Home Features LGBT History Month Icons: Arthur Mitchell & Eliza Byard

LGBT History Month Icons: Arthur Mitchell & Eliza Byard

Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell

Pioneering Ballet Dancer

March 27, 1934 – d. September 19, 2018

“The myth was that because you were black that you could not do classical dance. I proved that to be wrong.”

Arthur Mitchell was the first African-American to become a principal dancer with a major ballet company, opening the door to classical dance for people of all races. After achieving international stardom, he founded the Dance Theater of Harlem, the first black classical ballet company in the United States. 

Mitchell was born in Harlem, New York. After his father’s incarceration, he became the primary provider for his family at age 12. When Mitchell was in junior high, a guidance counselor spotted him dancing the jitterbug and encouraged him to audition for the High School of Performing Arts. The school accepted Mitchell on a full scholarship. There, he explored modern dance and choreography and first encountered the racism inherent in the dance world. Though he was often passed over for projects in favor of less qualified white students, his exceptional talent and determination prevailed. 

At 18, Mitchell was offered a scholarship from the preeminent School of American Ballet in New York. Despite the prevalent racism in classical dance and the urgings of his instructors to pursue other genres, Mitchell accepted. He was determined “to do in dance what Jackie Robinson did in baseball.” He would later describe himself as a “political activist through dance.” 

In 1955 Mitchell became the first African-American permanent dancer for the renowned New York City Ballet (NYCB). One year later, he rose to the top-ranked position of principal dancer. His career-defining roles included the lead in “Agon” and Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Both were choreographed specifically for him by George Balanchine, the NYCB’s celebrated director. In “Agon,” the pairing of Mitchell with Diana Adams—a white Southern ballerina—was considered scandalous, but Balanchine persisted. Mitchell performed the role with white female partners worldwide. 

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. marked a turning point in Mitchell’s career. Determined to provide his community with the same opportunities he had received, Mitchell and Karel Shook—Mitchell’s famous former ballet teacher—founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969. It became the first permanent black ballet company in America. Today, it is a multicultural dance institution with more than 300 students. 

Mitchell received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1993 and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1994. In 1995 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the School of American Ballet and the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton.

Eliza Byard

LGBTQ Youth Advocate

August 3, 1968

“Finding that we do not walk alone— that’s where courage is found.”

Eliza Byard is an American historian, filmmaker and activist who leads GLSEN, an organization recognized globally as a leader in the fight for LGBTQ issues in K-12 schools. 

Byard was born in New York City. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was an architect and director of the Historic Preservation Program at the Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Byard earned a B.A. from Yale University in 1990 and a Ph.D. in United States history from Columbia University in 2002.

Byard began working in public television at age 13, with an internship at WNET. Her career included work on numerous award-winning documentaries. “Out of the Past,” a PBS documentary on the lives and struggles of LGBTQ people throughout U.S. history, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, and “School Colors,” a film for FRONTLINE on segregation in public education 40 years after Brown v. Board of Education, earned an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award. Byard worked for Bill Moyers at Public Affairs Television on projects spanning more than a decade and at the Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Byard joined GLSEN as deputy executive director in 2001. She became executive director in 2008, taking over from the organization’s founder, Kevin Jennings. She led the growth of GLSEN’s public education and advocacy efforts; GSA support and in-school programming; professional development training for educators; and pioneering research and evaluation capacity. She has crafted advocacy and legislative strategies that have won bipartisan support and widespread acceptance of the urgency and importance of LGBTQ issues in education. Since 2005 her work has contributed to measurable improvements in the lives of LGBTQ students across the United States. In 2010 she launched GLSEN’s international initiative, which has partnered with United Nations agencies, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and LGBTQ community-based organizations in 40 countries to spark an evidence-based revolution on LGBTQ youth issues in education. 

In the 2016-17 school year, more than a million U.S. students took part in a GLSEN program or action at their schools.

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