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Actors

Williams, Bert (1874-1922)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Egbert Austin "Bert" Williams was born in New Providence, Nassau on November 12, 1874.  When he was eleven or twelve his family settled in Riverside, California, and it was not long before Williams became attracted to show business.  In 1893 Williams got his start in show business and one of his first jobs was with a minstrel group called Martin and Selig's Minstrels.  While in this group Williams met George Walker, a song-and-dance man with whom Williams soon formed an illustrious partnership called Williams and Walker.

Throughout his career Williams achieved many firsts.  In 1901 he became the first African American to become a best selling recording artist, and in 1902 he became an international star with his performance in the show In Dahomey, the first black musical to be performed on Broadway.  Also, in 1910 Williams became the first black to be regularly featured in a Broadway revue when he joined the Ziegfeld Follies, and he even came to claim top billing for the show.

Sources: 
"Bert Williams," Broadway the American Musical: Stars Over Broadway
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/williams_b.html ; Eric Ledell Smith, Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland &Company, Inc., Publishers, 1992).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Belafonte, Harry (1927- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann/CORBIS

Born March 1, 1927 as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, New York, to parents Melvine Love Bellanfanti, a Jamaican housekeepter, and Harold George Bellanfanti, Sr., of Martinique, who worked as a chef for the National Guard. Belafonte grew from being a troubled youth to an award-winning entertainer and world-renowned political activist and humanitarian.  From 1932 to 1940, he lived with his grandmother in Jamaica.  He returned to New York City and attended George Washington High School. In 1944 Belafonte joined the Navy in order to fight in World War II, and although Belafonte was never sent overseas, after the war ended he was able to use the G.I. Bill to pay for a drama workshop at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan alongside fellow students Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier

Sources: 
James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, Hollywood Songsters:  Singers Who Act and Actors Who Sing (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Baskett, James (1904-1948)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

James Baskett, the first male African American to win an Academy Award, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 16, 1904.  After high school Baskett planned to study pharmacy, but after he was offered a small part in a show in Chicago, Illinois his career path was forever changed.  Baskett continued to take small roles in Chicago plays for a time, but later he went to New York City, New York and joined the Lafayette Players Stock Company, where he stayed for many years.

Baskett first appeared on film in a feature role in Harlem is Heaven, and continued on in such films as Policy Man and Straight to Heaven.  Baskett was not confined to film and theater; he also played Gabby Gibson, a slick-talking lawyer on the popular radio program Amos 'n' Andy.

Sources: 
Edward Mapp, Americans and the Oscar (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2003); Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films.  (Metuchen, N.J: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1995).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

McDaniel, Hattie (1895-1952)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History in the West
Hattie McDaniel Receives Oscar at the
Academy Awards Ceremony, 1940
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Hattie McDaniel is best known as the first black Oscar winner.  She won the award on February 29, 1940, for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel's career began three decades earlier.  She gave her first public performances as a grade school student in Denver, Colorado. Her father, Henry McDaniel, traveled through Colorado with his own minstrel show, but would not allow his daughter to accompany him and her brothers Otis and Sam.  McDaniel was allowed to perform locally with the traveling minstrel shows staged at East Turner Hall in Denver.  In 1910, when she won the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s recitation contest with her rendition of “Convict Joe.”  The audience gave her both a standing ovation and the Gold Medal.  Although only a sophomore, McDaniel insisted that she wanted to perform and convinced her parents that she should quit school to join her father’s show.  She developed a talent for writing songs and dancing.  She also had an excellent singing voice.   
Sources: 
Carleton Jackson, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel (Lanham, New York: Madison Books, 1990); Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1989).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Colorado Historical Society

Scott, Hazel (1920-1981)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Hazel Scott was born on June 11, 1920, in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  In 1924, Scott and her parents migrated to Harlem, New York, where Hazel, a musical prodigy, studied classical piano with Paul Wagner, a Juilliard professor.  In the late 1930s and early 1940s her career blossomed, as she became a regular performer earning a weekly salary of $4,000 at New York’s elegant dinner club Café Society.  Her husband Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. once fondly referred to her as the “darling of Café Society.”

In 1938 her talent brought her to Broadway, where she performed in the musicals Singing Out the News and, four years later, Priorities of 1942.  The 1940s were thrilling years for Scott, with appearances in major Hollywood productions like Something to Shout About, I Dood It, and The Heat’s On in 1943, Broadway Rhythm in 1944, and Rhapsody in Blue in 1945. Scott distinguished herself from other black actors by refusing to play the traditional roles, such as maids and prostitutes, offered by movie executives to black actresses.  Instead, Scott made cameo appearances in movies playing the piano.

Sources: 
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2001); Adam Clayton Powell, Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (New York: Dial Press, 1971).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Berea College

Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Paul Robeson is best known as a world famous athlete, singer, actor, and advocate for the human rights of people throughout the world. Over the course of his career Robeson combined all of these activities into a lifelong quest for racial justice. He used his deep baritone voice to communicate the problems and progress associated with black culture and community, and to assist the labor and social movements of his time. He sang for multiracial and multiethnic peace and justice in twenty-five languages throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa.
Sources: 
Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (New York: Beacon Press, 1958); Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: New Press, 2005); Paul Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 (New York: Wiley, 2001); Paul Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976 (New York: Wiley, 2010).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Sul-Te-Wan, Madame (Nellie Conley) 1873-1959

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History in the West
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Madame Sul-Te-Wan was born on September 12, 1873 as Nellie Conley in Louisville, Kentucky where her widowed mother worked as a laundress.  Madame Sul-Te-Wan was a pioneering stage and film actress who became one of the most prominent black performers in Hollywood during the silent film era.  Her career spanned more than seventy years and she is best known as the first African American actress contracted to appear in D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking and racist cinematic epic, Birth of a Nation (1915).    

Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s interest in performing was awakened when she delivered laundry to Louisville’s Buckingham Theater where the white actresses who were her mother’s customers often invited young Nellie in to watch the shows.  Two white actresses, Mary Anderson and Fanny Davenport, wrangled an audition for her at a talent contest at the Buckingham which the youngster won.  Moving to Cincinnati, Ohio with her mother, Madame Sul-Te-Wan worked in dance troupes and theater companies throughout the East and Midwest billed as “Creole Nell.” She later formed her own musical performing company, The Black Four Hundred. She reconstituted the group as the Rair Back Minstrels and toured the East Coast to great acclaim.
Sources: 
Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, “Your Life is Really Not Just Your Own,” in Lawrence B. De Graaf, Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor (eds.), Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California  (Los Angeles: Autry Museum of Western Heritage and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).
Affiliation: 
California State University, Sacramento

Baird, Harry (1931-2005)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
"Image Ownership: Public Domain"
The physical presence that black British actor Harry Baird brought to the movie screen was largely a consequence of the United Kingdom going through the birthing pain of racism during the 1950s and 1960s.  Born in Guyana, this premier black actor was no Paul Robeson, but Harry Baird carried with him a presence that spoke to Britain’s patronizing advancement out of the stone-age of colonial imperialism.
Sources: 
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks (New York: Continuum, 1992); Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) title search by key word, “Harry Baird”; Tom Milne, ed., The Timeout Film Guide, Penguin Books, 3rd Edition, 1992.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Nichols, Nichelle (1932- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Nichelle Nichols was born as Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932 in Robbins, Illinois.  Discovered by Duke Ellington at the age of 15, she began her career as a singer touring the country with his band.  After the tour was over, Nichols worked in Los Angeles as a model, stage actress, and in small roles on television.  In 1966, she landed her most famous role as Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek series.  As Lt. Uhura, she portrayed the communications officer in the popular series and shared the first interracial kiss on television with William Shatner.  Nichelle Nichols planned to leave the show after the first season to return to the stage, but a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led her to change her mind.  King explained that her role was the first on television to show a black person as intelligent, proud, and beautiful, someone everyone needed to see and know.  Nichols stayed in her role through the end of the series and in the successive movies.  

Sources: 
Katherine Martin, Those Who Dare (New World Library, 2004); www.nss.org/about/bios/Nichols.html
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Strode, Woodrow Wilson Woolwine ["Woody"] (1914-1994)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History in the West

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Born July 28, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, Woody Strode (Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode) was first of the star football athletes to become a successful film actor.   He and Kenny Washington integrated the NFL, and Strode played for the L.A. Rams in 1946 before moving to the Canadian Football League in 1948.   He also did professional wrestling and reportedly tussled with the renowned Gorgeous George.

Sources: 
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks (New York: Continuum, 1992);  Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) title search by key word, “Woody Strode”; The Timeout Film Guide, edited by Tom Milne, Penguin Books, 3rd Edition, 1992.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Anderson, Eddie "Rochester" (1905-1977)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Born September 18, 1905 in Oakland, California, Eddie Anderson's career as an entertainer began at the age of 14 when he teamed up with his brother Cornelius in a song-and-dance act.  Anderson's career continued onto the silver screen where he had parts in movies such as What Price Hollywood? (1932) and Green Pastures (1936), although it was not until 1937 when he appeared as a railway porter on The Jack Benny Program that Anderson truly got his big break. Though he was initially slated as only having a one-shot role, Anderson was so well received that he was offered the part of "Rochester Van Jones," Jack's valet.

"Rochester" turned out to be Anderson's most popular role by far, and he continued with it until 1965 when The Jack Benny Program was taken off the air.  "Rochester" was not Anderson’s only role during this time; he also kept on in movies and can be found in such films as Gone with the Wind (1939), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
Sources: 
William Barlow, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999); Radio Hall of Fame Inductee Biographies, "Eddie Anderson" http://www.museum.tv/rhofsection.php?page=162.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Aldridge, Ira (1807-1867)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Ira Frederick Aldridge was the first African American actor to achieve success on the international stage. He also pushed social boundaries by playing opposite white actresses in England and becoming known as the preeminent Shakespearean actor and tragedian of the 19th Century.
Sources: 
Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007); Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The Early Years, 1807-1833 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011); Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The Vagabond Years, 1833-1852 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011); Herbert Marshall, Ira Aldridge: Negro Tragedian (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1993); Anthony D. Hill, An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2007.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Browne, Roscoe Lee (1925-2007)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Sources: 
Steven Otfinoski, African Americans in the Performing Arts (2003); Walter Rigdon, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia & Who’s Who of the American Theatre (1966); Quincy Troupe, “Roscoe Lee Browne,” Essence (December 1976). See also http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800037298/bio
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
San Diego State University

Waters, Ethel (1896-1977)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
In 1950, Ethel Waters was the first black American performer to star in her own regular television show, Beulah, but it was the 1961 role in the “Good Night, Sweet Blues” episode of the television series Route 66 that earned her an Emmy award.  She was the first black so honored.  Acting was a second career after singing in four different genres – jazz, blues, pop, and gospel.  She performed on Broadway stages, the first black to receive top billing with white stars.  And finally, she claimed leading roles in Hollywood films, earning an Academy Award nomination for the film Pinky.

Born on October 31, 1896, Waters won a talent contest as a teenager and began to sing around the Philadelphia area after growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania, where she sang in the church choir, and worked as a domestic.  Her first professional tour, with the Black Swan Troubadours, taught her to incorporate excitement and versatility in her vaudeville act.  Her divine discontent with just jazz and the blues propelled her into acting.  In 1938, she gave a recital at Carnegie Hall and then began to appear in dramatic roles.  She performed in Cabin in the Sky in 1943 and followed that film with more than ten others along with a treasure trove of classic songs including Am I Blue?, Memories of You, Stormy Weather, Porgy, Georgia on My Mind, and I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.
Sources: 
“Ethel Waters,” in W. Augustus, Low and Virgil A. Cliff, eds., The Encyclopedia of Black America (New York: De Capo, 1981); David Dicaire, ed., Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century (October 1999); http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/W/htmlW/watersethel/watersethel.htm
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dandridge, Dorothy (1922-1964)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Dorothy Dandridge, born on November 9, 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio, was a superb actress, singer and dancer who became a national and international star, and the first African American female actor nominated for both an Academy Award for Best Actress (Carmen Jones) and later a Golden Globe for her performance in Porgy and Bess.  She also showcased her singing and dancing talent in Las Vegas, Nevada during the 1950s where a portion of ‘D’ Street that runs through the Westside black community was renamed for her.
Sources: 
Charlene Regester, African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Lorraine LoBianco, “Starring Dorothy Dandridge” http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/114172%7C0/Starring-Dorothy-Dandridge.html 12/10/2013; Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts: Subject: Dorothy Dandridge.”
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Washington, Fredi (1903-1994)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

This image first appeared in the June 21, 2012 issue of
The Christian Post. Used with permission.

Fredi Washington was an actress and founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America as well as a journalist for People’s Voice. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Washington moved as a child to New York and began her professional career as a chorus dancer in the stage production of Shuffle Along in 1924. Fredi Washington appeared opposite Paul Robeson in the Frank Dazey’s 1926 play, Black Boy. Washington then left the United States with Al Moiret in 1927 and formed the dance duo, “Moiret and Fredi.” They toured clubs in Paris, Monte Carlo, London and Berlin for two years.

