Born on February 2, 1935 in New York City, Wilkinson would grow up in a middle class neighbourhood in Harlem.
At the young age of 5, while watching a performance of Coppelia by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Raven Wilkinson immediately fell in love with ballet, and her mother, Anne - a former ballet dancer herself - attempted to enroll her in classes at the School of American Ballet.
Unfortunately, she was unable to successfully be enrolled in classes, as she was determined to be too young to attend, and they were asked to try again in 4 years, when Wilkinson turned 9.
On her ninth birthday, she was in fact given a gift of ballet classes.
A surprise from her uncle.
However, the classes were not with the School of American Ballet, but with what would later be known as the Ballet Russe School.
In 1951, her ballet school (then known as the Swoboda School) was purchased by Sergei Denham, the director of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. This purchase came with an opportunity for Wilkinson that she hadn't had up until that point:
The chance to audition for the BRMC dance troupe. Acceptance would be unlikely given that, although she was fairly light-skinned, she was still African American, and the idea of integrating her with other dancers seemed preposterous at that time.
In fact, other students consistently encouraged her to not audition, and try instead to find another company to dance with if she chose to continue dancing at all.
In 1954, against the bigoted "advice" of those in the company, she chose to audition anyway, and was quickly rejected.
She tried a second time... and was rejected again.
Refusing to be cast aside, Wilkinson decided to try for the third time in 1955, at the age of 20, and this time was accepted on what was called a 6-week trial basis.
That 6 week trial turned into a 6 year-long career, seeing her advance to the level of soloist in her second season with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
As a black dancer, simply being a part of the company, and a dancer in the shows they performed was not as easy as it was for the scores of white dancers. She noted particularly difficult experiences while touring, especially while in the southern, and still extremely segregated states. In places like these, there were many "white's only" hotels that the troupe would be staying in, and Wilkinson tried to hide her race, using her lightly coloured skin as an aid.
She didn't want to put the company at risk, but also refused to openly lie about her heritage, doing everything she could to never be put into a place where she would need to utter the words "I'm not Black." She was, and she was proud of her history, but she also loved to dance, and didn't want one to interfere with the other.
This method did work for roughly two years, until a hotel owner asked her outright if she was black. Refusing to lie, she confirmed her race, and was sent in a "coloured taxi" to a "coloured motel," where she would need to remain when not performing.
During that same tour, members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupted a performance looking for her, asking the room loudly "Where's the n*****?!"
This lead to wildfire-like conversation about her race spreading all throughout the community, causing extreme discrimination toward her, making it even more difficult to find
safe, meaningful work, and she decided to leave the company in 1961.
Feeling bogged down from the trauma that comes with racial discrimination, Wilkinson stopped dancing for more than two years, before having the epiphany that she had been given a great gift. Her abilities as a dancer were something that not everyone in the world would receive, and she felt as if by not dancing, she was dishonouring that gift, and chose to return to the world of dance, and soon after began performing again whenever she was afforded the opportunity.
In the mid-1960s, Sylvester Campbell, an African-American principal dancer with the DNB (Dutch National Ballet), suggested Wilkinson approach that company. After speaking with them, she was invited to join the troupe as second soloist.
She moved to the Netherlands in 1967 and stayed with the National Ballet for seven years. In 1974, at the age of 38, a homesick Wilkinson retired and returned to the U.S.
In the course of her long life, Raven began to coach many notable figures, including Misty Copeland, who would go on to become the first principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
Wilkinson's biography can be seen in Black Ballerina, a documentary which tells the story of three notable Black ballerinas: Wilkinson, Delores Brown and Joan Myers Brown and contrasts their experiences with those of three young black dancers presently pursuing ballet careers.
Raven Wilkinson died on 17 December 2018 at the age of 83
Like all of the historical figures we've highlighted, there is much more to the life of Raven Wilkinson, and we encourage you to take a moment to look up even more information about this amazing trailblazer!
Here's to Raven Wilkinson! (February 2, 1935 - December 17, 2018)