Have you ever considered using your talents to agitate for good?
That’s what Lena Horne did – her whole life.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in June of 1917 in Brooklyn, NY, USA. When she was just 3 years old, her parents separated and Lena could often be found crisscrossing the country with her mother, an actress.
The experience ignited in Lena a life-long passion for the stage. She would grow up to become a celebrated jazz and pop singer, dancer, stage, TV, and film actress. But more than that, Horne would use her celebrity to advocate for positive social change.
She stood among giants: an activist for civil rights.
Lena's own acting career began when she dropped out of school at the age of 16 to join the chorus of the Cotton Club in Harlem. Before long, her natural musical talent landed her a debut role in the 1934 Broadway production of Dance with Your Gods. In the following years, Horne bounced between singing with orchestras and acting in musicals, such as Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939. Her most dazzling performances took place, however, in New York nightclubs: the Café Society and Savoy-Plaza Hotel.
It wasn’t long before Lena’s magnificent singing voice earned her widespread fame and recognition. She landed a feature in Life Magazine, after which Hollywood agents literally threw contracts at her. In 1943, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who ensured there were no ethics infringements in their proposed contract, Lena signed with MGM studios and packed her bags for California.
In Hollywood, her film credits included Swings Cheer, Broadway Rhythm, Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, Death of a Gunfighter, and ultimately The Wiz. Despite being forever selective about the roles she agreed to take on, Lena Horne became the highest-paid black entertainer of her time. She refused to play stereotyped black domestic workers, for example, only accepting jobs that represented African-American women with respect.
In this way, Lena's acting overlapped with her career-long activism, which dated back as far as WWII when Lena refused to perform for segregated audiences. Once, upon seeing that black U.S. servicemen had been forced to sit behind German POWs, she walked off the stage to where the black troops were seated and performed to them, her back to the Germans.
She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. She marched with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. She met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House to discuss the issue of civil rights. She was a member of the liberal group, Progressive Citizens of America. She spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women. She participated in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s the March on Washington in 1963.
In short, Lena Horne used her celebrity to agitate for positive change, including equal rights for African-Americans and women everywhere. Her. Whole. Life. Long. She also continued to perform right up until her death in 2010, receiving such accolades as a Tony and two Grammys.
"I learned about Lena Horne when watching an episode of 'A Different World' filmed in 1993. I love her unwillingness to accept roles that stereotyped African-American women, in a time when roles for women of colour were few and far between. She stood unfalteringly in the Civil Rights movement, representing Black women while in the spotlight, risking her celebrity in an intolerant society." - Rebecca McCarthy