African-American Film Pioneers

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1.
Evelyn Preer
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, pioneering black actress Evelyn Preer was educated in Chicago, where she and her mother moved after the death of her father. She entered show business vis vaudeville and the "chitlin' circuit" of minstrel shows that served the country's strictly segregated black communities at the turn of the century...
 
2.
Oscar Micheaux
Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to produce a feature-length film (The Homesteader in 1919) and a sound feature-length film (The Exile in 1931), is not a major figure in American film just for these milestones, but because his oeuvre is a window onto the American psyche as regards race and its deleterious effects on individuals and society...
 
3.
Herb Jeffries
This velvet-toned jazz baritone and sometime actor was (and perhaps still is) virtually unknown to white audiences. Yet, back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Herb Jeffries was very big...in black-cast films. Today he is respected and remembered as a pioneer who broke down rusted-shut racial doors in Hollywood and ultimately displayed a positive image as a black actor on celluloid...
 
4.
Mantan Moreland
Although his brand of humor has been reviled for decades, black character actor Mantan Moreland parlayed his cocky but jittery character into a recognizable presence in the late 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in a long string of comedy thrillers . . . and was considered quite funny at the time! Born just after the turn of the century in Louisiana...
 
5.
Ethel Waters
Actress, Beulah
The child of a teenage rape victim, Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. "No one raised me, " she recollected, "I just ran wild." She excelled not only at looking after herself, but also at singing and dancing; she began performing at church functions...
 
6.
Bert Williams
Egbert Austin Williams, the legendary comedian, is considered by many to be the greatest vaudeville performer in the history of the American stage. His considerable success extended into the realm of musical comedy as well. Bert was born in Antigua in 1875. He had a natural sense of humor and was said to be at his best as a mimic...
 
7.
Rex Ingram
Director, Love in Morocco
Rex Ingram started film career as a set designer and painter. His directorial debut was The Great Problem. A true master of the medium, Ingram despised the business haggling required in the Hollywood system. He was also unhappy with the level of writing he found in American writers. This led him to work with such foreign writers as Vicente Blasco Ibáñez...
 
8.
Tim Moore
Although Tim Moore will forever be known as "The Kingfish" in the pioneering series The Amos 'n Andy Show, he was actually far better known for his career on the stage and as a comedian in vaudeville than he was for his film and television work. In fact, he had only made (as far as is known) three films before "Amos 'n' Andy", and he had to be coaxed out of retirement to play in that show...
 
9.
Spencer Williams
American actor, writer, director, and producer whose early pioneering work in African-American or "race" films was eclipsed in fame by his role as one of the title characters in the equally pioneering and also controversial 1950s sitcom The Amos 'n Andy Show. A native of Vidalia, Louisiana, Williams broke into the theatre as a call boy for theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein I...
 
10.
Lena Horne
Lena Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. In her biography she stated that on the day she was born, her father was in the midst of a card game trying to get money to pay the hospital costs. Her parents divorced while she was still a toddler. Her mother left later in order to find work as an actress and Lena was left in the care of her grandparents...
 
11.
Benny Carter
Composer, The Aviator
Saxophonist, songwriter ("Because of You", "Hot Toddy", "Cow Cow Boogie"), conductor, arranger and composer, educated at Wilberforce University in theology. He was a saxophonist in Horace Henderson's Wilberforce Collegians, then played in the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb. He went to Paris in 1935...
 
13.
Dorothy Dandridge
Actress, Carmen Jones
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Ruby Dandridge (née Ruby Jean Butler), an entertainer, and Cyril H. Dandridge, a cabinet maker and minister. Under the prodding of her mother, Dorothy and her sister Vivian Dandridge began performing publicly, usually in black Baptist churches throughout the country...
 
15.
Duke Ellington
Soundtrack, The Matrix
Composer ("It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", "Solitude", "In a Mellotone", "Satin Doll"), pianist and conductor, holder of an honorary music degree from Wilberforce University and an LHD from Milton College, Duke Ellington led his own orchestra by 1918...
 
