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Obituary of Pelagie Green Wren: First African American to dance in Muny Chorus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013 - When 19-year-old Pelagie Green kicked up her heels in the Muny chorus during the 1962 season, she was the first African American to do so.

Her history-making debut came nearly 50 years after trees and shrubs had been cleared between the giant oak trees in Forest Park for the performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

The Muny had long had black actors and audience members, Pelagie among them. But she was a dancer, and she longed to be on that big outdoor stage.

"I always wanted to be part of that," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year.

While a student at what is now Harris-Stowe State University, she got her wish.

Pelagie Green Wren, a classically trained ballerina who went on to teach several generations of young people ballet and tap, died last Thursday (Sept. 19, 2013), at her home in the Central West End. She was 71.

Her sister-in-law, Wanda J. Darby, who assisted Ms. Wren in recent months as she became increasingly reclusive, said the cause of death has not yet been determined.

Services will be Tuesday (Oct. 1) at Wade Funeral Home in St. Louis.

No time for racism

Ms. Wren had not set out to make history; she just wanted to dance. While her north St. Louis playmates were jumping Double Dutch rope or playing sidewalk hopscotch, she was already taking dance classes. The years of study paid off with the audition that won her a role in the Muny chorus. But there was a fly in the ointment: racism in the broader community.

Like many dancers at the time, she was hired for the full Season 44, not just one show. There were 10 musicals that included Bye, Bye Birdie, Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma! and The Wizard of Oz. It was a grueling schedule that left no time for racial discord.

"I got no negative feelings from anybody," she said in the 2012 Post-Dispatch interview. "Everybody was too busy trying to learn the new numbers for that kind of nonsense!"

Not all of St. Louis desegregated as easily as the Muny. Ms. Wren received death threats. Her family took precautions to keep her safe.

“I always heard that her parents dropped her off before they got to the Muny Opera,” Darby said, “and they didn’t stay to watch.”

A black St. Louis police officer, well acquainted with the travails of discrimination, was assigned to protect her. Charles Mortel Wren, who became a major and later served as police chief in East St. Louis and Pine Lawn, chose to protect her for the rest of his life. The two were married seven years after they met until his death last September.

Pay it forward

After graduating from Harris-Stowe in 1965, Ms. Wren taught visual and performing arts and physical education in several St. Louis public schools, including Vashon High School, Sumner High School and Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School, from which she retired in 1997.

In the early ‘70s, she opened a dance studio at St. Peter AME Church. She soon moved the Pelagie Green Wren Academy of Dance to larger quarters on Delmar in midtown. Her reputation grew along with the studio.

Her students were showcased in popular performances at the Kiel Opera House (now Peabody).

In his Facebook announcement of his aunt’s death, Steve Darby compared the lady he called “PG” to Debbie Allen, the dance instructor from the 1980s television show, Fame.

“She demanded perfection,” Darby said. “She (had) students that have gone on to dance all over the world with major dance troupes.”

Famous protégés include Rockette Karilyn Ashlynne Surratt and choreographer and dancer Hettie Vyrine Barnhill. Barnhill began dancing at Ms. Wren’s studio when she was 3. She made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning musical Fela!.

“If it weren’t for (Ms. Wren), I would have never made it where I am today,” Barnhill told the St. Louis American.

Ms. Wren literally made it possible for some of her students to dance. In a 1992 Post-Dispatch story, a young man who described his family as “poor,” said Ms. Wren kept him from dropping out of school. She later paid part of his tuition to summer school at the State Ballet of Missouri – and she bought him clothes.

She choreographed plays, including productions for the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, and continued training dancers for several years after retiring from teaching school.

The aristocratic dancer

Pelagie Green Wren, who was born in St. Louis on Sept. 4, 1942, was the only daughter of Marguerite Poste Green, a nurse, and James Hudlin Green, a letter carrier.  She graduated from old Xavier High School, an all-girls Catholic school.

She was named for her great grandmother, Pelagie Rutgers, so she had always known that she was a descendant of the wealthy landowners for whom Rutger Street south of downtown is named.

What she did not know until recent times is that her great-great-grandmother was married to an adventurer, fur trader and known scoundrel, Jacques Clamorgan. She was appalled to learn that her great-great-grandfather was a slave owner. The history of the Clamorgan family is detailed in the 1858 book, The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.

She wanted no part of such an aristocracy, but she looked the part.

Tall and regal, even when not on stage, she often wore her long hair pulled back into the classic “dancer’s bun” and favored dancers’ attire – leotards and legwarmers, sometimes topped by a tutu.

“She looked like a dancer,” Wanda Darby said. “She looked the part and she played the part.”

In addition to her husband of 43 years, she was preceded in death by her parents and two half-brothers, Isaac Darby and Poste Kirkland Darby (wife Wanda J. of St. Louis survives).

Her survivors include another half-brother, Roswald Darby, of Tampa, Fla. and a stepdaughter, Jess Marie Wren of Los Angeles.

Visitation for Ms. Wren will be at 10 a.m. on Tuesday at Wade Funeral Home-Twin Chapel, 4829 Natural Bridge Rd., followed by a service at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.