Pioneers of Black Hollywood

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1.
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...
 
2.
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...
 
3.
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...
 
4.
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...
 
5.
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...
 
6.
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...
 
7.
Harry Belafonte
Harold George Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927 in New York City. He was educated at the New York Dramatic Workshop. He grew up in Jamaica, British West Indies, and did folk-singing in nightclubs and theaters, and on television and records. His debut was at the Village Vanguard in New York. Also, he appeared in the Broadway revues "John Murray Anderson's Almanac" and "Three for Tonight"...
 
10.
Noble Johnson
Actor, King Kong
African-American movie actor and producer Noble Johnson was born on April 18, 1881, in Marshall, Missouri. His family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, when Noble was very young, and it was there that he met Lon Chaney at school. They became friends as children, and later got re-acquainted when both were making movies in Hollywood and became friends all over again (surprisingly...
 
11.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. was often billed as the "greatest living entertainer in the world". He was born in Harlem, Manhattan, the son of dancer Elvera Davis (née Sanchez) and vaudeville star Sammy Davis Sr.. His father was African-American and his mother was of Puerto Rican ancestry. Davis Jr. was known as someone who could do it all--sing...
 
12.
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...
 
13.
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...
 
14.
James Edwards
Actor, Patton
Pioneering actor who was among Hollywood's first - years ahead of Sidney Poitier - to crush the Stepin Fetchit stereotype of black males as shiftless illiterates. Although in some pictures Edwards would portray subservient characters (e.g. "General" George C. Scott's valet in Patton), he delivered true dignity in his performances...
 
15.
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)...
 
16.
Pearl Bailey
Composer, singer and songwriter. She was a dancer, then a singer in New York in the early 1940s, touring with the Cootie Williams orchestra, and later a featured singer in night clubs, radio and television. She made stage appearances in "Arms and the Girl", "St. Louis Woman"; and "House of Flowers"...
 
17.
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...
 
19.
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...
 
20.
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...
 
21.
Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson
The son of a minstrel and circus tightrope walker, Eddie Anderson developed a gravel voice early in life which would become his trademark to fame. He joined his older brother Cornelius as members of "The Three Black Aces" during his vaudeville years, singing for pennies in the hotel lobby. He eventually moved his way up to the Roxy and Apollo theaters in New York...
 
22.
Rex Ingram
A Corsicana native, Rex (Clifford) Ingram was the son of Mack and Mamie Ingram. He graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in medicine before launching a brilliant acting career which spanned 50 years. Ingram made his screen debut during the silent era in Tarzan of the Apes . He won widespread acclaim for his portrayal of De Lawd in The Green Pastures ...
 
24.
Willie Best
One of the hard-working, unappreciated African-American actors of Hollywood's "Golden Era" who produced good work with what he was given. He starred alongside some of film's great comedians including the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy and three films with Shirley Temple. In addition to being a talented comedian and character actor...
 
25.
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...
 
27.
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...
 
28.
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...
 
29.
Cab Calloway
Bandleader, songwriter ("Minnie the Moocher", "Are You Hep to That Jive?"), composer, singer, actor and author, educated at Crane College. While studying law, he sang with the band The Alabamians, and took over the group in 1928. He led The Missourians orchestra, then organized and led his own orchestra...
 
30.
Brock Peters
Born of African and West Indian ancestry on July 2, 1927 in New York City, Brock Peters set his sights on a show business career early on, at age ten. A product of NYC's famed Music and Arts High School, Peters initially fielded more odd jobs than acting jobs as he worked his way up from Harlem poverty...
 
31.
Canada Lee
Actor, Lifeboat
Lee played Danny (opposite of Hilda Simms, who played Anna) in Anna Lucasta on Broadway in 1944. Anna Lucasta was the first non-black written play performed by an all black cast on Broadway. He became an actor after careers as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of Paul Robeson.
 
32.
Woody Strode
Played college football and broke color barrier at the same time as Kenny Washington. Met his wife, a Hawaiian princess and stand-in for the swim sequences for Dorothy Lamour. Woody played for the Los Angeles Rams after their move from Cleveland. He was also a professional wrestler, wrestling the likes of Gorgeous George...
 
33.
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...
 
34.
Hazel Scott
In a time of stereotypical views of black women, particularly browner-skinned women, as mammies, homely, and unattractive, dazzling Hazel Scott changed that image with her natural beauty and breathtaking glamour and spunky sex appeal. Women such as Ethel Waters actually became a stereotype by making herself homely and appearing in mammy attire to be more acceptable to white people...
 
36.
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...
 
39.
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...
 
40.
Eartha Kitt
An out-of-wedlock child, Eartha Kitt was born in the cotton fields of South Carolina. Kitt's mother was a sharecropper of African-American and Cherokee Native American descent. Her father's identity is unknown. Given away by her mother, she arrived in Harlem at age nine. At 15, she quit high school to work in a Brooklyn factory...
 
41.
Nat 'King' Cole
Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles at Montgomery, Alabama. He received music lessons from his mother and his family moved to Chicago when he was only five, where his father Edward James Coles was a minister at the True Light Baptist Church and later Pastor of the First Baptist Church. At 12 he was playing the church organ and at 14 he formed a 14 piece band called the Royal Dukes...
 
42.
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...
 
43.
Katherine Dunham
Miscellaneous Crew, Carnival of Rhythm
Dancer, choreographer, composer and songwriter, educated at the University of Chicago. She made world tours as a dancer, choreographer, and director of her own dance company. She directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York, and was artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University. She also appeared in the Broadway musicals "Bal Negre" and "Carib Song"...
 
44.
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...
 
45.
Juanita Moore
African American actress Juanita Moore entered films in the early 1950s, a time in which few black people were given an opportunity to act in major studio films. Fortunately Moore's roles began improving as Hollywood developed a social consciousness toward the end of the decade. In 1959 she received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Imitation of Life...
 
47.
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...
 
48.
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...
 
49.
Juano Hernandez
He was the son of a Puerto Rican seaman. He was self-educated and spent much of his childhood in Brazil singing on the streets to raise money for food. He became an actor after having been a circus performer, radio actor, and vaudeville performer. He worked in the chorus of the 1927 stage production of the musical "Show Boat"...