Sources: 
Alicia I. Rodriquez-Estrada, “From Peola to Carmen: Fredi Washington, Dorothy Dandridge, and Hollywood’s Portrayal of the Tragic Mulatto” in Quintard Taylor and Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, eds., African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).
Affiliation: 
Los Angeles Trade and Technical College

Shakur, Tupac (1971-1996)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Tupac Shakur, the son of two Black Panther members, William Garland and Afeni Shakur, was born in East Harlem, New York on June 16, 1971, and named after Jose Gabriel Tupac Amaru II, an 18th century political leader in Peru who was executed after leading a rebellion against Spanish rule. Tupac's parents separated before he was born.  At the age of 12 Shakur performed in A Raisin in the Sun with the 127th Street Ensemble. Afeni and Tupac later moved to Baltimore, Maryland where he entered the prestigious Baltimore School for the Arts as a teenager.  While at the school, he began writing raps and poetry.  He also performed in Shakespearian plays and took a role in The Nutcracker. 
Sources: 
Jonathan Jones, Tupac Shakur Legay (New York: Atria Books, 2006; Jacob Hoye, Tupac: Resurrection (New York: Atria Books, 2003; Jonathan Jones, "Tupac Comes to Life for Bay Area Teens". Northgate News Online, U.C.-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Nov. 18, 2003. Retrieved from http://journalism.berkeley.edu/ngno/stories/001588.html on Apr. 9, 2006; "Rapper Is Sentenced To 120 Days in Jail". New York Times. April 5, 1996;.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
East Tennessee State University

Perry, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew [“Stepin Fetchit”] (1902-1985)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Reviled by Langston Hughes, and many others, for his film and stage portrayals of black characters as “lazy, shuffling, no-account Negroes,” Perry transformed himself from a minor-league minstrel clown into one of the most highly-paid black actors in Hollywood history at the expense of a legacy which many find revolting and others see as pioneering in times far different from our own.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was born in Key West Florida in 1902 to West Indian parents. He arrived in Hollywood in the early 1920s after a period on the Vaudeville comedy circuit. When a Twentieth Century Fox Studios talent scout spotted him, Perry was given a successful screen test and his career began as “Stepin Fetchit” (Perry named his persona after a race-horse). Perry parlayed his lanky frame, unfocused gaze and dancer’s skilled movements into a character that movie audiences found hilarious and captivating. Mass audiences readily accepted stereotypical portrayals of illiterate and servile blacks and Perry became the most successful of a number of actors who pursued such roles.
Sources: 
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes & Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1988); Mel Watkins, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005)
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Cole, Nat “King” (1919–1965)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of the
African American Museum of Philadelphia
Jazz pianist and popular singer Nathaniel Adams Coles was born into a musical family in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, 1919.  His mother Perlina was a choir director in his father Edward’s Baptist church.  His three brothers, Edward, Ike, and Freddy, became professional musicians.  Cole also had a half-sister, Joyce.  The family moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1923 where Cole started playing the piano at age four; he organized his first jazz group, The Musical Dukes, in his teens.
Sources: 
Eileen Southern, Biographical Dictionary of Afro American and African Musicians (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982); Nicolas Slonimsky, Bokers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (London: Schirmer Books, 1984); Jim Irwin and Colin McLear, The Mojo Collection (NY: Cananongate, 2000).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Queen Latifah (1970- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
  Image Ownership: Public Domain
  
Born Dana Elaine Owens on March 18, 1970 in Newark, New Jersey, Queen Latifah is the most influential woman in the history of rap music. The Muslim name "Latifah," which translates roughly to “delicate, sensitive and kind,” was adopted by Owens at the age of eight with help from a cousin.  

As a high school student Latifah began rapping with two friends under the moniker Ladies First. She also worked with the rap group Flavor Unit, and recorded a two song demo featuring Wrath of My Madness and Princess of the Posse. The demo reached Tommy Boy Records which promptly signed eighteen-year-old Latifah in 1988.

In 1989 Latifah added the "Queen" at the beginning of her name and released her first full-length album All Hail the Queen. The album was one of the first feminist hip-hop albums released.  Queen Latifah worked with an established rap pioneer KRS-One and future stars De La Soul.  The album featured a song called Ladies First, which referenced her first group and illustrated her soon to be trademark of unrelenting black feminist-centric rap.

Following her second album Nature of a Sista in 1991, Latifah founded the management company Flavor Unit Management which developed a number of upcoming groups including Naughty by Nature.
Sources: 

Simone Payment, Queen Latifah (New York: Rosen Publishing, 2006); Eleanora E. Tate, African American Musicians (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2000).  

Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Rolle, Esther (1920-1998)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Esther Rolle as Stagecoach Mary Fields,
in South by
Northwest TV Series, 1974
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Esther Rolle was an actress primarily recognized for her role as principled, spirited Florida Evans who was first the maid on the Norman Lear sitcom Maude (starring Beatrice Arthur) and later was spun off into the starring role as the mother in the Lear sitcom Good Times (1974-79).

Despite the success of the series, Rolle clashed with the Hollywood producers because of their depiction of the oldest son, J.J. (played by Jimmie Walker) as a buffoon.  She and her co-star, John Amos, who played the father and shared her concerns, briefly quit the series.  Rolle returned during the final series to show the television family had reconciled.

Esther Rolle was born in 1920 to Bahamian immigrant parents in Pompano Beach, Florida, the tenth of 18 siblings.  After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta before moving to New York.

In the late 1950s Rolle worked in a pocketbook factory and took drama classes at George Washington Carver School in Harlem until she was awarded a scholarship to study acting at the New School for Social Research.  While there she became a member and, in 1960, the director of Shogola Aloba, a dance troupe headed by dance master Asadata Dafora.
Sources: 
Alvin Klein, ‘The River Niger’ in Scorching Style,” The New York Times, September 25, 1983; Eric Pace, “Chronicle,” The New York Times, August 14, 1990, retrieved May 7, 2007, from  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html; James Sterngold, “Esther Rolle, 78, Who Played Feisty Maid and Matriarch,” New York Times, November 19, 1998.  B14.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Wilson, Flip (1933-1998)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of Kathleen
Fearn-Banks 
Flip Wilson was the first African American to host a hit variety series on television.   The Flip Wilson Show aired from 1970 to 1974 and in addition to high ratings, Wilson won two Emmy Awards, one was for Outstanding Variety Series and the other for Outstanding Writing Achievement.  He also won the Golden Globe Award.  The Flip Wilson Show was the second highest rated show of the 1970-71 season topped only by the controversial but popular All in the Family sitcom.  Unusual for the time, Wilson was also part owner of his show.

Wilson played numerous characters but he is remembered primarily for his controversial portrayal of the sassy Geraldine.  Wilson, following the lead of comedians Milton Berle and Jonathan Winters who had also done characters in falsetto voice, developed Geraldine.  Wilson’s production team suggested he dress up as a woman.  He consented but insisted that Geraldine would be well-coiffed, well-dressed, and would demand respect.  Other characters include Rev. Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now and Freddy, the Playboy.  

The biggest names in show business guest starred on the show including Lucille Ball, Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, Ray Charles, The Temptations, The Jackson Five, B.B. King, Bing Crosby, and Bill Cosby were among them.  Said Producer Henry, “The show was so hot, celebrities asked to be on as guests.”
Sources: 
Kathleen Fearn-Banks, The Historical Dictionary of African-American Television, Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Norton, Ken (1943-2013)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Sources: 
Ken Norton, Going the Distance (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2000); www.ibhof.com; www.boxrec.com.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Jones, Sissieretta (1869-1933)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Sissieretta Jones was a world-famous soprano who in June 1892, became the first African American to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City, New York. Touring internationally in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she sang both classical opera and performed in musical comedies with her own troupe.

Born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner on January 5, 1869, in Portsmouth, Virginia, she was the child of Jeremiah Joyner, a pastor, and Henrietta Joyner, a singer in the church choir. After moving with her family to Rhode Island when she was six, Sissieretta began singing in the church choir, which was directed by her father. When only fourteen, she married David Richard Jones, who became her first manager. Later, she formally studied voice at the Providence Academy of Music, the New England Conservatory, and the Boston (Massachusetts) Conservatory.
Sources: 
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, African American Lives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Darryl Lyman, Great African-American Women (New York: Gramercy Books, 2000 edition); http://www.aaregistry.com.
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Gilpin, Charles Sidney (1878-1930)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Charles Sidney Gilpin, an actor, singer, and vaudevillian dancer, was the most successful African American stage performer in the early 20th Century.  He is best known for his portrayal of Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. A Richmond, Virginia, native, Gilpin attended St. Francis School, a Catholic institution for colored children, until age 12, and served as a printer’s assistant at the Richmond Planet (c. 1890-1893). Gilpin married three times. His first wife was Florence Howard (married c. 1897). He met his second wife, Lillian Wood, when he was with the Lafayette Players. His third wife was Alma Benjamin Gilpin.

Gilpin showed great promise early on as a singer appearing in amateur theatricals in Richmond. He went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early 1890s, where he worked briefly for the Philadelphia Standard, but was let go after some employees complained about working with a Negro.
Sources: 
Anthony Duane Hill, ed., An Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2008); John T. Kneebone, “’It Wasn’t All Velvet’: The Life and Hard Times of Charles S. Gilpin, Actor,” Virginia Cavalcade 38 (Summer 1988)
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Ohio State University

Gordone, Charles (1925- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Charles Gordone was born Charles Edward Fleming on October 12, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio to parents William and Camille Fleming.  He took his stepfather’s surname of Gordon when his mother remarried when he was five years old.  The family moved to Elkhart, Indiana, his mother’s hometown, when Charles was very young.  After graduating from high school in Indiana, Gordon moved to Los Angeles.  In 1942 he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he spent one semester before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps. Gordon served two years in the Air Corps’ Special Services where he was an organizer of entertainment.

He returned to Los Angeles after his discharge in 1944 and studied music at Los Angeles City College before moving on to California State University, Los Angeles where he earned a B.A. in drama in 1952.  Upon graduation, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting.  It was in New York that Gordon added the “e” to his surname because he spotted another Charles Gordon on the Actors’ Equity membership list.  During the late 1950s, Gordone began directing as well as acting. He founded his own theatre, Vantage, in Queens, New York in the late 1950s.  In 1962, Gordone also founded the Committee for the Employment of Negroes, an organization designed to lobby for more employment opportunities for blacks in theatre.  
Sources: 
John MacNicholas, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Part: A-J (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1981); http://www.answers.com/topic/charles-gordone
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Kitt, Eartha Mae (1928-2008)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Eartha Mae Kitt was born on January 26, 1928, in North, South Carolina.  Her sharecropper parents abandoned Kitt and her half-sister as young children, forcing them to live with a foster family until they moved to New York City to live with their aunt in 1938.

Until the age of fourteen, Kitt attended Metropolitan High School in New York City where she was recognized for her talents in singing, dancing, baseball, and pole-vaulting.  She met Katherine Dunham when she was sixteen, and toured Mexico, South America, and Europe as a dancer in Dunham’s troupe.  Kitt remained in Paris after the tour, entertaining audiences across the world with her provocative dancing and singing.  

Kitt was offered her first role in the theater in 1951 when Orson Wells cast her as Helen of Troy in his stage production Faust.  Kitt won critical reviews for her performance, which led to her role in Leonard Stillman’s New Faces Broadway revue.  She released a best-selling Broadway album after the show to kick off her record career.  

Sources: 
Lisa E. Rivo, “Eartha Mae Kitt,” Africana: Encyclopedia of The African and African American Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; http://www.oxfordaasc.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/article/opr/t0001/e0338?hi=1&highlight=1&from=quick&pos=1
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Davis, Ossie (1917-2005)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Image Ownership: Public Domain
A veteran actor, playwright and film director, Ossie Davis, grew up in Waycross, Georgia and attended Howard University for three years before leaving to pursue an acting career in New York City with the Rose McClendon Players (1941-1942). Within a year he was inducted into the military (1942). While stationed in Liberia in the Medical Corps and Special Services, he wrote several musicals. Upon his return to civilian service in 1945, he landed a role on Broadway in Jeb giving a performance that launched his professional career.  He also met fellow performer Ruby Dee, his future wife and lifetime mate of over 50 years. Davis and Dee became legendary for their involvement in theatre and civil rights and for their contribution to the American stage, television, and film industry. In black theatre circles, they became known affectionately as “the first couple of black theatre.” Davis and Dee worked together as actors on stage, screen, television (often appearing in the same shows), hosted television shows, starred in Broadway plays, and had fulfilling film careers. For five years they had their own radio series, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Hour.
Sources: 
Anthony Duane Hill, ed., An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2008).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Ohio State University

Horne, Lena (1917-2010)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

Image Ownership: Public Domain
Lena Horne was a major 20th Century entertainer.  Born in Brooklyn, New York into an upper middle class black family on June 30, 1917, Horne battled racial injustice throughout her career. Despite her obstacles she became one of the most well known African American performers of the 20th Century, achieving fame as a singer and actor.
Horne’s legendary career began in 1933 when at 16 she was hired to perform in the renowned Cotton Club in Harlem. There she was surrounded by up in coming jazz legends including Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington.  For the next five years, Horne performed in several night clubs, on Broadway, and toured with the Charlie Barnett swing band as a singer.   Barnett’s band was white thus allowing Horne to become one of the first African American star performers who developed an appeal across American racial boundaries.    

In 1938, Horne moved to Hollywood where she was cast in several movies. Years later Horne recalled, "In every other film I just sang a song or two; the scenes could be cut out when they were sent to local distributors in the South. Unfortunately, I didn't get much of a chance to act."

Sources: 
James Haskins, A Personal and Professional Biography of Lena Horne, (Detroit: Scarborough House, 1991); AlJean Harmetz, "Lena Horne Obituary," New York Times, May 10, 2010; http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/horne_l.html
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Browne, Theodore R. (c. 1910-1979).

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
A pioneer playwright, actor, author, and teacher, Theodore Browne was best known for his association with the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre in Seattle Washington in the 1930s. He was also an original member of the American Negro Theatre (ANT) and one of the founders of the Negro Playwrights Company, both in New York. Brown was born in Suffolk, Virginia, and educated in the public schools of New York City. Browne received advanced degrees at the City College of New York (1941) and at Northeastern University (1944) in Boston.
Sources: 
Anthony Duane Hill, ed., An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2008).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Ohio State University

Davis, Sammy, Jr. (1925-1990)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten,
courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust

Sammy Davis Jr. was born on December 8, 1925 in Harlem, New York. His parents, Sammy Davis Sr., an African American, and Elvera Sanchez, a Cuban American, were both vaudeville dancers.  They separated when young Davis was three years old and his father took him on tour with a dance troupe led by Will Mastin. Davis joined the act at a young age and they became known as the Will Mastin Trio. It was with this trio that Davis began a lucrative career as a dancer, singer, comedian, actor, and a multi-instrumentalist.

During World War II Davis joined the army, where he for the first time confronted racial prejudice. In the service he joined an integrated entertainment Special Services unit, and found that while performing the crowd often forgot the color of the man on stage.

Sources: 
Sammy Davis Jr., Jane Boyar, and Burt Boyar, Yes I Can (Toronto: Ambassador Books, Ltd, 1965); Gary Fishgall, Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. (New York: A Lisa Drew Book, 2003); Will Haygood, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Robinson, Bill “Bojangles” (1878-1949)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Bill Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878 to Maxwell and Maria Robinson.  Due to the death of both of his parents when he was an infant, Bill and his younger brother Percy were brought up by his grandmother.  As a young child, Bill was given the nickname of “Bojangles” although Robinson himself was unsure of the origin of the name. 

