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.
Born March 1, 1927 as Harold George Belafonte Jr. in Harlem, New York, Belafonte grew from being a troubled youth to an award winning entertainer and world renowned political activist and humanitarian. 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.
Belafonte's career as an entertainer had a rocky start, but in the 1950s he found great success. In the first half of 1956 alone Belafonte had three top-ten albums, the most notable being Calypso, which spent 31 weeks at number one and helped him gain the title King of Calypso. Music was not his only successful endeavor in entertainment; Belafonte also became well known for his works on film, television, and Broadway.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Simone Payment, Queen Latifah (New York: Rosen Publishing, 2006); Eleanora E. Tate, African American Musicians (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2000).
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.
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."
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.
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.
At the young age of six, Robinson began dancing for a living in local beer gardens as a “hoofer,” or song and dance man. By the time he was twelve, Robinson joined a traveling company and was entertaining audiences far from home. By 1905, he performed on stage in vaudeville shows featuring numbers by dancers, singers, comedians, and actors. Throughout his vaudeville experience, Robinson became a top dancer in the vaudeville circuit while inventing a new way to tap, transforming it from a flat-footed dance to a style that pushed the performer to his toes. Robinson was noted for his “cool” style, rarely using his upper body and depending on his feet and his expressive face. In 1908 in Chicago, Robinson met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins, Robinson began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week. Despite Robinson’s great success, his opportunities were still limited to black venues because of racism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Bill Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2004); http://www.florencemills.com/biography.htm.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
September 28, 2003; Affirmative Action: Through the Decades with SAG,
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.
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 &
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, 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 and Paris, playing ragtime on the alto sax before returning to the United States in 1930 to embark on an acting career.
Initially, Wilson performed with Orson Welles and John Houseman in Federal Theater productions and went on to appear with the Lafayette Players. He eventually landed the role of Little Joe in the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. He later worked with the Peking Company in Chicago and became one of the few African American performers to perform in whiteface.
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.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/WW/fwibk.html.
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).
“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).
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.
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).
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.
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,"
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.
Kenneth Estell, African American Portrait of a People (Detroit: Visible
Ink, 1994); A & E, December 2, 2008,
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.
Official Website: http://www.richardpryor.com; Richard Pryor: Stand-Up
Philosopher, City Journal, Spring 2009:
Ancestry: http://www.progenealogists.com/pryor/; American Masters:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Illustrated
Encyclopedia, (New York: Fireside, 1988); Anonymous. Diabetes: Let's
make it history—Alvin Childress.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
Iain Cameron Williams, Underneath A Harlem Moon: the Harlem to Paris
Years of Adelaide Hall (London: Continuum, 2002);
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.
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).
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.”
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).
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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1979, Zephaniah moved to London. The following year his first poetry collection “Pen Rhythm” was published. His subsequent poetry has often been motivated by political stimuli: “The Dread Affair” (1985) is a critique of the British legal system, and “Rasta Time in Palestine” (1990) is a memoir of his visit to that area. His most recent volume “We are Britain!” reflects on the multicultural nature of the country. His live performance of this art has received tremendous acclaim.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/.
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