Marian Anderson (1897–1993), a famous operatic singer during the first half of the twentieth century, enjoyed the notoriety of being the United States’ third highest concert box office draw.
Anderson’s popularity came to her in spite of the racial discrimination of her times. She was often refused hotel accommodations and service at restaurants while on tour. One of her most famous racist experiences gained national attention. In 1939, when managers at Howard University tried to arrange a concert for her in Constitution Hall, the largest and most appropriate indoor location in Washington, D.C., the organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who owned Constitution Hall, refused to allow Anderson to sing there. In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to schedule Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which drew a crowd of over 70,000 people. The story of Anderson’s confrontation with the Daughters of the American Revolution became the topic of many news stories, thus bringing attention to other issues of racial discrimination that existed in the United States.
In 1954, Anderson was given the chance to sing in the role of Ulrica in the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, thus becoming the first African American to sing on the Met stage.
Harry Belafonte was born in 1927 to West Indian parents and would eventually spend some of his youth in Jamaica, although he was a U.S. citizen. As a young adult, he would return to his birthplace in New York City and begin his acting career, first on stage and later in film. In 1953, he won a Tony Award for his performance in Almanac. The following year, he would co-star with Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. In 1960, Belafonte became the first African American to receive an Emmy for the television program Tonight with Belafonte.
Acting was not the only talent that Belafonte possessed. In 1956, after having entered an amateur talent show, Belafonte recorded a collection of tunes with a West Indian bent, and his album Calypso became the first record to sell more than a million copies.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte developed a relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was he who put up the money for bail when King was sent to Birmingham City Jail, he who financed the Freedom Rides, and he who raised thousands of dollars to gain the release of other jailed civil rights protestors. He also was one of the principal organizers for the March on Washington in 1963. Belafonte was also involved in organizing the joint effort of producing the song ‘‘We Are the World,’’ which generated millions of dollars in the fight against famine in Ethiopia.
Dorothy Dandridge (1922–1965) began her acting career as a child, appearing on screen for the first time with the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races. Many of the roles that she played in movies were bit parts, as the Hollywood film industry, during the early part of the twentieth century, offered very little opportunity for African-American actresses. Dandridge’s most significant roles were in two of Otto Preminger’s films: Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1957).
Carmen Jones, a modernization of George Bizet’s opera (first staged in Paris in 1875) tells the tragic story of a young, sensual gypsy woman. Preminger’s movie featured an all-black cast with Bizet’s music and lyrics arranged by Oscar Hammerstein II. Other African-American performers in Carmen Jones included Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. Dandridge played the starring role of Carmen, for which she was nominated for best actress by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first African-American actress to be so honored.
In 1999, a movie about Dandridge, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge , starring Halle Berry, aired on HBO. The movie covers the struggle Dandridge endured in combating racial prejudice in the movie industry as well as some of the abusive details of...
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