Sources: 
Susie Box, “National Tap Dance Day: Resonating Far and Wide” The International Tap Association Newsletter 4:1 (May-June, 1993), James Haskins and N.R. Mitgang, Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson (New York: W. Morrow, 1988); Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West, eds., The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country (New York: Free Press, 2000); http://www.tapdance.org/tap/people/bojangle.htm.  
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

King, Woodie, Jr. (1937- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of Black Masks
Theatre pioneer Woodie King Jr. is a director, actor, playwright, screen-writer, television scriptwriter, essayist, short-story writer, and consultant. Hailed as “the Renaissance Man of Black Theatre,” he was the most successful and prolific black producer in the world. For over 35 years, as founding director of the seminal New Federal Theatre (NFT), King produced nearly 200 theatre productions and over 5,000 performances and provided a showcase for over 1,000 actors, directors, and designers.  

King was born on July 27, 1937 in Baldwin Springs, Alabama. His family moved to Detroit where he grew up.  King received his theatrical training at Cass Technical High School in Detroit in the mid-1960s, Will-O-Way School of Theatre, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1958-1962), Wayne State University, and the Detroit School of Arts and Crafts. He also studied drama with Lloyd Richards under a 1965 John Hay Whitney Fellowship.

As co-founded of the Concept East Theatre (CET) in Detroit with Ronald Milner in 1960, King held the position of manager and artistic director. He directed several plays by some of the leading black writers, such as Milner and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and by white playwrights such as Edward Albee.
Sources: 
Anthony Duane Hill, ed., An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2008).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Ohio State University

Woodard, Charlayne (1955--)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Lynn Redgrave and Charlayne Woodard
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Actor and playwright Charlayne Woodard was born on December 29, 1955 in Albany, New York. She graduated from the Goodman School of Theatre of DePaul University in Chicago with an MFA in 1977, and promptly set off for New York City. Within two weeks she won a role in the Broadway production of the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin with Nell Carter. She won a Drama Desk Award and received a nomination for her performance. The musical was a huge success and ran on Broadway for three years.

After she appeared in the 1982 film of the same name, Woodard was cast into the real world of fledgling actors trying to make a living. She was marginally successful, appearing in films like Hair, One Good Cop, and the TV drama Days of Our Lives.

Woodard also wrote three one-woman plays. The first two, Pretty Fire (1995) and Neat (1997), mirror her real-life childhood experiences of growing up in Albany, New York. In Real Life (2000) she tells her story of trying to become an actor in New York. All these pieces were done in collaboration with and directed by Dan Sullivan, a veteran Broadway director and former artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Sullivan started the New Playwrights Program at the theatre where Woodard first applied, and the two have worked together to realize the full potential in her plays.
Sources: 
Anthony Duane Hill, ed., An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2008).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Ohio State University

Ward, Douglas Turner (1930- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Douglas Turner Ward, an actor, director and playwright is considered a living legend in the world of African American theatre. Although he has achieved much during his lifetime, his co-founding of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in 1968, ranks as his greatest achievement. NEC has spawned over 200 productions within a 35 year period. It has been the incubator of opportunity for such talents as Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Esther Rolle, Cleavon Little, Frances Foster, Sherman Helmsley, David Alan Grier, and Lynn Whitfield.

Playwrights such as Paul Carter Harrison, Charles Fuller, Judy Ann Mason, Joseph A. Walker, Philip Hayes Dean, J. E. Franklin, Endesha Mae Holland, and Aisah Rahman have all found a nurturing environment for the production of their plays. NEC was the flagship theatre for the torrid black arts movement of the halcyon 1960s civil rights movement.  
Sources: 
Anthony Duane Hill, ed., An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2008)
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historians

Cooper, John W. (1873-1966)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
John W. Cooper and Sam Jackson
Image Ownership: Public Domain
John W. Cooper was an African American ventriloquist, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1873.  After losing both of his parents at a very young age, Cooper received his education at Professor Dorsey’s Institute in Brooklyn.  There he developed into a budding entertainer and took a special interest in ventriloquism, a craft he learned from an unidentified white man whom he met at a Sheepshead Bay racetrack.  

Cooper, who was also a singer, joined “The Southern Jubilee Singers.”  While touring with the group he also developed his ventriloquism act, writing and performing his own material before mostly white audiences.  “Fun in a Barber Shop” became one of his most famous acts.  Cooper portrayed six different puppet characters, each with his own voice performed by Cooper himself.

In 1902, when he was twenty-nine, Cooper had his first big break in ventriloquism while traveling with Richards and Pringles Minstrels.  In that year he was recognized by the Daily Nonpariel, a leading entertainment magazine, as the best ventriloquist of that era.    Cooper went on to create another act with a black ventriloquist puppet named Sam Jackson.  Cooper and Sam traveled all over the United States during the next two decades.  By the start of World War I he began performing at veteran hospitals, service clubs, and military camps.  
Sources: 
C. B. Davis, “Reading the Ventriloquists’ Lips: The Performance Genre behind the Metaphor” (TDR 1988-), 42: 4 (Winter 1998); Dan Willinger, “Ventriloquists Vaudeville Years,” Ventriloquist Central: A Tribute to Ventriloquism,” http://www.ventriloquistcentral.com/tribute/vaudeville/vaudeville.htm; Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Carroll, Diahann (1935- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Diahann Carroll in Julia
Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann/CORBIS

Actress Diahann Carroll was born July 17, 1935 in the Bronx, New York but grew up in Harlem.  She received her education and her theatre training at Manhattan’s School of Performing Arts.

At the age of 19, Carroll received her first film role when she was cast as a supporting actress in the 1954 film Carmen Jones which starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.  After her film debut Carroll starred in the Broadway musical House of Flowers.  In 1959 she returned to film in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess where she performed with an all-star cast that included Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., and Pearl Mae Bailey. 

In 1962 Carroll made history when she became the first African American woman to receive a Tony Award for best actress.  She was recognized for her role as Barbara Woodruff in the musical No Strings.  Another historical moment occurred when Carroll won the lead role for Julia in 1968, becoming the first African American actress to star in her own television series as someone other than a domestic worker.  The show also broke ground by portraying Carroll as a single parent.  She played a recently widowed nurse who raised her son alone.  In 1968 Carroll won a Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress in a Television Series” for her work in Julia.  One year later she was nominated for an Emmy Award for her role in the series. 

Sources: 
Carroll, Diahann, "Ebony's 60th Anniversary - From Julia To Cosby To Oprah Tuning In To The Best Of TV," Ebony 61:1(2005); "Keeping Up The Good Fight—Winning the Crusade Against Cancer, Diahann Carroll, Vocalist and Actress, "Vital Speeches of the Day” 67: 11 (2001); Diahann Carroll’s official website:  http://www.diahanncarroll.net/
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Bailey, Pearl Mae (1918–1990)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Sources: 
Pearl Bailey, Between You and Me: A Heartfelt Memoir on Learning, Loving and Living (New York: Doubleday, 1989); Morgan Monceaux, Jazz: My Music, My People (New York: Knopf, 1994); Darryl Lyman, Great African-American Women (New York: Gramercy Books, 2000).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Jones, James Earl (1931 - )

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People
History Type: 
African American History

Courtesy of ©Bettmann/CORBIS
Award winning actor James Earl Jones was born Todd Jones on January 17, 1931 in Arkabutla Township, Tate County, Mississippi.  His father, Robert Earl Jones, an actor, boxer, butler and chauffeur, deserted the family and young Todd, at age of five moved from his mother’s care to live with his maternal grandparents, Maggie and John Henry Connolly on their farm near Jackson, Michigan.  This traumatic life change caused him to develop a severe stutter and refuse to speak.  

Jones credits one of his high school teachers, Donald Crouch with helping him master his speaking ability.  Crouch saw Jones’ gift in poetry and made him recite his poems everyday before the class in hopes that this would build his confidence and end his silence. 

In 1949 Jones entered the University of Michigan with the aspiration of becoming a doctor.   He spent four years, however, realizing his dramatic talent and shifted his career goal.  Jones left the University of Michigan in 1953 without a degree but with four years of Reserve Officer Training Corps training.  He was soon drafted into the U.S. Army.  While waiting for orders to active duty, he found a part-time job at the Manistee Summer Theater.
Sources: 
James Earl Jones and Penelope Niven, James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences (New York: Scribner, 1993); Documentary on James Earl Jones at TCM.com (Turner Classic Movies): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=467026&category=Overview
History of Ramsdell Theatre: http://www.ramsdell-theater.org/pages/history.asp?content=2
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Poitier, Sidney (1927 - )

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People
History Type: 
African American History

Sidney Poitier from
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
Image ©Bob Adelman/Bettmann/Corbis
Award winning actor, director, and author, Sidney Poitier broke racial barriers and stereotyping in the film industry to become the leading African American male actor of the 20th Century.  In a career that spanned 57 years, Poitier was a featured performer or starred in 48 films and directed six.  
Sources: 
Aram Goudsouzian, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004; Sidney Poitier, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000); Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West, The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country (New York: Free Press, 2000).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Berry, Halle (1968- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Halle Berry, who was born Maria Halle Berry, is a multiracial model, actress, and former beauty queen who was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1968.  Her mother Judith Hawkins Berry, who is white, worked as a psychiatric nurse in a Cleveland hospital.  Berry’s African American father, Jerome Berry, was an attendant at the same hospital.  Berry’s parents divorced when she was four and she was subsequently raised by her mother.    

Halle Berry grew up in an African American neighborhood in her younger years, but then her mother Judith relocated the family to a white neighborhood.  Berry attended Bedford High in Cleveland and quickly became involved in cheerleading and the school newspaper.  She was also class president, a member of the honor society, and Prom Queen of her class.  Berry became Miss Teen Ohio in 1985 which led her to winning the Miss Teen All-American title the same year and then Miss Ohio in 1986.  Berry came in second place in Miss USA in 1986 and was the first African American to compete for the Miss World competition in 1986.  
Sources: 
"Celebrity Central Halle Berry." Halle Berry: People.com. 2008, http://www.people.com/people/halle_berry; Dominick Wills, "Halle Berry Biography," Tiscali Film & TV., http://www.tiscali.co.uk/entertainment/film/biographies/halle_berry_biog.html
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Johnson, J. Rosamond (1873-1954)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten,
courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust
Composer, actor, and pioneer in his field, John Rosamond Johnson was one of the most successful of the early African American composers. Born on August 11, 1873 in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was the younger brother of prominent composer and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson. Starting in 1890, John Johnson attended Boston’s New England Conservatory, and for a brief time studied in Europe as well. He began his career as a music teacher in Jacksonville public schools but in 1899 moved to New York with his brother, James Weldon, to pursue a career in show business.

One year later the Johnson brothers established a song writing partnership with Robert “Bob” Cole, a lyricist and vaudeville entertainer. Their working relationship lasted until Cole’s death in 1911 and would prove to be quite profitable, producing two popular all-black operettas on Broadway, The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1906) and The Red Moon (1908). With Cole, Johnson also wrote Congo Love Songs, My Castle on the Nile, and the enormously successful Under the Bamboo Tree in 1902.
Sources: 
Jeffrey Lehman, ed., The African American Almanac (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003); Rayford Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982); Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Lee, Canada (1907-1952)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten,
courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust
Canada Lee (the adopted name of Lionel Cornelius Canegata) was a noted 20th Century jockey, boxer, and actor.  Born on May 3, 1907 in New York City’s San Juan Hill district, he attended Public School 5 in Harlem. Canegata began his musical education at the age of seven, studying violin with the composer J. Rosamond Johnson. At the age of fourteen he ran away to the Saratoga Race Track in upstate New York to become a jockey. After two years of jockeying he became a horse exerciser for prominent racehorse owners.

In 1923 Canegata moved to Harlem and became an amateur prize fighter, entering the ring with manager Jim Buckley. Over the next three years he emerged the victor in 90 of 100 fights and won the Metropolitan Inter-City and Junior National Championships.  Then he went on and won the national amateur lightweight title. In 1926 he turned professional, changed his name to Canada Lee, and by 1930 he was a leading contender for the welterweight championship. Lee fought in over 200 fights as a professional boxer, only losing 25.  In 1933 a detached retina ended his boxing career and he returned to music.
Sources: 
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

McClendon, Rose (1884-1936)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Photography by Carl Van Vechten,
courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust

Rose McClendon was an African American actress born in South Carolina in 1884.  McClendon’s original name was Rosalie Virginia Scott.  Her parents were Sandy and Tena Scott.  In 1890 McClendon’s parents worked for a well established family as a housekeeper and coachman in New York City.  McClendon received her education through the public schools in New York where acting became her main focus of interest.

In October 1904 Scott married Henry Pruden McClendon who was trained as a chiropractor but who could only find work as a Pullman porter.  Together they moved from lower Manhattan to Harlem where McClendon was actively involved in the St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church often using her theatrical talent. 

After studying by scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts between 1916 and 1918, McClendon gave her first stage performance in 1919 in the play, Justice.  She would eventually perform in other productions including In Abraham’s Bosom, Porgy and Bess, and Deep River.  Along with McClendon’s acting and directing in 1935 she and Dick Campbell created the Negro People’s Theatre. 

Sources: 
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Mitchell, Abbie (1884-1960)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Sources: 
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Walker, George (1873-1911)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of The Kansas Collection
University of Kansas 
George Nash Walker was born in 1873 in Lawrence, Kansas. He left at a young age to follow his dream of becoming a stage performer and toured with a traveling group of minstrels. After performing at shows and fairs across the country, Walker met Bert Williams in 1893 and they formed the duo known as Williams and Walker. During this time, white men performing in minstrel shows blackened their faces to pose as black performers. As a counter, Williams and Walker billed themselves as “Two Real Coons,” a descriptor that marked the two as black men and a reference to the derogatory term “coon” used to describe people of African descent in the United States.  While performing as a vaudeville act throughout the United States, George Walker and his partner Bert Williams popularized the cakewalk, an African American dance form named for the prize that would be earned by the winners of a dance contest.
Sources: 
Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-On-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); James Haskins, Black Theater in America (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1982); Loften Mitchell, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967); Allen Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
Affiliation: 
California State University, Monterey Bay

Whipper, Leigh (1876-1975)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Leigh Whipper while making the film,
"The Oxbow Incident." 
Photo courtesy of Carole Ione Lewis

Leigh Whipper, the first black member of the Actors’ Equity Association (1913), was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1876. His father, William J. Whipper, was a Pennsylvania entrepreneur and abolitionist before the Civil War and later a member of two Constitutional Conventions during the Reconstruction era. His mother, Frances Rollin Whipper, was a writer. Whipper attended public school in Washington, D.C. After leaving Howard University Law School in 1895, he immediately joined the theater.

