Lonne Elder III was born in Americus, Georgia, on December 26, 1931, to Lonne Elder II and Quincy Elder. While he was still an infant, his family moved to New York and New Jersey. He was orphaned at the age of ten and ended up living with relatives on a New Jersey farm. Rural life, however, was not for him, and, after he ran away a few times, he was sent to live with his uncle, a numbers runner, in Jersey City.
In 1949, Elder entered New Jersey State Teachers College, where he stayed less than a year. He then moved to New York City and took courses at the Jefferson School and the New School for Social Research, while becoming involved in the movement for social equality for black people. In 1952, he was drafted into the United States Army. While stationed near Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, he met the poet and playwright Robert Hayden, who encouraged Elder with his writing.
Back in New York City in 1953, Elder shared an apartment with the aspiring playwright Douglas Turner Ward and began studying acting. Supporting himself through jobs as a dockworker, waiter, and poker dealer, among other things, he pursued his acting career, appearing on Broadway in 1959 in A Raisin in the Sun and with the Negro Ensemble Company (cofounded by Ward) in Ward’s play Day of Absence (pr. 1965). During this time, he met such prominent black writers as Lorraine Hansberry and John Oliver Killens, married Betty Gross (in 1963), and...
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