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9 Facts About Amazing Black Celebrities From Hollywood's Golden Age

While film historians differ on the exact years of Hollywood’s golden age (it may have stretched from the late 1920s to either the 1950s or ’60s), what is clear is that these years weren’t always so golden for Black actors, who often struggled to earn opportunities and recognition. But despite the tough environment of those times, some gifted artists still made a name for themselves with standout performances as singers, dancers, comedians, and more. Here’s an assortment of fascinating facts about nine Black stars from yesteryear who faced serious obstacles. in their paths yet lived lives worthy of the Hollywood spotlight.

Hattie McDaniel Accepted Her Historic Oscar in a Segregated Nightclub

Two months after she was forced to miss the December 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind (no Black actors were allowed to enter the segregated venue), Hattie McDaniel became the first Black actor to claim an Academy Award with her acceptance of the Best Supporting Actress prize. But even that historic moment nearly failed to come to fruition, as producer David O. Selznick reportedly had to intervene to get the actress accepted into the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, where the Oscars were held. These two events perfectly encapsulated McDaniel’s career — she made the best of the maid and mammy roles that came her way, but was constantly reminded of her second-class standing in a pre-civil rights America. Ignoring her critics in the Black press, McDaniel later made more history in 1947 by taking over the lead role of The Beulah Show to become the first Black star of a radio program.

Lincoln Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit, Was the First Black Actor to Become a Millionaire

With his appearance in the 1927 silent feature In Old Kentucky, Lincoln Perry delivered a performance as a comically sluggish character who was too clueless to handle even the simplest tasks. Later adopting the stage name Stepin Fetchit, Perry continued performing his "laziest man in the world" bit to great fanfare as Hollywood transitioned to talkies, his success making him the first Black actor to earn more than $1 million from his craft. Both the stardom and fortune were gone by World War II, and the Stepin Fetchit schtick today can seem an all-too-painful reminder of the degrading subservience forced on Black folks from an earlier time. Still, Perry has his defenders, who argue that his signature character was more of a trickster than a doormat, and a lengthy list of credits underscores that the man behind the inertia was a legitimate movie star.

Etta Moten Barnett Was One of the First Black Artists to Perform at the White House

While Etta Moten Barnett's windowsill performance of "My Forgotten Man" in Gold Diggers of 1933 spanned just 80 seconds, it was an eye-opening moment from an industry that rarely provided such a dignified platform for its Black contributors. It also earned her a formal invite to sing at President Franklin Roosevelt's birthday party in 1934, an event often erroneously reported as the first time a Black artist had been summoned to perform at the White House (though it may well have been the first such invitation since the 19th century). While her career in Hollywood was relatively brief, Barnett later shone on Broadway in what became her signature role in Porgy and Bess, before spending her later years as an unofficial ambassador to Africa and celebrated philanthropist.

The Nicholas Brothers Had No Formal Dance Training

If you're unfamiliar with the acrobatic theatrics of the Nicholas Brothers, take a few minutes to watch their famous number from Stormy Weather. Amazingly, this dazzling duo had no formal training as dancers. Fayard, the older of the two, studied the techniques of star performers during a childhood spent following his musician parents on the vaudeville circuit, and he later taught the younger Harold how to dance and sing. While the brothers' full array of talents never received a proper showcase on the big screen, their peerless moves ensured their visibility in high-profile vehicles for stars like Gene Kelly, and led to fulfilling careers that stretched well beyond Hollywood’s golden age.

Ethel Waters Was the First Black Performer to Star in a TV Show

In June 1939, executives at the National Broadcasting Company decided to test the public appetite for the fledgling medium of television with a variety special. The result, The Ethel Waters Show, made its 42-year-old headliner the first Black performer to star in a TV program. Waters, who had previously helped integrate Broadway in 1933 with Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, went on to become the second Black woman to earn an Academy Award nomination following her performance in 1949’s Pinky. She then briefly starred in the TV adaptation of Beulah, before her guest role in a 1961 episode of Route 66made her the first of her race and gender to snag a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Paul Robeson Sang in 25 Languages

There were few things Paul Robeson couldn't do in the public sphere; a multisport star at Rutgers University and pioneering member of the National Football League, he eventually became an in-demand leading man in stage productions of The Emperor Jones, Show Boat, and Othello, along the way bringing his drawing power to Hollywood. Topping his list of talents may well have been his powerful baritone singing voice and linguistic capabilities, which enabled him to deliver a vast repertoire of songs in as many as 25 languagesto audiences around the world. However, Robeson’s global voice was silenced when his passport was revoked in 1950 because of his barely disguised communist sympathies, and the aging performer never again reached the commanding heights of his younger years.

Lena Horne Was the First Black Actress to Sign a Long-Term Contract With a Major Hollywood Studio

Two years after McDaniel's historic walk from the back of the Cocoanut Grove, a signal that Hollywood's stiff codes of segregation were loosening came when Lena Horne became the first Black actress to sign a long-term contractwith a major studio (MGM). Although she refused to play the stereotypical domestics and prostitutes, Horne still found most of her roles lacking. Except for some performances among all-Black casts in films like 1943's Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, the actress generally landed isolated parts that could easily be cut from airings in the Jim Crow South. Adding to her discontent was the strain of activism that led to her being blacklisted from film and television for much of the 1950s. But unlike her friend Robeson, Horne survived the lean years by keeping her recording career alive, and she returned to the public eye in the 1960s to chart her own distinct course as a singer, actress, and activist.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's Final Film Was Loosely Based On His Life Story

Another sign of progress came when venerable song-and-dance star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson headlined Stormy Weather, a major studio production based on his life. Granted, the story was short on the specifics of a performing career that began in the 19th century, made him a vaudeville star by World War I, and thrust him into the Hollywood spotlight as Shirley Temple's sidekick by the mid-1930s. Regardless, the feature provided a showcase for his still-formidable dancing abilities, as well as the talents of other Black performers such as Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. It was a fitting final film for Robinson, a beloved entertainer who reportedly drew half a million visitors to witness his funeral parade after his death in 1949.

Sidney Poitier Was Kicked Out of His First Audition Because of a Heavy Bahamian Accent

Born in Miami but raised in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier was sent packing from his first audition for New York City's American Negro Theater (ANT) in 1946 because of his inexperience and heavy accent. Fearful of being stuck in his dishwashing job, the teenager saved up to buy a radio, and spent his free time mimicking the voices he heard from news broadcasts and advertisements. Poitier eventually latched on with the ANT, his improved diction and natural charisma helping to override the missteps of his on-the-job training as an actor. By 1950, when he wowed national audiences with his film debut in No Way Out, the thick accent and deer-in-the-headlights expression had been replaced by the easy eloquence and steely presence that would make Poitier the first Black Best Actor Academy Award winner in 1964.

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