Never a drama student, Whipper honed his acting abilities by observing the techniques of some of the most established actors of his day and interpreting the voices of some of his favorite writers, including Paul Laurence Dunbar. By the turn of the century, he had made his first Broadway appearance in Georgia Minstrels and went on to appear in classical Broadway productions of Stevedore, Of Mice and Men, and Porgy. Whipper achieved national fame for his characterization of the Crabman of the Catfish Row in Porgy, interposing into his part the Crabman’s Song. It was later incorporated into the film version.

Sources: 

Leigh Whipper Papers, 1861–1963, Schomburg Collection, New York Public Library; “Leigh Whipper, 98, Character Actor,” The New York Times, Sunday, July 27, 1975, p. 35.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

McKinney, Nina Mae (1913-1967)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of Ruth Harriet Louise

Nina Mae McKinney, one of the first African American leading actresses in Hollywood, was born Nannie Mayme McKinney in 1913. The Lancaster, South Carolina native was reared by her great-aunt, Carrie Sanders on the Estate of Colonel LeRoy Sanders, where her family had worked for many generations. She attended Lancaster Industrial School until the age of 13 before relocating to New York to live with her mother, Georgia Crawford McKinney. As an early teen, McKinney performed in Harlem’s nightclubs and eventually on Broadway in the Lew Leslie musical review, Blackbirds of 1928.

Her celebrity began at the age of 16 when director King Vidor, impressed by her vitality in Blackbirds of 1928, hired her to parlay her multi-talented abilities as an actress, dancer, and vocalist in the musical film, Hallelujah (1929). McKinney’s effervescent performance as the seductress, “Chick,” brought her immediate success. Yet despite rave reviews for her vivacious performance and a resulting five-year contract with MGM, McKinney’s career faltered during an era when Hollywood declined to position black actresses in dignified roles.

Sources: 

Louise Pettus, Sandlapper: The Magazine of South Carolina. “Lancaster’s Celebrated Film Star. 1999; Darlene Clarke Hine, Elsa Barkely Brown, et. al. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Norman, Maidie (1912-1998)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten,
courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust

Maidie Norman, who appeared in more than 200 Hollywood films, was born in Georgia in 1912 to Louis and Lila Gamble. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a homemaker. Norman received a B.A. in Literature and Theatre Arts from Bennett College in North Carolina and later obtained an M.A. in Theater Arts from Columbia University in New York. While in New York, she met and married real estate broker McHenry Norman and the couple relocated to Los Angeles, where Norman began training at the Actors Laboratory in Hollywood.

Early in a career that spanned more than four decades, Norman appeared on several radio shows, including The Jack Benny Show and Amos n’ Andy, before gaining a bit role in the film The Burning Cross (1948). Shortly after her debut, Norman was regularly cast as a domestic in several film roles, but refused to deliver her lines using stereotypical speech patterns. Instead, she brought her background in theatricality to the studios where directors often empowered her to rewrite her film lines, infusing the character with more dignity and less broken English.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988); “Maidie Norman,” Contemporary Black Biography. Volume 20 (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 1998); Maidie Norman Papers, Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Tucker, Lorenzo (1907-1986)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

In an era when both movies and audiences were segregated, Lorenzo Tucker became African America’s leading man. Tucker was born in Philadelphia in 1907 to parents John and Virginia Lee Tucker. Lorenzo Tucker studied photography in trade school and briefly attended Temple University, where he appeared in plays. He went on to work as a straight man in minstrel shows with blue’s singer Bessie Smith and actor/comedian Stepin’ Fetchit (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry).

It was during a performance that pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux spotted Tucker and persuaded him to consider acting in movies. In 1927, Tucker made his debut in Micheaux’s A Fool's Errand. Tucker appeared in subsequent films in which he portrayed distinguished characters, such as a motion picture producer in The Wages of Sin (1928); a captain in A Daughter of the Congo (1930); and a lawyer in The Black King (1932). In 1933, he received his first minor Hollywood role in The Emperor Jones (1933) starring Paul Robeson.

Sources: 

Richard Grupenoff, The Black Valentino (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988); Anonymous, “Black Valentino.” Vinyard Gazette, June 8, 1976; Burt Folkart, “Lorenzo Tucker, 'Black Valentino,' Dies,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1986, p.28.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Haynes, Daniel (1894-1954)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Sources: 

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Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks In American Film (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing Company,1999); Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1978); Michael Mills, Midnight Ramble: Films 1930s, http://moderntimes.com/palace/black/film_images.html.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Hayes, Isaac (1942-2008)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of Stax Museum
of American Soul Music

Academy Award-winning composer and musician Isaac Hayes, Jr. was born to Isaac Sr. and Eula Hayes on August 20, 1942 in Covington, Tennessee. Hayes began his career at the age of 20 when he joined Stax Records as a studio musician. By the late 1960s he was a songwriter/producer, crafting hit singles for Sam and Dave and other Stax acts.

A year after emerging as a solo artist, Hayes’s debut album Hot Buttered Soul (1969) took soul music in a new direction – incorporating spoken segments (he called raps), fewer, longer songs accompanied by orchestras, and eccentric album covers that featured what was to become Hayes’s signature shaved head and gold chains upon his bare chest.

Although his success in the music industry continued with his follow up album Black Moses, Hayes simultaneously pursued a film and television career. In 1971, Hayes created the score for the film Shaft. Recording the sound track in just four days, Shaft rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Chart and garnered a Grammy and an Academy Award for Best Song and Best Score in 1972, making Hayes the first African American composer to win an Oscar. He also appeared in films such as Shaft (1971); Truck Turner (1974), his only starring role.

Sources: 

Isaac Hayes Biography, http://www.filmreference.com/film/84/Isaac-Hayes.html; “Isaac Puts Chef Behind Him,” New York Post, January 24, 2007; The Vancouver Sun (12 August 2008); http://www.isaachayes.com/myframes.html.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Mills, Florence (1896-1927)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

The 1927 Times of London obituary noted of Florence Mills, “There is no doubt that she was a real artist full of individuality and intelligence, and her premature death is a sad loss to the profession.”  Florence Mills was an internationally-recognized and multifaceted performer who paved the way for other black female stars during the Harlem Renaissance.

Born Florence Winfrey in 1896, in Washington, D.C. to former slaves Nellie and John Winfrey, Mills moved with her parents to New York City in 1905. To help her financially struggling family, Mills and her two older sisters created “The Mills Sisters,” a dance and singing troupe that performed in theatres in Harlem, New York.

The year 1921 marked a triumphant period for Mills. She married Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson (a member of a jazz band known as the Tennessee Ten) and made her debut in the hit musical Shuffle Along – a victorious, all-black cast, musical comedy created by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.  

Sources: 

Bill Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2004); http://www.florencemills.com/biography.htm.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Preer, Evelyn (1896-1932)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

Evelyn Preer, one of the first African American silent screen actresses to transition into sound Hollywood films, was born on July 21, 1896 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After her father’s death, Preer and her mother relocated to Chicago, Illinois where she completed high school before pursuing acting.

Preer’s big break came when she landed a role in Oscar Micheaux’s first film, The Homesteader (1919), in which she played a tragically unhappy woman abandoned by her husband for a mulatto woman whom he believed to be white. Impressed with her talent, Micheaux cast Preer in several roles in which she generally played dramatic characters, challenging many of the prevailing black film stereotypes. Preer expanded her acting abilities into the area of theater, frequently alternating between the screen and stage as she became a staple for Micheaux’s dramatic films and an esteemed actress for the Lafayette Players.

Preer met and married stage actor Edward Thompson while traveling with the players and the duo headlined productions for the traveling section of the Lafayette Players throughout the early 1920s. Preer’s impressive theatricality led her to Broadway where she recorded with the legendary musical composer Duke Ellington, performed with Ethel Waters, and won acclaim for her role as Sadie Thompson in the revival of Somerset Maugham’s classic melodrama Rain.

Sources: 

Pearl Bowser, Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001); Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black. The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Francesca Sr. Thompson, Drop me off in Harlem, http://www.artedge.kennedy-center.org/exploring/harlem/themes/lafayette.html.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Ingram, Rex (1895-1969)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs Division,
Carl Van Vechten Collection

Rex Ingram, one of the first African American male actors to serve on the Board of the Screen Actors Guild, was born in 1895 on a houseboat on the Mississippi River near Cairo Illinois. Ingram claimed to have sailed as a crewman on a windjammer after receiving a medical degree from Northwestern University in Illinois, though little is actually known about his personal life prior to his entry into acting.

Ingram’s film career began in 1918, when he made his acting debut by appearing in bit parts of Tarzan films.  He went on to appear in silent films such as The Ten Commandments (1923). Between filming, Ingram worked as a professional boxer to support himself and later appeared in a number of Broadway plays, including Porgy and Bess and Stevedore. During his Broadway interim in New York, Ingram traveled back and forth to Hollywood where he obtained small parts in a number of movies, including the 1933 film The Emperor Jones opposite Paul Robeson. His big break came when he appeared in the 1936 film Green Pastures, for which he received acclaim for his multifaceted ability to portray the characters De Lawd, Adam, and Hezdrel.

Sources: 

Rex Ingram, “I Came Back from the Dead: Actor tells of his
Determination to Return to Stardom after Period of Disaster.” Ebony,
Vol. 10, (March 1955); The New York Times, “Rex Ingram, the Actor, Dies
in Hollywood at 73,” September 20, 1969; Donald Bogle. Blacks in
American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia
, (New York: Garland
Publishing, Inc, 1988).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Polk, Oscar (1900-1949)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Photo Courtesy of
the Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs
Division, Carl Van
Vechten Collection

Actor Oscar Polk began his career in the early 1930s as a stage performer in the musical production of Swingin’ the Dream, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream. The Arizona native studied dancing at Jack Blue’s Dance Studio and later became a tap dance instructor. He made his film debut in 1936 as Gabriel the Angel in The Green Pastures, an adaptation of the play by Marc Connelly. The Green Pastures was perhaps Polk’s most pivotal film role.

Subsequently, he appeared in the film It’s a Great Life (1936), Oscar Micheaux’s 1937 film Underworld, and primarily race (all-black cast) films until actor turned casting agent Ben Carter arranged for Polk the substantial role of the house servant, Pork, in the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind.  Polk co-starred with Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, (New York: Amistad Press,
1997; Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life
Together
, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.,1998; Edward
Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, 1st edition, (Lanham,
Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1978).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Moten, Etta (1901-2004)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Etta Moten, a multifaceted pioneer in the world of entertainment, was born in Weimar, Texas in 1901. She was raised as the only child of her parents, Freeman Moten, a Methodist minister, and his wife Ida Mae Norman. In 1915, Rev. Moten moved to Kansas City where Etta Moten began singing in church choirs.  

Moten married one of her school teachers at the age of 17 and had three children. She divorced her husband in 1924 and asked her parents to care for her children while she went on to attend the University of Kansas to study voice and drama. While at the University of Kansas, Moten briefly joined the Eva Jessy Choir in New York before her ambitions lead her to Hollywood where she immediately embarked upon a film career that enabled her to parlay her vocal and dramatic skills in a dignified manner.

Moten made her film debut as a widow (who sang the song My Forgotten Man) in the 1933 movie The Gold Diggers. The same year, she appeared in her sophomore and final film entitled Flying Down to Rio in which her moving vocal performance of The Carioca received positive reviews. Although she did not receive billing for subsequent film roles, Moten was one of the first singers to be employed as a dub for the voices of several other leading actresses, including Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers.

Sources: 

Joy B. Kinnon, “Etta at 100: Etta Moten Barnett, Pioneer Actress,
Singer and Activist Celebrates Centennial,” Ebony (December 2001); Joy
B. Kinnon, “A Diva for All Times,” Ebony (March 2004); Anonymous, "KU
Fine Arts Dean Connects with Alumna Etta Moten Barnett," Collage 2:1
(Spring 2000);  Stephen Bourne, “Etta Moten: Actress Who Broke the
Stereotype for Black Women in Hollywood,” The Independent (London),
January 7, 2004.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

McNeil, Claudia (1917-1993)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann-Corbis

Claudia McNeil is best remembered for her laudatory performance as the matriarch in the stage and screen versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s widely-acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun (1961).  McNeil was born in 1917 in Baltimore, Maryland to Marvin Spencer McNeil and Annie Mae Anderson McNeil. She was adopted by a Jewish family, named the Toppers, in her teenage years and briefly married by the age of 18. McNeil then worked as a registered librarian before the inception of her entertainment career.

McNeil first performed as a dancer with the Katherine Dunham troupe during the tour of South America in 1951. She later performed as a nightclub and vaudeville singer before making her acting debut in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953); and later performed in Langston Hughes’s Simply Heavenly (1957), for which she received a Tony nomination.  In 1965, she appeared in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, for which she garnered the London Critics Poll Award for best actress.

Sources: 

Hazel Garland, “Claudia McNeil Claim’s Star’s Life Isn’t Easy,”
Pittsburgh Courier, March 17, 1962; Edward Mapp, ed., Directory of
Blacks in the Performing Arts
(Meluchan, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press,
1978); Eric Pace, The New York Times Biographical Service, November 29,
1993.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Walker, William (1917-1992)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of Screen Actors Guild Archives
William "Bill" Walker Collection

Best remembered for the role of Reverend Sykes in the film classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), William Walker was born in Pendleton, Indiana in 1917. The son of a freed slave, Walker was the first African American graduate of Pendleton High School. After graduating, Walker pursued an acting career and made his first film appearance as a bit player in The Killers. He went on to appear in more than 100 films and television shows although the industry limited him mainly to roles as a domestic servant.

