Pelagie Green Wren dies; first black dancer at the Muny
Pelagie Green Wren sits for a portrait in 2012, at the Parkside Towers in St. Louis. Wren was the first black performer in the Muny chorus in 1962. "I knew I always wanted to be part of the shows," said Wren, who watched shows growing up. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, firstname.lastname@example.org
September 26, 2013 7:00 am • By Michael D. Sorkin email@example.com 314-340-8347
Pelagie Green Wren made St. Louis history 51 years ago when she became the first African-American performer in the Muny dance chorus.
Her debut in 1962 was marred by death threats. St. Louis was still heavily segregated.
Charles Wren, a St. Louis police officer, was assigned to watch over the 19-year-old dancer. They married seven years later. He later became a high-ranking officer in the Police Department, one of the first generation of black officers to do so.
Ms. Green went on to become an iconic member of the St. Louis dance community. She founded a dance studio that bore her name and that regularly held recitals at Kiel Opera House.
A family member found Ms. Green dead in her bed at her apartment in the Central West End about 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 19, 2013). She was 71.
An autopsy was being performed, said her sister-in-law, Wanda Darby of St. Louis. She last saw Ms. Wren on Sunday, four days before she found her body.
Ms. Wren had been in declining health and increasingly reclusive for about three years, Darby said.
As a child, Ms. Wren attended dance schools. She loved seeing shows at the Muny, she recalled in an interview with the Post-Dispatch last year.
“I knew I always wanted to be part of the shows,” she said. And she was, after her successful audition for the dance ensemble.
Backstage, race was never a big deal, she said. “Everybody was too busy trying to learn the new numbers for that kind of nonsense!”
After Ms. Wren joined the chorus, other African-American performers followed her.
Ms. Wren was named for her great-grandmother, Pelagie Rutgers, who married a son of Jacques Clamorgan, an adventurer and fur trader who built a house on Laclede’s Landing and lived there until he sold it to Pierre Chouteau in 1788, the Post-Dispatch reported in 2001.
He was an entrepreneur and explorer who laid claim to thousands of acres throughout Missouri and Kansas. Historians differ on Claymorgan’s parentage but agree that he had some African-American blood. Researchers say that his father might have been Welsh, Portugese or Spanish and his mother of mixed races.
Ms. Wren said she had been shocked to learn that her great-great-grandfather had owned slaves.
“How can I be proud of a slave owner and a scoundrel?” she told the Post-Dispatch. “No one should own anyone else. No human being should have the power to own another person.”
The history of the Claymorgan family is outlined in a book, “The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis,” published in 1858. It describes people of African descent who had influence, education and wealth, including vast amounts of property in the St. Louis region.
Pelagie Green grew up in north St. Louis and attended Catholic schools. Her mother was a nurse and her father a mail carrier. She had three half-brothers.
She graduated in 1965 from what now is Harris-Stowe State University. She taught performing arts and physical education in the St. Louis Public Schools and retired in 1997.
At the old Pelagie Wren Dance Studios in Midtown she taught students who became some of St. Louis’ best known dancers.
Her husband died last September. He retired from the Police Department as a major and was named police chief in East St. Louis.
Visitation will be at 10 a.m. on Tuesday at Wade Funeral Home — Twin Chapel, 4829 Natural Bridge Road, followed by a service at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Survivors include a brother, Roswald Darby of Tampa, Fla.