Each February, Black History Month descends upon us and with it, a reminder of the unique and monumental contributions of Black Americans to our national history. And as the country’s race relations crumble under the pressure of systemic prejudice, it is perhaps more important than ever to commemorate these contributions as not only a part of Black History, but American history at large.
Particularly, amid the #OscarsSoWhite debacle and the mounting dialogue around diversity of representation, it appears the impact of Black Americans in entertainment and film is suddenly up for debate.
The Academy may have forgotten its Black Hollywood heavyweights, but we certainly have not. Here’s a lesson in Black Herstory you certainly never learned in class. These are 8 Black women in Hollywood you should definitely know.
Her name is Lola. She was a showgirl… Loletha Elayne “Lola” Falana was working as a dancer in Harlem when famed entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. cast her in the lead role for the Broadway musical “The Golden Boy” in 1964. From there, she went on to become the “Queen of Las Vegas,” head-lining shows in city throughout the 1970s, and is the rumored inspiration for the infamous Barry Manilow song “Copacabana.”
Born in America and migrating to Europe as a teenager, Marpessa Dawn is an international actress, singer and dancer best known for her work in “Black Orpheus,” the Brazilian remake of the Greek classic “Orpheus and Eurydice.” In 1959, the film won the Palm d’or at the Cannes Film festival, the highest prize awarded at the event, and in 1960 it received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While “Black Orpheus” received critical claim, Dawn never found much commercial success. She would go on to make appearances both on screen and on stage touring through Europe and Northern Africa.
Judy Lenteen Pace was a woman of many firsts. In addition to being the first Black woman to ever receive a contract from a major motion picture studio, she is also the first Black television villainess, starring in the hit show “Peyton Place” in 1964. The dramatic series was the first to feature a Black family on prime time television.
NINA MAE MCKINNEY
Dubbed, “The Black Garbot,” Nina Mae McKinney was a self-taught actress, singer, and dancer among the first Black film stars in America and abroad. In 1929, she starred in the film production of the all-Black musical Hallelujah as the sexy, seductress Chick, a role that would, fundamentally, transform the national perception of Black actresses who had always been cast as servants.
ETTA MOTEN BARNETT
The first Black star to perform at the White House, Etta Moten Barnett is perhaps best known in her signature role of “Bess” in the 1942 Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess.” However, McKinney’s influence her influence extended far beyond her work on stage. After retiring from entertainment, Barnett went on to become an active activist and philanthropist in Chicago before being appointed representative on cultural missions to ten African nations by the United States government.
The first Black American-born prima donna, Mary Violet Leontyne Price was a musician and opera singer who among one of the first Black artists to lead at the Metropolitan Opera. Rising to international stardom throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Price has received more honors and accolades than any other classical singer, including 19 Grammy Awards and the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Born Clementine Dinah Bullock, Cleo Laine was a British singer and actress most renowned for her jazz scats and extensive range. Known as the “Queen of Jazz” in her prime, she is the only female artist to receive Grammy nominations in the jazz, popular music and classical music categories.
Grace Dell “Nichelle” Nichols was an actress and singer who worked with the likes of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Captain Kirk, himself. Nichols starred alongside William Shatner as Lieutenant Uhura in the famed science fiction series Star Trek where the pair shared one of the first interracial kisses between a white man and Black women to appear on American television.
Did we miss someone? Share some of your favorite Black women in Hollywood in the comments below.