As the racial climate in Hollywood began to improve in the 1940s, Walker graduated to portraying a wider variety of characters, including doctors and diplomats.  Eventually he moved on to directing and producing films. Determined to ensure other African American actors obtained roles that portrayed the race in a true light, Walker in the late 1940s became a civil rights activist.  

Sources: 

http://www/whenmoviesweremovies.com/hoosieractors4.html. Accessed
September 28, 2003; Affirmative Action: Through the Decades with SAG,
http://www.sag.org/diversity/diversehistory.html.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Williams, Spencer (1893-1969)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Radio Characters from Amos 'N' Andy,
Spencer Williams (left)
and Alvin Tim Moore (right)
Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann-Corbis

Spencer Williams is widely known for his portrayal of the character Andy in the controversial 1950s television comedy series Amos ‘n Andy.  His contributions to the world of film and television, however, far surpassed the limitations of the popular but widely criticized Amos ‘n Andy sitcom. Born July 14, 1893 in Vidalia, Louisiana, Williams moved to New York City during his teens and studied comedy under vaudeville comedian Bert Williams.

He attended the University of Minnesota, but interrupted his studies to serve several years in the United States Army during and after World War I. After being honorably discharged from the service in 1923, Williams returned to New York City and concentrated on a career in show business. He eventually landed a job with Christie Studios in Hollywood, where he co-wrote and appeared in Paramount Pictures’ first all-black talking film, Melancholy Dame (1928). He was subsequently retained as a consultant, continuity writer, and performer for the Christie Comedies – a comedy series that focused on black life in urban Alabama.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia
(New York: Garland Publishing, 1988); Thomas Cripps, Black Film as
Genre
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978); Wheeler Dixon, The
“B” Directors: A Biographical Directory
(Metuchen, New Jersey:
Scarecrow, 1985); Phyllis Klotman, Frame By Frame: A Black Filmography
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978); Henry T. Sampson, Blacks
in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films
(Metuchen, New Jersey:
Scarecrow, 1977); Mel Watkins, On the Real Side (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1994).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Wilson, Arthur Dooley (1886-1953)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Arthur Dooley Wilson, best remembered for his popularization of the hit song “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 film classic Casablanca, was born in Tyler, Texas in 1886. Around 1913, he moved to Manhattan, New York, where he performed with the honorable James Reese Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band. After Lieutenant Europe was fatally stabbed by one of his own band members, Wilson formed his own band and toured abroad in London, UK and Paris, France, playing ragtime on the alto sax before returning to the United States in 1930 to embark on an acting career.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1988), Katz Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: Cromwell, 1979); Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film (New York, Oxford University Press, 1977); Arthur  Wilson, The Texas Handbook Online, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwibk.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Fluellen, Joel (1908-1990)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

Joel Fluellen, an instrumental figure in the fight to end Hollywood bias during the 1940’s and 1950’s, was born in 1908 in Louisiana. Prior to beginning his acting career, Fluellen resided in Chicago where he worked as a milliner and store clerk.  After appearing on stage in New York, he relocated to Hollywood in the early 1940’s and gained his first role as a bit player in Cabin in the Sky (1943).

Sources: 

“Joel Fluellen; Actor fought Hollywood bias,” Los Angeles Times,
February 7, 1990, p. A18; "Joel Fluellen 81, A longtime actor in Films
and TV,” New York Times, "February 7, 1999; p. B7; Donald Bogle,
Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, (New York: Amistad Press, 1997); Edward
Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts: First Edition, (New
Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1978).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Harris, Edna Mae (1914-1997)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

Actress Edna Mae Harris made a name for herself as a lead in underground films of the 1930s and 1940s, which depicted the life of the black bourgeoisie. Harris was born in Harlem, New York, in 1914 to Sam and Mary Harris. Her father was a boxer and customs inspector and her mother worked as a maid for gay 90s pin-up Lillian Russell.

Sources: 

Martin Douglas, “Vivian Harris, Comedian, Chorus Girl and Longtime
‘Voice of the Apollo,’ Dies at 97,” New York Times, March 26, 2000;
Dance History Archives. http://www.streetswing/histmai2/d1h.htm.
Accessed 9/28/03; Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing
Arts,
(NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978).  

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Moses, Lucia Lynn (c. 1906- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Lauded for her masterful performance in her only film, Lucia Lynn Moses began her show business career as a chorus girl at New York’s legendary Cotton Club in the early 1920s and went on to perform in the theater. She made her film debut when David Starkman, the Caucasian owner and founder of the Philadelphia-based Colored Player’s Film Corporation (a largely white-owned and operated company that initially had a predominately white clientele but chose to cater to the growing population of African American theater goers rather than relocate) teamed up with black vaudevillian Sherman Dudley to recruit a group of black actors to appear in the company’s silent race films. Because Oscar Micheaux, leader of race films, was also producing all-black cast, silent films with themes examining intra-racial conflict, The Scar of Shame is widely mistaken as being a Micheaux film.

Lucia Lynn Moses was the daughter of Minister W.H. Moses of the New York National Baptist Church. Against her father’s wishes, Lucia and her two sisters Ethel (later a leading lady and sex symbol in Micheaux’s films) and Julia (later a Broadway performer), pursued show business careers and became part of the Cotton Club Girls lineup.

Sources: 

Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies introduction to Scar of Shame,
2004; Anonymous, “Cotton Club Girls,” Ebony, April 1949, Vo. 4, No. 6,
Bret Wood, "The Scar of Shame,"
http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.jsp?cid=74413&mainArticleId=176227.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Vereen, Ben (1946- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Ben Augustus Vereen, actor, singer, and dancer, was born on October 10, 1946 in Miami, Florida, but while still an infant his family moved north to Brooklyn, New York.  From a young age Vereen showed a talent in dancing and drama, often performing in local variety shows.  With his mother realizing his talent and potential, Vereen was enrolled at the New York High School of Performing Arts at the age of fourteen to pursue these skills.  After high school Vereen struggled to find work, often taking odd jobs to get by. 

Sources: 

Kenneth Estell, African American Portrait of a People (Detroit: Visible
Ink, 1994); A & E, December 2, 2008,
http://www.biography.com/search/article.do?id=9542361

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Pryor, Richard (1940–2005)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, was an American stand-up comedian, writer, actor and social critic who revolutionized the comedy world in the 1960s and 1970s. He became famous for colorful, irreverent and often vulgar language as he comically described the major issues of the period.  Pryor won an Emmy award in 1973 and five Grammy Awards between 1974 and 1982.

Richard Pryor was born on December 1, 1940 and raised in Peoria, Illinois. Abandoned by his parents when he was 10, Pryor and three other siblings were raised in his grandmother’s brothel. As a youth, he was raped by a teenaged neighbor and molested by a Catholic priest. He was expelled from school at the age of 14 and began working as a janitor, meat packer, and truck driver. Pryor served in the U.S army spending most of that time in an army prison for assaulting a fellow soldier while stationed in Germany. In 1960, Pryor married Patricia Price and they would had his first child, Richard Jr. The couple divorced in 1961.

Sources: 

Official Website: http://www.richardpryor.com; Richard Pryor: Stand-Up
Philosopher, City Journal, Spring 2009:
http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_2_urb-richard-pryor.html; Pryor’s
Ancestry: http://www.progenealogists.com/pryor/; American Masters:
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/newhart_b.html

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Anderson, Ernest (1916-1997)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Legendary actor Ernest Anderson gained notoriety for his monumental performance in the 1942 film In This Our Life – a single, supporting role that facilitated the alteration of negative depictions presented of African Americans in Hollywood film. Born in 1916 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Anderson was educated at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. and Northwestern University’s School of Drama and Speech.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Anderson moved to Hollywood where he worked as a service man for Warner Brothers studio before receiving his debut role in In This Our Life. It was Bette Davis, the film’s protagonist, who arranged Anderson’s interview for the part of Perry Clay – an aspiring lawyer who is falsely placed at the center of a hit-and-run scandal committed by a spoiled Southern woman.

The script originally called for Anderson’s character to comply with the dialectical speech patterns Hollywood filmmakers forced African Americans to deliver during the pre-World War II era. But after Anderson argued the integrity of the part, director John Huston empowered him to present the character with dignity, intelligence, and emotion.

Sources: 

Carlton Jackson, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel (Lanham: Madison Books, 1990); Thomas Cripps, Making Movies Black (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1993); Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Carter, Ben (1907-1946)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Actor-turned casting agent Ben Carter often portrayed an obliging domestic in Hollywood films, but later became one of the few African American agents in the movie capital dedicated to promoting and enhancing the careers of some of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors and actresses of color – including Hattie McDaniel, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Lena Horne, and the Dandridge Sisters.

Born in 1907, the Fairfield, Iowa native began his career as a comedian and Broadway performer in New York.  He relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1930s and first worked as an unbilled player in movies. By the mid-1930s, Carter had become one of the first African American performers to sign a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox studios. Known for his wiry hair and bugged eyes, Carter appeared in several movies over a two-decade period, including Gone With the Wind (1939), Maryland (1940), Tin Pan Alley (1940), and several of Monogram Studio’s Charlie Chan series. In addition to frequently appearing in films, Carter earned a less than reputable name for himself due to his demeaning film roles.

Sources: 

Susan McHenry, “The Black Side of the Early Silver Screen,” Essence, April 2001; Anonymous, “Notables Attend Final Rites of Ben Carter, Noted Actor,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 28, 1946; Donald Bogle, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography (New York: Amistad Press Inc., 1997.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Simms, Hilda (1918-1994)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Hilda Simms was born Hilda Moses to Emile and Lydia Moses in 1918 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She briefly studied teaching at the University of Minnesota before relocating to New York where she met and married William Simms and gained professional acting experience at Harlem's American Negro Theater.

In 1943, two years after dissolving her marriage to William, Simms made her debut in the title role of the theatrical play Anna Lucasta, becoming the first leading African American actress to appear in the Broadway hit production. Originally written for an all-white cast, Simms portrayed a middle-class woman struggling to regain her respectability after falling into a life of prostitution. The theatrical version of Anna Lucasta is considered the first drama featuring African American actors to explore a theme un-related to racial tensions. When the play toured abroad, Simms maintained the title role while enjoying a dual singing career in Paris. During the British tour of the play, Simms met and married actor Richard Angarola.  

The couple returned to the states in the 1950s and Simms embarked on a brief film career.  Her first role was as co-star to heavy-weight boxing champion Joe Louis.  She played the boxer' wife in The Joe Louis Story (1953). Her only other movie role was that of the hatcheck girl in Black Widow (1954).

Sources: 

Hilda Simms Papers, New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research; William Grimes, “Hilda Simms, Actress, Dies at 75; Broadway Star of Anna Lucasta,” New York Times, February 8, 1994; “U.S. Refuses Actress Passport; ‘I’m No Benedict Arnold,’ Cries Hilda Simms on Ban,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 10, 1960.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Edwards, James (1918-1970)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

One of the first African American actors to receive critical acclaim, James Edwards was born in Muncie, Indiana in 1918. He majored in psychology at Knoxville College in Tennessee and continued his education at Northwestern University where he received a master’s degree in drama.

Sources: 

Bruce A. Douglas, “Tribute to Jimmy: Decade after death, honors coming to Muncie black actor,” The Muncie Star, March 23, 1980; Bruce A. Douglas, “Black film series to honor Muncie actor Jimmy Edwards,” The Muncie Star, April 10, 1982; Phyllis Klotman, Interview with Fred and J. C. Edwards, March 6, 1982.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Moses, Ethel (c. 1908- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History

Actress and dancer Ethel Moses, who became a leading lady in silent and sound black films, was the daughter of well-known New York Baptist Minister W.H. Moses.  She began her show business career as a dancer in 1924, when she was cast with internationally-renowned entertainer Florence Mills in Dixie to Broadway. From 1928 to 1933, she along with her sisters, Julia and Lucia Lynn, performed as part of the Cotton Club Girls chorus line. In between performing at the Cotton Club, Moses appeared in Blackbirds (1926) and the Broadway Revival of Show Boat (1927).

Wanting to diversify her career in show business and inspired by her sister Lucia Lynn (who received short-lived acclaim for her performance in the 1927 silent film, The Scar of Shame) Moses delved into world of race films, first appearing in Oscar Micheaux’s 1935 crime drama Temptation. In 1936, Moses married Cab Calloway’s pianist Bennie Payne and continued to perform in nightclubs throughout Harlem, New York where her alluring features and enterprising personality made her one of Harlem’s most notable entertainers of her time. Moses was a fixture and sex symbol in a variety of Micheaux’s films during the late 1930s, appearing in Underworld (1937), God’s Stepchildren (1939), and Birthright (1939).

Yet, as the making of all-black cast independent films faded, Moses’ film career ended. By the beginning of the 1950s, she had retired and remarried, this time to Frank Ryan, a factory worker.  The couple settled away from the limelight in Jamaica, Long Island.

Sources: 

Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978); Anonymous, “Cotton Club Girls,” Ebony, April 1949, Vo. 4, No. 6; Anonymous, “Parsons Pretty Daughter Chooses Stage Career,” The Pittsburgh Courier, October 4, 1924.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Moore, Juanita (1922-2014)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

Veteran actress Juanita Moore is fondly remembered for her tear-jerking role of Annie Johnson in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake of Imitation of Life. Moore was a groundbreaking actress best known for her role as Lana Turner's character's black friend in the film.  In 1960 she became only the fifth African American nominated for an Oscar.  The nomination was based on her role in Imitation of Life.

Born in Los Angeles, California in 1922, Moore graduated with a degree in drama from Los Angeles City College and moved to New York where she began her show business career as a nightclub singer and dancer and eventually worked as a chorus girl in New York's famed Cotton Club.

Moore eventually traveled abroad, performing in top European clubs, including the London Palladium and the Moulin Rouge in Paris, France before embarking on her film career in late 1949, making her debut as an un-credited nurse in the race-conscious film Pinky. In the early 1950s she worked in Los Angeles's Ebony Showcase, a leading black-run theater.  Later in the decade she was a member of the celebrated Cambridge Players which included other up-and-coming black performers such as Esther Rolle.

