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Theater Legend and Amistad Friend Remembered

John O’Neal as Junebug Jabbo Jones

John O’Neal, the playwright, actor, director, educator and community/civil rights activist died February 15, 2019, in New Orleans after a lengthy battle with dementia. He was 78.

O’Neal was a founding member of the Free Southern Theater in 1963 at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. It relocated to New Orleans in 1965. The theater’s mission was “to use theater as an instrument to stimulate the development of critical and reflective thought among black people in the South” while supporting the efforts of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement. “Inherit The Wind” and “In White America” are among the productions Free Southern Theater is known for.

In 1980, after Free Southern Theater folded, Junebug Productions assumed its mantle in the post-civil rights era. O’Neal served as its longtime artistic director until retiring in 2011. “Don’t Start Me To Talking or I’ll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings From The Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones,” “You Can’t Judge A Book by Looking at The Cover: Sayings From The Life And Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones, Volume II,” “Ain’t No Use in Goin’ Home, Jodie’s Got Your Gal And Gone” and “Trying To Find My Way Back Home” are a few of those plays.

John M. O'Neal Jr. was born Sept. 25, 1940, in Mound City, Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1962, where he also studied playwriting. O’Neal’s involvement with the southern Civil Rights Movement led to him becoming a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia and Mississippi. He also served as the committee chairman and coordinator for the Freedom School Program of the Council of Federated Organizations' Freedom Summer in Mississippi project in 1964.

After extensive contributions to SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other civil rights organizations, O’Neal was instrumental both nationally and internationally for using theater as a tool of social justice while also urging artists to become activists.

He is survived by his wife, Bertha O’Neal; three children; two siblings; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

John O’Neal’s life and work are reflected in many collections held at the Amistad Research Center, including O’Neal’s own personal papers, the records of the Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions, and other collections.

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