16.
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong grew up poor in a single-parent household. He was 13 when he celebrated the New Year by running out on the street and firing a pistol that belonged to the current man in his mother's life. At the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, he learned to play the bugle and the clarinet and joined the home's brass band...
 
17.
Hattie McDaniel
After working as early as the 1910s as a band vocalist, Hattie McDaniel debuted as a maid in The Golden West. Her maid-mammy characters became steadily more assertive, showing up first in Judge Priest and becoming pronounced in Alice Adams. In this one, directed by George Stevens and aided and abetted by star Katharine Hepburn...
 
18.
Butterfly McQueen
Thelma McQueen attended public school in Augusta, Georgia and graduated from high school in Long Island, New York. She studied dance with Katherine Dunham, Geoffrey Holder, and Janet Collins. She danced with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. The "Butterfly" stage name, which does describe her constantly moving arms...
 
19.
Diahann Carroll
Actress, Julia
One of television's premier African-American series stars, elegant actress, singer and recording artist Diahann Carroll was born Carol Diann (or Diahann) Johnson on July 17, 1935, in the Bronx, New York. The first child of John Johnson, a subway conductor, and Mabel Faulk Johnson, music was an important part of her life as a child...
 
20.
Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, MO, in 1906 to Carrie McDonald, a laundress, and Eddie Carson, a musician. Her early life hinted at her future career. She first danced for the public on the streets of St. Louis for nickels and dimes. Later she became a chorus girl on the St...
 
21.
Paul Robeson
Soundtrack, Pride
This handsome, eloquent and highly charismatic actor became one of the foremost interpreters of Eugene O'Neill's plays and one of the most treasured names in song during the first half of the twentieth century. He also courted disdain and public controversy for most of his career as a staunch Cold War-era advocate for human rights...
 
22.
Ernest Morrison
"Sunshine Sammy" Morrison was most famous as one of the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids, but he was probably the most experienced actor of that group. Morrison made his film debut while still an infant; his father worked for a wealthy Los Angeles family that had connections in the film industry, and one...
 
23.
Louise Beavers
Actress, Beulah
1930s and 1940s film actress Louise Beavers was merely one of a dominant gallery of plus-sized and plus-talented African-American character actresses forced to endure blatant, discouraging and demeaning stereotypes during Depression-era and WWII Hollywood. It wasn't until Louise's triumphant role in...
 
24.
Dooley Wilson
Actor, Casablanca
"You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh; the fundamental things apply, as time goes by...". Anyone unfamiliar with this legendary movie lyric must either live in a well-insulated modern world or perhaps on Mars. The gentleman who crooned this tune for the morose Humphrey Bogart...
 
25.
Bill Robinson
According to one jazz dance source, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was the chief instigator for getting tap dance "up on its toes." Early forms of tap, including the familiar "buck and wing", contained a flat-footed style, while Robinson performed on the balls of his feet with a shuffle-tap style that allowed him more improvisation. It obviously got him noticed and it certainly made him a legend...
 
26.
Harold Nicholas
Harold Nicholas, the younger half of the world famous Nicholas Brothers dance team, is known as one of the world's greatest dancers. He and his brother Fayard Nicholas were established superstars at Twentieth Century Fox with their astounding dance numbers in the studios musicals features. Harold was known for "attributing spice to Fayard's grace," with his quick moves...
 
27.
Fayard Nicholas
Actor, The Pirate
Fayard Nicholas was one-half of The Nicholas Brothers, a famous African-American tap dancing team who appeared in several movies and became one of the famous and most beloved dance team of all time. Both brothers appeared in films such as An All-Colored Vaudeville Show, The Pirate and The Five Heartbeats. Fayard's brother, Harold Nicholas died on July 3, 2000, while Fayard died on Januray 24, 2006.
 
28.
Sidney Poitier
A native of Cat Island, The Bahamas (though born in Miami during a mainland visit by his parents), Poitier grew up in poverty as the son of farmers Evelyn (Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, who also drove a cab. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to Miami to live with his brother...
 