Sources: 

Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, (New York: Harper Collins, 1994); James R. Parish, Hollywood Character Actors, (New Rochelle, NY, Arlington House Publishers, 1978);  Roy Pickard, The Oscar Stars From A-Z, (London, England: Headline Book Publishing, 1996); Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Randolph, Lillian (1915-1980)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Lillian Randolph and Daughter,
Barbara Sanders, 1952
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Lillian Randolph was a 20th Century actress who routinely, yet proudly, presented the role of the black domestic in film and radio and defended her right to maintain such characters in an intelligent fashion for much of her career.  Randolph was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915. She first entered the world of entertainment as a singer at WJR Radio in Detroit in the early 1930s.

In 1936, Randolph migrated to Los Angeles and made her debut as a singer at the Club Alabam. Five years later, she landed the role of the maid, Birdie, on the radio and TV series The Great Gildersleeve, and soon became one of the most sought after black actresses of the period.  Randolph portrayed Birdie until 1957. She simultaneously played the role of Daisy, the housekeeper on The Billie Burke (radio) situation comedy from 1943 to 1946, and title role of the radio show, Beulah, in the early 1950s when Hattie McDaniel became ill. Also in the early 1950s she performed on the Amos n’ Andy show, recreating the role of Madame Queen, which she first played on the radio version of the series.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988); Christopher P. Lehman, The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); Anonymous, Lillian Randolph, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Press Release, nd; Lillian Randolph, Letters and Pictures to the Editor, Ebony, April 1946, vol.1, p. 51.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Childress, Alvin (1907-1986)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Spencer Williams and Alvin Childress (right)
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Alvin Childress is best remembered for his role as the philosophical easy-going character Amos on the Amos n’ Andy show, a popular all-black cast sitcom of the early 1950s that depicted the antics of three friends in Harlem. Childress was born on September 15, 1907 in Meridian, Mississippi.

Childress began his career on stage, appearing in such productions as Sweet Land (1931) and Savage Rhythm (1931). A year later, he embarked on a successful film career, appearing in such films as Out of the Crimson Fog and Harlem is Heaven and went on to appear in several minor film roles throughout the 1930s. In the 1940s, he concentrated on a career in theater and worked as an instructor for the American Negro Theater in Harlem.

In 1951, Childress returned to the screen when he landed the role of the leading character Amos on the short-lived Amos n’ Andy sitcom. The TV show was canceled after two years because the NAACP protested the series as fostering racial stereotypes, even though many of episodes showed blacks with professional and entrepreneurial backgrounds.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Illustrated
Encyclopedia
, (New York: Fireside, 1988);  Anonymous. Diabetes: Let's
make it history—Alvin Childress
.
http://www.bet.com/articles/1,,c13gb1602-2265,,00.html

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Randolph, Amanda (1896-1967)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Amanda Randolph, one of the first black performers to appear consistently on television, was born in 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky. She began performing as a young teenager in Cleveland’s musical comedies and nightclubs. In the 1930s, she toured Europe and performed in several hit musical revues such as Chilli Peppers, Dusty Lane, and Radio Waves.

Randolph began her film career as an actress appearing in Swing (1938), Lying Lips (1939) and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940) – three of Oscar Micheaux race films, which he routinely created for nearly three decades to appeal to black audiences and offer a truer reputation of black life than most Hollywood productions.

Sources: 

Donald Bogle. Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia,
New York: Garland Publishing, 1988); Darlene C. Hine and Fenella
MacFarlane, Black Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. II,
(Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing Inc. 1993); Edward Mapp, Directory of
Blacks in the Performing Arts
, (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press
Inc., 1978).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Harris, Theresa (1911-1985)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Actress Theresa Harris once shared with a reporter that her “greatest ambition was to be known someday as a great Negro actress.” Harris was born in 1911 in Houston, Texas to Anthony and Ina Harris. Her father was a construction worker and her mother was a well-known dramatic reader and school teacher. In the late 1920s, her family relocated to Southern California, where Harris graduated from Jefferson High School with scholastic honors and then studied music at the University of Southern California Conservatory of Music and Zoellner’s Conservatory of Music. She briefly pursued a career in theatre, gaining her most acclaimed role as the title character in the Lafayette Player’s musical production of Irene.

Sources: 

Mel Watkins, On the Real Side (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994);
Earl J. Morris, “Wrath of Fans Hits ‘Grapes of Wrath Type of Publicity
on Actress Theresa Harris,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 27, 1940;
Madison Harry, "Madison Harry Digs Out the Story of the Rocky Success
Which Has Led to Theresa Harris' Success,” Pittsburgh Courier, October
19, 1940.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Everett, Francine (1915-1999)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Although never given accolades parallel to her contemporaries in mainstream films, Francine Everett’s unyielding determination to epitomize African American women in a quintessential fashion defines her importance in black film nostalgia. Born in 1915 in Louisburg, North Carolina, her family moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Francine attended New York City’s St. Marks School, but traded her education for a career as a chorus girl in New York’s popular entertainment venues, including the Savoy Ballroom and Small’s Paradise.

At the age of 15, Francine married Booker Everett, but became a widow at the age of 17. She then went to work for Harlem’s Federal Theater Project where she met her second husband, actor Rex Ingram. In 1936, the couple married and moved to Hollywood and soon afterwards were offered roles in the all-black cast film The Green Pastures. Everett declined the offer, sighting Hollywood’s-then racially discriminatory climate, while Ingram accepted a triple-lead role in the film and subsequently became one of the industry’s most reputable actors.

Sources: 

Mel Watkins,”Francine Everett, Striking Star of All-Black Movies, Is
Dead,” New York Times Biographical Service, June 20, 1999; Stephen
Bourne, “Obituary: Francine Everett.” London (England) Independent,
June 25, 1999; Anonymous. “Stars Like Francine Everett Keep Eyes Peeled
on Hollywood,” Ebony, September 1946, Vol. 1, No.10, p. 43.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Lucas, Sam (1840-1915)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Sam Lucas, one of the most respected and celebrated entertainers of his time, is credited with breaking barriers for black actors and becoming the first African American actor to star in a “white” feature film. Lucas is best remembered for his comic and dramatic roles performed on the minstrel circuit and Broadway stages, and by the end of his career, a major motion picture.

Lucas was born Samuel Mildmay in Washington, Ohio in 1840. He began singing and playing the guitar as a teenager and went on to establish a reputation as a performer while working as a barber. After the Civil War when African American performers (in blackface) were allowed to work in minstrel shows, Lucas joined traveling black companies and sang on the Ohio River steamboats. Lucas built a reputation as the best all-around entertainer in the business and was empowered to select his own shows which allowed him to star with the most successful black minstrel companies as a comedian and singer.

Sources: 

Mel Watkins, On the Real Side, (New York: Simon & Schuster); David
Pilgrim, “The Tom Caricature,” http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/tom/,
December 2000, Ferris State University, Rapids, Michigan: Jessie Carney
Smith, Notable Black Men. (Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1999); Phyllis
R. Klotman, African Americans in Cinema: The First Half Century,
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Hall, Adelaide (1901-1993)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Sources: 

Iain Cameron Williams, Underneath A Harlem Moon: the Harlem to Paris
Years of Adelaide Hall
(London: Continuum, 2002);
http://www.myspace.com/adelaidehall.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Spencer, Kenneth (1913-1964)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Compared at the time to his more famous colleague, Paul Robeson, and heralded by major publicity outlets of his day as one of black America’s most exceptional baritone vocalists, singer-actor Kenneth Spencer was one of the most prominent black artists of the early 20th Century. Spencer was born in Los Angeles, California in 1913. He studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1938.

Early in his career, Spencer performed as a baritone singer on a variety of network radio stations while working odd jobs to supplement his income. Determined to advance his career, Spencer traveled and performed with the St. Louis Opera Company and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Eventually he became a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  

Sources: 

Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts (Metuchen,
N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978); Thomas Cripps, Making Movies Black (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Moore, Tim (1888-1958)

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People
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African American History
Radio Characters from Amos 'N' Andy,
Spencer Williams (left)
and Alvin Tim Moore (right)
Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann-Corbis 

Broadway stage comedian Tim Moore, whose career as an entertainer spanned more than 50 years, is best remembered as George “Kingfish” Stevens on the classic Amos 'n' Andy series. Born in Rock Island, Illinois in December 1888, Moore began his career dancing on the sidewalks of his home town for money.

He later entered the vaudeville circuit when he teamed with Romeo Washburn, another black performer from Rock Island.  Their traveling act became known as the “Gold Dust Twins.” Moore eventually went solo and toured British music halls for nearly two years. He then joined a medicine show that played vacant lots across the Midwest.  He also worked as a fly-shooer in a stable, a boxer, fight manager, and a horseracing jockey.

By 1913, Moore had earned $110,000 as a prizefighter and manager. With his earnings he launched a new career as a theater producer.  In 1921 Moore created his most successful production, Tim Moore’s Chicago Follies Tour, which ran for the next four years.  Later in the decade he returned to acting, performing in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in 1928 and Harlem Scandals four years later.  By the mid-1940s, Moore now nearly 60, retired and returned to his hometown to, as he stated, “spend more time with my people.”

Sources: 

Mel Watkins, On the Real Side (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988); Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press Inc., 1978).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Silvera, Frank (1914–1970)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Frank Silvera as Don Sebastian Montoya in the High Chaparra
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Frank Silvera was an important 20th Century actor, director, producer, and teacher.  Born on July 24, 1914 in Kingston, Jamaica, he grew up in Boston and went on to study law at Northeastern University Law School. He later attended Boston University, Old Vic School, and the Actors Studio before moving to New York City to pursue acting.

Silvera joined a group of actors called the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, which produced the successful Broadway and internationally-acclaimed play “Anna Lucasta.” With that success, Silvera migrated to elite inner circles of theatre groups of the time. His handsome attributes, multi-lingual abilities, and his last name which suggested a Portuguese Jewish heritage, helped him rise through the ranks of actors despite the prevalence of racism and discriminatory social practices during that era.

Sources: 

Garland Thompson, “Who was Frank Silvera?” The Frank Silvera Writers'
Workshop Foundation, Inc
. http://www.fsww.org/whois.html; “Frank
Silvera” Internet Movie Database.  (Imdb.com Inc: 2009)
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0798826/; David Ragan, Who’s Who In
Hollywood
(New Rochelle, NY: Arlington Press, 1976); Edward Mapp,
Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts (Metuchen, NJ: 1978).

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Foxx, Redd (1922-1991)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Sources: 
Redd Foxx and Norma Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor (Pasadena: W. Ritchie Press, 1977); "Foxx, Red," American National Biography , Volume 8 (1999).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Cosby, Bill (1937-- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Bill Cosby and Jesse Ja
Sources: 

http://entertainer.billcosby.com/biography/images/biography/bill_cosby_biography.pdf; Henry Louis Gates, African American Lives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Henry Louis Gates, African American National Biography, Vol. 2, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Linda K. Fuller, The Cosby Show: Audiences, Impact, and Implications (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992)

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Berea College

Peters, Brock (1927-2005)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Brock Peters, who emerged as a prominent actor of the 1960s, was born George Fisher in 1927, to Sonny and Alma Fisher in New York City. Prior to concentrating on an acting career that spanned nearly six decades, he attended the University of Chicago, and later City College in New York.
Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Sources: 
Anonymous,Telegraph.co.uk. Brock Peters obituary; August 25, 2005;  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1496874/Brock-Peters.html; accessed May 19, 2009; Tom Vallance, "Brock Peters: Actor best known for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'" The Independent [London], August 25, 2005; Mel Watkins, "Brock Peters of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird' Is Dead at 78,'" New York Times, August 24, 2005; http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B05EED7113EF937A1575BC0A9639C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. Accessed May 19, 2009.
Contributor: 

Sands, Diana (1934-1973)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Diana Sands, 1963 (Photo permissions granted by 
Bruce Kellner, Trustee of the Estate of Carl Van Vechten)
Diana Sands, the first black actress to be cast in a major Broadway play without regard to color, was born in New York City in 1934 to Rudolph Thomas, a carpenter, and Shirley Sands, a milliner. Sands made her first stage debut in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara at New York City's High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. After graduating from high school, Sands performed as a dancer while seeking work on Broadway. 

In 1959, she debuted on Broadway as the character Beneatha Younger, a dignified, aspiring doctor in A Raisin in the Sun. Her stage performance earned her the 1959 Outer Circle Critics' Award and her first film appearance as the same character in the 1961 film version opposite Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, and Sidney Poitier.

Sources: 
Anonymous, "Diana Sands In Death Struggle With Cancer," Jet, October 4, 1973; Anonymous, "Final Rites Held for Diana Sands," Jet, October 11, 1973; Maurice Peterson, "Diana, Diana," Essence, June 1972.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Williams, Vanessa (1963- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Vanessa Lynn Williams was born in Tarrytown, New York on March 18, 1963. She is the daughter of Helen and the late Milton Williams who were music teachers. She has a younger brother, Christopher, who is also an actor.  Williams was the first African American woman to win the Miss America title on September 17, 1983. Interestingly, her parents put “Here she is: Miss America” on her birth announcement that they sent out to friends, twenty years earlier.

During her childhood, Williams took music lessons, learning to play the piano and French horn.  Singing, however, was her first love. After graduating from Horace Greely High School in Tarrytown in 1981, she attended Syracuse University where she majored in theater arts. It was also at this time that Williams began to compete in a number of beauty pageants. In 1983, she won the Miss Greater Syracuse pageant, followed by the title of Miss New York and eventually the title of Miss America 1984.

After winning the title, Williams took a leave of absence from school to focus on her Miss America duties. As the first black woman to wear the Miss America crown, she generated controversy.  Williams was the recipient of hate mail and death threats from white racists but she also encountered criticism from certain segments of the black community who questioned whether her green eyes and light skinned features made her black enough.  

