great part of my social life. As a matter of fact because we went to the national conventions every year. And, you know, that's where my social life was. I met other people my age, teenagers or children or whatever it was, and we kept in touch, and it was like a network. No matter where you went, you knew somebody. But we were made aware of the issues and the struggle and my mother, she said, "You are no breath- you are no better than the least of your brethren. And you may not look down, you may bring them up."$$Now what--is there a story behind how she became the--not that it's unnatural, but a lot of people aren't activist? Is there a story that--behind her activism (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Well I think that--it seems to me those women were born in what we call struggle. And they were aware of that--this is what we have to do this is why we are put here. And this is what we have to do. And you may be privileged 'cause your folks could read and went to college, but you have to share that. You have to share that. I don't know what incident in her life but I think it was just handed down. I know that it's a set--Atlanta [Georgia] was a very, very progressive city at that time. A lot of black-owned businesses, I mean, and homes and very enterprising. And they always bragged about that as a matter of fact, they said, "Oh well in Atlanta we owned everything." In Atlanta we had our pharmacists and so forth. And I thought that everybody had a black woman doctor if they wanted one because my birth was attended by a black woman doctor, Marie Jeanette Jones, we called her Dr. Janie. Can you imagine that, in 1925? It was amazing because of when I came through New York [New York] to work in the theater, I was doing improvisation. So I decided that my character wanted to be a doctor so, we--when we were being critiqued, the improvisation. This woman who was white she said, "Why couldn't you be something reasonable like a nurse or a secretary?" So she said, "There are no black doctors, there are no Negro doctors," then. And then I had to give her a little history lesson right there on the spot, you know. And tell her about Doctor Marie Jeanette Jones, who got her medical degree at Tufts [sic.] and practiced in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband who was also an M.D., Dr. Miles B. Jones. They practiced in tandem from that big stone mansion in the middle of town. And we were well attended (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) That's, that's--$$I think that was a decided advantage in my life because I never lacked for women heroes or black heroes. And you see during that time there were no hotels where Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and all these people could stay when they came. When they did these concerts with--my mother belonged to this club called the treble clef music and book lovers club. And they met the first Thursday of every month, and these women would prepare a reading or piano solo or they would present Langston Hughes. Give him a book party, and he'd talk about this new book he had just written. Or Muriel Ryan [ph.] would come there, and that's where I met [HistoryMaker] Katherine Dunham and this is what they would do because they wanted to keep abreast of everything. And they wanted the children to appreciate our heritage and appreciate--$$Okay.$$--our lives.$I also got a call from this black filmmaker named Bill Alexander [William D. Alexander], who said he wanted me to act in this film, and I said, "But I'm not an actor, I'm a dancer." And he said, "No, everybody tells me that you would perfect." Well, what, no you don't have to audition. He said, "I got to make this film before, I think, the first of the year," and I had something to do with taxes or alimony or something. And he had to make this film, so I thought, oh, how much do I make? He said, "Seventy-five [dollars] for a day." I said, "Wow," you know, oh yeah, 'cause I was about making seventy [dollars] a week or something like that. So I decided to do it. And I said, but you must know, here's, here's the deal. I didn't have an agent 'cause he called me direct. I didn't know about agents so much. I said, "I will do it, but you have to pay me each day after we shoot, seventy-five dollars. And the day you don't pay me is the day you don't see me again the next day, it's finished." That's what we agreed to. So who was in the film? Jimmy Edwards [sic. Jimmy Wright] and Della Reese [sic.], a lot of people in this film. It was called 'Souls of Sin.' Well, it ended up in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas. It was stored away somewhere, and I thought, nobody's ever gonna see this film. Oh, I kept my job at Macy's [R.H. Macy and Co.; Macy's, Inc.] because my friends punched me in every day at the time clock. And I went over on my lunch hour and made a lot of noise so everybody'd see me. And then they'd punch me in for overtime, and I split my salary with them, I gave the half my salary. And so I had half my salary from Macy's plus seventy-five dollars a day from film. So I was rich when I went home, and my nieces who became filmmakers when they finished Harvard [Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts] and Brown [Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island] were living in California. This is years after they went to see these, this black film festival. They started screaming, "That's Aunt Billie [HistoryMaker Billie Allen], oh my god, that's Aunt Billie." And they got on the phone, well this turned out to be a big cult thing, that (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) What's the name of the film again?$$'Souls of Sin.'$$'Souls of Sin.'$$Jimmy Edwards, you know who else was in it? What the name of--he's a filmmaker now. Carter, Terry Carter, Terry Carter [sic.]. I think that is, well he's in it, and it was hilarious. I never--I was always afraid to look at it, 'cause I hadn't studied yet. I was just doing it, and I think I was the only one that really got paid. The other people are interested in honing their craft and being, having a film. I was not an actor, I was not honing any craft. I was in debt (laughter) but it worked out. And it got me interested, then as a dancer, Elia Kazan came to see me dance in some show I was in, and auditioned me for 'Camino Real,' Tennessee Williams' play. Eli Wallach was--so I did all these things, improvisations with Eli Wallach, and I mean I was learning a lot and I didn't mind.$$Now about what year was this, this is about what year? Are the--like 'Souls of Sin.' What, about what year was that (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) I'm trying to think--$$Can you--$$Before children, it was before children.$$Yeah 'cause you left Hampton [Hampton Institute; Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia], was it '44 [1944] or so?$$No, this was like the late '50s [sic.].$$Oh this late, we've already gotten late '50s [1950s]. Now, we're in the late '50s [1950s] now, yeah?$$I think so.