29.
Eva Jessye
Actress, Black Like Me
Conductor and arranger, educated at Wilberforce University (MA), and Allen University (Mus. D.) She conducted the Eva Jessye Choir, with appearances in universities and colleges with symphony orchestras and in festivals throughout the United States and Europe. On Broadway, she appeared in the musical...
 
31.
Anita Bush
Anita Bush born in Washington, District of Columbia in 1883. began in Vaudeville theatre as part of the comedy team 'William and Walker' in the early 1900's, and later became well-known on the drama theatre's on Broadway. beautiful black performer who starred in only two movies, the first was a Western/drama/mystery...
 
36.
Fredi Washington
Fredi Washington was a pioneering African-American actress whose fair skin and green eyes often were impediments to her showing her extraordinary acting skills. Her talent was often overlooked because of people's obsession with her race and color. In the few films in which she acted her enormous talent as an actress couldn't be hidden...
 
38.
John Lester Johnson
John Lester Johnson was born in Suffolk, Virginia (his death certificate states South Carolina) on August 13, 1893. His middle name was Leslie, according to an "Ebony" magazine article about Johnson (January 1960), but he changed it to to Lester when he left Virginia in 1910 for New York City, hoping to make a career in boxing...
 
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40.
Leigh Whipper
Leigh Whipper was an consummate actor who led an impressive life. Born in South Carolina in 1876, at the end of the Reconstruction Era in which his parents had participated, he was educated in Washington, D.C., attending Howard University, before turning permanently to a life in the theater. At a time when work for black actors was limited...
 
41.
Stepin Fetchit
Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most controversial movie actors in American history. While he was undoubtedly one of the most talented physical comedians ever to do his shtick on the Big Screen, achieving the rare status of being a character actor/supporting player who actually achieved superstar status in the 1930s (becoming a millionaire to boot)...
 
42.
Lorenzo Tucker
Lorenzo Tucker in his prime was billed and known as "The Black Valentino," named after Rudolph Valentino, because of his tall, dark, dashing good looks, muscular built, secret charm and coolness. Tucker was one of Black Cinema's most popular leading actors, appearing in close to 20 films. He started...
 
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46.
Mildred Washington
Actress, Tenderfeet
The name Mildred Washington isn't remembered but she appeared in under 15 films in small parts but her presence, finesse, beauty and vivacious personality wasn't small. Mildred was a beautiful, curvaceous, popular Black actress and dancer in the 1920s and 1930s. She started on the stage appearing in...
 
47.
Nina Mae McKinney
Actress, Hallelujah
Nina Mae McKinney is known as the seductress "Chick" from Hallelujah, the first all-black, all-sound musical. Even though she was acknowledged as a great actress, singer and dancer by audiences in the U.S. and Europe, today she is mostly forgotten. She certainly had the looks, enthusiasm, and acting talent to succeed...
 
49.
Theresa Harris
Theresa Harris appeared with more stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood than anyone else. She sang, she danced, appeared in films and TV. She graced the screen with her magnetic presence and most times stole scenes from the top stars of the day every chance she got and made a lot of dull movies worthwhile...
 
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84.
Alice B. Russell
Alice B. Russell is better known as Oscar Micheaux's wife, but she played important parts in almost all of her husband's films. Alice usually played the sympathetic mother figure, a mature role model, a guardian angel to young naive ladies, etc. She was a wonderful emotional actress, never overdoing her sadness and pain but just enough to move you...
 
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Bee Freeman
Actress, Underworld
Bee Freeman was known as "the sepia Mae West" because of her sexy voice and innuendo-laden manner of delivering her lines. Bee had a style all her own, though--cool, calm and collected with a lot of sex appeal. Bee Freeman was one of Oscar Micheaux's favorite ladies, appearing in his best films: Chicago After Midnight, Murder in Harlem, Temptation and Underworld...
 
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100.
Dink Stewart
A stalwart of the African-American stage, Ben "Dink" Stewart started out with his brother Alex singing and dancing for pennies on the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio. They soon worked up an act good enough to have them enter vaudeville. Dink went on to be known as a comedian and "sinegr of funny songs." He retired to Chicago, Illinois and died there in the winter of 1951.