Sources: 
Suzanne Freedman, Vanessa Williams (Philadelphia:  Chelsea House Press, 2000); Elwood Watson and Darcy Martin, There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2004).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
East Tennessee State University

Hernandez, Juano (1896-1970)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Sources: 

Donald Bogle, Blacks in Film & Television: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1988); Donald Bogle, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography (New York: Amistad Press, 1997); Alan Pomerance, Repeal of the Blues (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1988); "Juan Hernandez, Actor, Dies at 74," New York Times, July 19, 1970.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Washington, Denzel Hayes, Jr. (1954- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
James Robert Parish, Denzel Washington: Actor (New York: Ferguson Publishing Company, 2005); Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); The Guardian Official Website, http://www.guardian.co.uk);

 

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Freeman, Morgan (1937- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Porterfield Freeman, Jr. was born June 1, 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Morgan Porterfield, Sr. a barber, and Mayme Edna Morgan.  Throughout his childhood the Freeman family moved often, living in Mississippi, Indiana and Chicago.  Freeman showed early promise as an actor but turned down a partial drama scholarship from Jackson State University to enter the United States Air Force in 1955.

Throughout the early 1960s, after leaving the Air Force, Freeman studied acting and dance in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City.  It was in New York that Freeman made his professional theater debut with The Nigger Lovers, a 1967 off-Broadway play about the Civil Rights Era Freedom Riders.  In 1971 Freeman broke into television, becoming widely known on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) children’s show The Electric Company, where he worked from 1971 to 1976.

Sources: 
Sabrina Fuchs, “Morgan Freeman,” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Volume II., Colin A. Palmer, ed. (New York: Thompson Gale, 2006); "Morgan Freeman," Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 62 (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2008); Eleanor Clift, "Freeman, Obama and Hollywood Immortality,” Newsweek, April 2, 2008; "Freeman Replaces Cronkite on CBS," Boston Globe, January 5, 2010; Revelations Entertainment official website: http://www.revelationsent.com/index.php.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Charles, Suzette (1963- )

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Suzette Charles (born Suzette De Gaetano), the second African American woman to hold the crown of Miss America, was born in Mays Landing, New Jersey on March 2, 1963. She is the daughter of Charles Gaetano, a businessman, and Suzette (Burroughs) Gaetano, a music teacher. Charles represented New Jersey in the September 1983 Miss America Pageant held in Atlantic City, New Jersey at the time. Charles performed very well during the pageant competition. She won her preliminary competition in the talent division and finished first runner up to Vanessa Williams, Miss New York, who became the first black Woman to win the Miss America title on September 17, 1983.

When Williams was forced to relinquish the crown due to a scandal involving nude photographs, on July 24, 1984, Charles became the second black woman to wear the Miss America crown and fulfilled her duties for the remaining seven weeks of William's reign. This was the shortest time period served by any Miss America.
Sources: 
Elwood Watson and Darcy Martin, There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2004); Susan Chira, “To First Black Miss America, Victory is a Means to an End,” New York Times, September 19, 1983, F10, A1.; http://www.missamerica.org
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
East Tennessee State University

Zephaniah, Benjamin (1958 - )

Entry Type: 
People
History Type: 
Global African History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet, playwright, novelist and activist, was born on April 15, 1958, the first of eight children, in Birmingham, England. Zephaniah grew up in Wandsworth until the age of nine when his mother, a Jamaican nurse, fled his father, a postman from Barbados. Leaving behind his twin sister Velda and other siblings, Zephaniah felt isolated as a young black dyslexic boy who encountered racism at his new school in Birmingham. He turned to writing, choosing to describe local and global issues, inspired by his Jamaican heritage and “street politics” of Birmingham. He left formal education at age 14, but built a reputation in the city as a popular dub poet, an art form which involves mixing the spoken word with reggae rhythms. Zephaniah had a troubled adolescence, which was punctuated with periods in incarceration following convictions for petty theft.

Sources: 
Benjamin Zephaniah’s profile on “Contemporary Writers”: http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth105; Benjamin Zephaniah’s official website: http://benjaminzephaniah.com/biography/; “The interview: Benjamin Zephaniah” by Lynn Barber, published in The Observer, January 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jan/18/benjamin-zephaniah-interview-poet.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Bath, England

Coleman, Gary (1968-2010)

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People
History Type: 
African American History in the West

 Gary Coleman and Conraid Bain from
"Different Strokes" tv show
Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann-Corbis
Gary Coleman, best known for his child star status from the hit television sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, was born on February 8, 1968, and raised in Zion, Illinois. A talent scout for TV producer Norman Lear spotted Coleman in a Chicago bank commercial, and at the age of 10 he was cast in the role of Arnold Jackson, the younger of two African American brothers adopted by a wealthy white man in New York City. Diff’rent Strokes, which premiered in 1978, ran for seven seasons on NBC and one season on ABC.  The last episode aired in 1986. During the show’s tenure, Coleman became famous for his signature catch-phrase, “What’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?,” and his impeccable comedic timing. Between 1980-1984, Coleman won four consecutive People’s Choice Awards as Favorite Young TV Performer for his portrayal of the character Arnold Jackson.

Adopted by W.G. “Willie” and Edmonia Sue Coleman at four days old, Coleman was born with a congenital kidney disease for which he would later receive two transplants, one at age 5 and one at age 16, as well as recurrent dialysis throughout his life. These treatments permanently affected Coleman’s growth patterns, leaving his height as an adult at 4 feet 8 inches tall.
Sources: 
Jim Cheng, “Gary Coleman dies at age 42,” USA Today (5/28/2010); Anita Gates, “Gary Coleman, Diff’rent Strokes Star, Dies at 42,” New York Times (5/28/2010); Dennis McLellan, “Gary Coleman dies at 42; child star of hit sitcom Diff’rent Strokes,” Los Angeles Times (5/29/2010)
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Gordon, Dexter (1923-1990)

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People
History Type: 
African American History

 

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Dexter Gordon was a pioneering jazz saxophonist who made a career of expertly blending rhythm and romance on the bandstand and the silver screen. Nicknamed "Long Tall Dex" for his 6-foot 5-inch frame, the Los Angeles native was born on Feb. 27, 1923. Gordon's father, Dr. Frank Gordon, M.D., was one of the first prominent African American physicians in Los Angeles and counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his patients.

Young Gordon took up the clarinet at the age of 13 before switching to saxophone (initially alto, then tenor) at 15. His big break came in 1940 at the age of 17 when he joined Lionel Hampton’s band. From 1943 to 1944 he was featured in the bands of Louis Armstrong, Billie Eckstine and Fletcher Henderson. Gordon made his first recordings under his own name in 1945 when he signed with the Savoy label.  
By 1945, Gordon had moved to New York City where he began performing and recording with Charlie Parker. Gordon also was famous for his saxophone duels with fellow tenor sax player Wardell Gray. They recorded several albums between 1947 and 1952. In 1955 Gordon wrote the musical score for the Broadway play The Connection.

Sources: 
Stan Britt, Long Tall Dexter: A Critical Musical Biography of Dexter Gordon (London: Quartet Books, 1989); Roland Baggenaes, Jazz Greats Speak: Interviews with Master Musicians (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

McQueen, Thelma “Butterfly” (1911-1995)

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People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of www.nndb.com
Actress Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen was born in Tampa, Florida on January 8, 1911. Her father, Wallace McQueen, worked as a stevedore and her mother, Mary Richardson, was a housekeeper and domestic worker. After McQueen’s parents separated, her mother moved from job to job and McQueen lived in several cities on the East Coast before settling in Augusta, Georgia. As a young teen, McQueen moved to Harlem, New York, where her mother worked as a cook.  

McQueen enrolled in the Lincoln Training School for Nursing in the Bronx before pursuing an acting career. She joined Venezula Jones’s Youth Theatre Group in Harlem and performed in the Group’s 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As a result of her role in the production’s “Butterfly Ballet,” she adopted “Butterfly” as her stage name.  In 1937, McQueen debuted on Broadway in Brown Sugar.  She also appeared in What a Life (1938) and the Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong musical, Swingin the Dream (1939).

McQueen received her big break in Hollywood when David O. Selznick cast the 28-year-old actor as Prissy in Gone with the Wind (1939). McQueen’s role as Prissy brought her national fame and it remains her most remembered performance.
Sources: 
Stephen Bourne, Butterfly McQueen Remembered (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008); Axel Nissen, Actresses of a Certain Character (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2007); Dwandalyn R. Reece, “Butterfly McQueen,” in African American National Biography, vol. 5, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). 
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Hall, Juanita (1901-1968)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Juanita Hall on the Set of South Pacific, 1958
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Juanita Long Hall, an actor and singer, was born in Keyport, New Jersey on Nov. 6, 1901 to an African-American father, Abram Long, and an Irish American mother, Mary Richardson.  Raised by maternal grandparents, Long attended New York City’s Julliard School of Music.  While a teenager, she married Clement Hall, who died in 1920s.  The couple had no children.

Hall’s early career was in singing and choir directing.  From 1935 to 1944 she directed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Chorus.  From 1941 to 1942 she also directed the Westchester (New York) Chorale and Dramatics Association.  In the early 1940s she led the Juanita Hall Choir, which performed on radio with Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith and in 1949 the Juanita Hall Choir performed in the film, Miracle in Harlem.

In 1935 Hall performed with the Lafayette Players, an African American theatrical troupe.  Her first major acting role came in 1943 when she appeared on Broadway in The Pirate.  Other Broadway acting opportunities came and she performed in Sing Out, Sweet Land, Saint Louis Woman, Deep Are the Roots, The Secret Room, Street Scene, and The Ponder Heart, all between 1943 and 1956.

Sources: 
Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Elsa Barkley Brown, Darlene Clark Hine, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Eds.), Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994).
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Rogers, Timmie (1914-2006)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Timmie Rogers was a popular black comedian and entertainer from the 1940s through the 1990s. He was one of the first African American entertainers who refused to wear blackface or to dress in dirty tattered clothing while performing. Rogers also was one of the first entertainers to speak directly to the audience in his own voice.  Previous black performers beginning in the Jim Crow era had always affected some variation of the Sambo and Coon type characters up to the mid-20th Century routine of Amos and Andy.

Rogers was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1914. His grandfather was a slave and his father  ran away from home at the age of 12, finding a job as dishwasher in a kitchen on an Ohio River steamboat.  Rogers’ mother ran a boarding house in Detroit where she sold liquor during Prohibition.

As a child, Rogers began dancing and performing on the street corners in Detroit  for change and later took a job cleaning ashtrays at a ballroom where he was allowed to perform his acts before the main entertainment. By the 1940s Rogers was performing one of his first, which incorporated an anti- segregation theme titled, I’ve Got a Passport from Georgia. He also wrote a song for Nat King Cole called If You Can’t Smile and Say Yes.
Sources: 
Denise Watson Batts, “Timmie Rogers: a side-splitting revolutionary,” The Virginian Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. (February 3, 2008); Louie Robinson, “Why Negro Comics Don’t Make It Big,” Ebony Magazine 110 (October 1960); Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992); Alex McNeil, Total Television (New York: Penguin Books, 1996).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
UC Santa Barbara

Uggams, Leslie (1943- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Leslie Uggams, actress, singer, entertainer, and recording artist, was born in New York City, May 25, 1943 and grew up in a four-room house in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.  Her father, Harold C. Uggams, worked as a train porter, elevator operator, and professional floor waxer and once sang in the Hall Johnson Choir before they became well known.  Her mother, Juanita Smith Uggams, worked as a waitress and nanny before becoming a line dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem along with Lena Horne.

Ms. Uggams was educated at the New York Professional Children’s School, a school founded for child Broadway performers.   As a student, she served as editor of the yearbook and president of the student body.   After graduation in 1961, Uggams attended the Julliard School, majoring in theory and composition from 1961 to 1963 but did not graduate.      
Sources: 

Rex Reed, “Baby Learned Never to Cry; Baby Learned to Not Cry,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, May 7, 1967; Walter Kerr, "Musical With Leslie Uggams: ‘Hallelujah, Baby!’ Is Unveiled at the Beck," New York Times, April 27, 1967; http://www.leslieuggams.com
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Paine College

Morris, Morris W. / Lewis Morrison (1845-1906)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Lewis Morrison as “Mephistopheles”
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Lewis Morrison was one of the most prominent stage actors of his time. He was best known worldwide for his portrayal of “Mephistopheles” in Faust. He was also the first black Jewish officer to serve during the Civil War.

Lewis Morrison was born in Kingston, Jamaica on September 4, 1845. He was named Morris W. Morris at birth, although some sources claim that Moritz W. Morris is the correct spelling. Very little is known about his family history. After the Civil War, he changed his name to Lewis Morrison for unknown reasons. His great great grandson, Phil Downey, later claimed that Morris changed his name to escape his African and Jewish heritage.

Morris left Jamaica for the United States as a youth. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, the first official black military regiment in the Confederacy, with other free blacks. He soon rose to the rank of lieutenant, becoming the first black Jewish officer to serve in the Confederate Army. When the Louisiana State Legislature banned people of color from serving in the Confederate Army in February 1862, the regiment was disbanded.  Morris and about 10% of the other former 1st Louisiana Native Guard joined the Union Army in September 1862 and were organized into a new unit that was assigned the same name.  There Morris became the first black Jewish officer in the Union Army.
Sources: 
Errol Hill, The Jamaican Stage, 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992); Brian Kellow, The Bennetts: An Acting Family (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004); James G. Hollandsworth, The Louisiana Native Guards: the Black Military Experience during the Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1995).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Whitaker, Forest (1961 -- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History in the West
Forest Whitaker at the
2007 Oscar Ceremony
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Forest Steven Whitaker, actor, producer, and director, was born in Longview, Texas, July 15, 1961, but was raised in South Central Los Angeles, where his parents moved when he was four years old.  His father, Forest Whitaker, Jr., was an insurance salesman, and his mother, Laura Francis Smith, was a special education teacher.  Whitaker was the second of four children, having one older sister and two younger brothers.

Whitaker commuted to Palisades High School, twenty miles away on the west side of Los Angeles, where he developed his love for singing and acting in musicals and plays. He was also an all-league defensive tackle on the school’s football team and received a football scholarship to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he enrolled following his graduation in 1979.  When a back injury ended his future as a football player, he changed his major to voice and soon transferred to the University of Southern California (USC) where he studied opera and enrolled in the University Drama Conservatory.  He graduated from USC in 1982.  Whitaker’s break into show business came when an agent saw him singing in a production of  The Beggar’s Opera while in the USC conservatory program.  
Sources: 
Caitlin A. Johnson, “Forest Whitaker: The King Of The Oscars?," CBS News, February 4, 2007; Mike Sager, "What I've Learned: Forest Whitaker," Esquire, February 26, 2007; Adam Sternbergh, "Out of the Woods: How Forest Whitaker Escaped his Career Slump." New York Magazine, January 9, 2006.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Paine College

Smith, Will (1968-- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Willard Christopher Smith, Jr., better known as Will Smith, actor, rap and recording artist, was born in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania on September 25, 1968.  His father, Willard Christopher Smith, is an entrepreneur and engineer, and his mother, Caroline Bright Smith, is a public school administrator.  Raised in a middle-class “Baptist” home, his parents sent Will to Overbrook High School, a Catholic school, where they felt he would get the best education.  In high school, his precociousness sometimes got him in trouble, but his charm, good-natured personality, quick-wittedness, good looks, and award-winning smile easily got him off the hook, and he soon won the nickname, “Prince.”  As a senior with high SAT scores, Smith had an offer to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after high school, but he opted out of college to pursue what had already become a successful career in entertainment.

Sources: 
http://www.biography.com/articles/Will-Smith-9542165; Patrick Healy, “Celebrity Schedules Could Delay ‘Fela!’ Opening,” Arts Beat, New York Times,  October 30, 2009; http://www.aceshowbiz.com/celebrity/will_smith; Lisa Iannucci, Will Smith: A Biography, (New York: Greenwood Press, 2009).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Paine College

Glover, Danny (1946- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History in the West
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Danny Lebern Glover, actor, producer, and humanitarian was born in San Francisco, California on July 22, 1946 to Carrie (nee) Hunly and James Glover.  His parents, United States postal workers, fought for equal rights as members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a fight that Glover has continued throughout his adult life.

Glover graduated from George Washington High School in San Francisco in 1964 and from San Francisco State University in 1968 with a B.A. in Economics.  As a college student and member of the Black Students Union, Glover participated in the five-month student-led strike, the longest student walkout in U.S. history, which led to the establishment of the first School of Ethnic Studies program in the United States. Glover's response to a New York Times reporter inquiring about students missing class during the strike was that students could always go back to school, as the most important thing to him is to end racism everywhere.

After college, Glover took a position as a Model-Cities Program Manager with the Office of Community Development in San Francisco, where he solidified his philosophy that people are the architects of change.  During this time he began studying acting at the Shelton Actors Lab, long recognized as a top professional actors training program.  Deciding he wanted to become an actor, he resigned his managerial position and moved to Los Angeles.
Sources: 
Dave Sommers, "Lethal Lesson," http://zwire.com/site/Danny_Glover.html; “Grades: a Worry in Campus Strike; Problem for Coast Students Who Still Attend Class,” New York Times, Jan 19, 1969, p. 25; Kevin Yeoman, "Fox’s  ‘Touch’ Adds Danny Glover & Young Lead David Mazouz," http://screenrant.com/danny-glover-touch-fox-david-mazouz-yman-119121; Danny Glover’s Story,  http://www.un.org/works/goingon/danny_story.html; Danny Glover  Foundation. http://www.dannyglover.org; Gloria Blakely, Danny Glover (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Paine College

Brady, Wayne A. (1972- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Wayne Brady, comedian, singer, actor, and television personality, was one of the first African Americans to host a daytime game show.  Brady became host of Let’s Make a Deal in October 2009.  Wayne Brady was born on June 2, 1972 in Orlando, Florida.  As a child he discovered his passion for the performing arts.  As a teenager, he acted in the community theater projects of A Raisin in the Sun, Fences, and A Chorus Line.  Following his graduation from Phillips High School in 1989, he became a stand-up comedian at SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando.   

In 1996 Brady moved to Los Angeles to broaden his career opportunities.  Once in Hollywood, he earned appearances on primetime dramas I’ll Fly Away, Home Court, and In the Heat of the Night.  Brady also showcased his improvisational skills in the late 1990s on ABC’s hit comedy Who’s Line Is It Anyway?  During his tenure on the show, he earned an Emmy in 2003 for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program.  In 2001 Brady also became the host, producer, and co-writer of The Wayne Brady Show on ABC.   His show’s high ratings earned him national acclaim.  
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Berea College

Foxx, Jamie (1967- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Actor, singer, comedian, and musician, Jamie Foxx was born Eric Morlon Bishop in Terrell, Texas on December 13, 1967. He was adopted by his maternal grandparents Mark and Estelle Tolley after his parents’ divorce when he was still an infant. His grandmother introduced him to the piano at age three, and by age 15 Bishop was the musical director and choir leader at Terrell’s New Hope Baptist Church. He attended United States International University in San Diego on a piano scholarship, studied classical piano at Juilliard, and left school in 1988 without graduating.

On a dare, Bishop decided to perform at a stand-up comedy open mic night in Los Angeles in 1989, which jump started his comedy and acting career.  As he got more comedy engagements, he created a stage name (Foxx in ode to comedian Red Foxx, and the gender-neutral name Jamie because women tended to get priority spots for open mic nights). This led to Foxx being cast on the Fox television series In Living Color (1990-1994). Foxx then starred in WB Network’s The Jamie Foxx Show, which ran from 1996 to 2002.
Sources: 
Torriano Berry and Venise T. Berry, Historical Dictionary of African American Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 2007); "Jamie Foxx | The Official Website," Jamie Foxx The Official Website; Steven Otfinoski, African Americans in the Performing Arts (New York: Facts On File, 2010).
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Jackson, Samuel L. (1948- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Actor Samuel Leroy Jackson was born on December 21, 1948 in Washington, D.C. to factory worker Elizabeth Jackson. His father abandoned his mother shortly after Jackson’s birth and then died of alcoholism. Jackson and his mother moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they lived with her family. Jackson attended Riverside High School and played the trumpet and the French horn until graduating.

Jackson attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, majoring in dramatic arts. He founded the Just Us Theater while attending Morehouse, and in 1968 he was an usher at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.  In 1969 Jackson and several other students held the members of the Morehouse Board of Trustees hostage on campus until they agreed to administrative and curriculum changes. An agreement was made but Jackson was forced to leave Morehouse for two years. He returned and graduated in 1972.

While in Atlanta Jackson was involved with the Black Power movement and worked with Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and movement leaders.  He also joined the Black Image Theater Company which performed plays illustrating racial injustice and discrimination. Jackson met his future wife, Latanya Richardson, at the Company, and the two were married in 1980. The two had a daughter (Zoe) in 1982.
Sources: 
Daniel Donaghy, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, Paul Finkelman, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Henry Louis Gates and Samuel L. Jackson, "In Character," America behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans (New York: Warner, 2004); "Samuel Leroy Jackson," 2012, The Biography Channel website. http://www.biography.com/people/samuel-l-jackson-9542182.
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Fishburne, Laurence (1961- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Actor Laurence Fishburne III was born on July 30, 1961 in Augusta, Georgia to parents Laurence Jr. and Hattie, a corrections officer and a schoolteacher. After the couple separated Hattie moved young Fishburne to Brooklyn, New York where the two lived with her mother.

Fishburne’s first acting role was at age twelve in the soap opera One Life to Live. His first role in a feature film was in the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975).  At age fifteen Fishburne auditioned for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-war epic Apocalypse Now. He lied about his age, got the role, and spent two years in the Philippines with the cast and crew filming the movie, which was released in 1979. He had roles in two more Coppola films, Rumble Fish (1983) and Cotton Club (1984).

His breakout role was in John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz in the Hood, where he played a young father in South Central Los Angeles. The following year, Fishburne made his Broadway debut in Two Trains Running, for which he won the Tony Award and several other awards for best actor.  In 1993 Fishburne won an Emmy for his role in the television series Tribeca directed by Robert De Niro. In the same year he played Ike Turner alongside Angela Bassett as Tina Tuner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, and both actors received Academy Award nominations for their roles.
Sources: 
"Laurence Fishburne," Bio.com, A&E Networks Television, 2012; Steven Otfinoski, African Americans in the Performing Arts (New York: Facts on File, 2003); Patrick L. Stearns, "Laurence Fishburne," Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Affiliation: 
University of Washington

Sykes, Wanda (1964- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Courtesy of Gay Parenting Magazine

Wanda Sykes is an American actress, comedian, writer, and voice artist. She is best known for her recurring role as Barbara Baran on the CBS primetime show The New Adventures of Old Christine, and for her comedic roles in such films as Monster-in-Law and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

Sykes is the daughter of Marion Louise, a retired banker, and Harry Ellsworth Sykes, a retired U.S. Army colonel.  She was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on March 7, 1964, but raised in the Washington, D.C. area.

Sykes attended Arundel High School in Gambrills, Maryland, and later Hampton University, where she pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. Upon graduation, she worked as a procurement officer for the National Security Agency (NSA) but soon realized she wanted to become an entertainer.

In 1987, at the age of 23, Sykes took to the stage for the first time in a talent show in Washington. While she did not win the contest, she honed her stand-up skills at various comedy clubs while retaining her position at NSA.

In 1992, Sykes relocated to New York to work the comedy circuit and soon got her first big break by being selected as the opening act for comedian Chris Rock at Caroline’s Comedy Club. In 1997, she joined The Chris Rock Show as a writer, made guest appearances, and won an Emmy Award for her writing in 1999.

Sources: 
Linda Rapp and Wanda Sykes, eds., An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture (Chicago: GLBTQ, Inc., 2011), retrieved from ww.glbtq.com/social-sciences/sykes_l.html; Lawrence Ferber, Wanda Sykes: Being Herself (Chicago: Windy City Media Group, 2009).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

Dee, Ruby Ann Wallace (1924-2014)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
"Image Ownership: Public Domain

Broadway performer and film actress, Ruby Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio on October 27, 1924 to Gladys Hightower and Marshall Edward Wallace. Her mother was a domestic and her father worked as a cook, waiter, and porter. After her mother left the family, Dee's father married Emma Amelia Benson, a schoolteacher.

Desperate for better job opportunities, the family moved to New York City, New York, and settled in Harlem. Determined not to allow their children fall victim to drugs, crime, and other vices of urban life, the parents introduced Dee and her siblings to the arts, including music and literature. Young Ruby became a passionate student of poetry and as a teenager began submitting poetry to The Amsterdam News.  

Ruby Wallace attended the academically rigorous Hunter High School and while there decided to pursue an acting career.  After graduating from Hunter High in 1940, she enrolled in Hunter College, graduating with a degree in French and Spanish in 1944. While at Hunter College, she became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and married blues singer Frankie Dee.  The couple soon divorced but Dee kept the last name and made it her career name.

Sources: 
Ruby Dee, My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons (Chicago: Third World Press, 1986); Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (London: It Press, 1998); http://www.biography.com/people/ruby-dee
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
East Tennessee State University

Pearman, Raven-Symoné Christina (1985- )

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
Image Ownership, Public Domain
Raven-Symoné Christina Pearman, better known as “Raven-Symoné,” is an American actress and recording artist.  Her entertainment career began when she starred in advertisements for well-known brands such as Jell-O and Cool Whip and as a young model for the Ford Modeling Company.

Pearman was born to Christopher B. and Lydia (Gaulden) Pearman on December 10, 1985 in Atlanta, Georgia.  In the late 1990s, the family moved to New York City, New York in order to improve her chances at becoming an entertainer.  At the age of four she auditioned for a role in the 1990 film Ghost Dad, but was turned down because of her young age.  She so impressed comedian and actor Bill Cosby, however, that he later cast her in his television series The Cosby Show as Olivia Kendall, the adopted daughter of the Cosby’s oldest daughter.  She was an instant hit with audiences.
Sources: 

The Biography Channel, Raven-Symoné Synopsis (New York, NY: Arts & Entertainment Networks, 2014), retrieved from http://www.biography.com/people/raven-symon%C3%A9-21303025; Damien Croghan, Raven-Symone’s Coming Out should be Celebrated, retrieved from http://www.dailynebraskan.com/opinion/croghan-raven-symone-s-coming-out-should-be-celebrated/article_4933ebc2-1017-11e3-9f71-0019bb30f31a.html; Kimberley McLeod, ed., “Actress Raven Symone Radiates Beside Out Model AzMarie,” Elixher Magazine (September 3, 2013), retrieved from http://elixher.com/actress-raven-symone-radiates-beside-out-model-azmarie/.

Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian

The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975)

Vignette Type: 
Events
History Type: 
African American History
Black Arts Movement Theatrical Performance
The Black Arts Movement was the name given to a group of politically motivated black poets, artists, dramatists, musicians, and writers who emerged in the wake of the Black Power Movement. The poet Imamu Amiri Baraka is widely considered to be the father of the Black Arts Movement, which began in 1965 and ended in 1975.

After Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, those who embraced the Black Power movement often fell into one of two camps: the Revolutionary Nationalists, who were best represented by the Black Panther Party, and the Cultural Nationalists.  The latter group called for the creation of poetry, novels, visual arts, and theater to reflect pride in black history and culture.  This new emphasis was an affirmation of the autonomy of black artists to create black art for black people as a means to awaken black consciousness and achieve liberation.
Sources: 
Darlene Clark Hine, et al., The African American Odyssey (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2010); Thomas Aiello, "Black Arts Movement," Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, ed. Paul Finkelman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
University of Washington, Seattle

Holder, Geoffrey Lamont (1930-2014)

Vignette Type: 
People
History Type: 
African American History
"Image Ownership: Public Domain"
Geoffrey Lamont Holder, acclaimed choreographer and legendary figure in the dance world, was also a respected actor, Tony Award-winning director, costume designer, singer, music composer, voice-over artist, orator, painter, sculptor, and photographer.  Holder was born to a middle-class family in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on August 1, 1930.  His parents, Arthur Holder, a salesman, and Louise de Frense Holder, encouraged the artistic interests of each of their five children.  Holder’s siblings were Arthur (known as “Boscoe”), Jean, Marjorie, and Kenneth.
Sources: 
Jennifer Dunning and William McDonald, “Geoffrey Holder, Dancer, Actor, Painter and More, Dies at 84,” New York Times, October 6, 2014; http://www.guardian.co.tt/deathnotices/2013-10-01/boothman-marjorie-nee-holder; “Carmen and Geoffrey: (DVD) Directed by Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob, 2009.
Contributor: 
Affiliation: 
Independent Historian
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