Brooklyn Legends proudly salutes Lena Horne.
While preparing this post on Lena Horne, I came across many articles and pictures of her as a young woman. She was simply stunning. With each passing decade, Lena became even more regal, until she died at the age of 92.
Looking at her life from the outside, I found it hard to imagine that she would have any difficulty navigating the entertainment world. I soon realized that racial inequality was a problem for Lena just as it had been for the entertainers that came before her. She decided to use her influence to speak out against the injustices she, and other African-Americans, encountered.
In its tribute to Lena Horne, Biography gives a fascinating account of a teenager from Brooklyn, NY who began singing at the Cotton Club at the age of 16. This was the first stop of her legendary career as a performer and civil rights activist. After leaving the Cotton Club, Lena performed on stage with legendary jazz composer Noble Sissle and his orchestra. During his career, Sissle collaborated with Eubie Blake, Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. This afforded Lena the opportunity to work with each of these giants, but she remained friends with Robeson the longest.
In early 1943, Lena performed at New York City’s Savoy-Plaza Hotel and her star was on the rise. She was featured in Life magazine and on the cover of Motion Picture Magazine. She soon became the highest-paid, African-American entertainer of her time.
Lena signed a seven-year contract with MGM and moved to Hollywood, CA. She was put to work immediately and starred in two major films, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. Despite Lena’s phenomenal success, MGM soon realized that casting her was difficult. The studio could secure only limited roles in films with white actors, and she refused to be cast in the stereotypical roles that other African-American actors were forced to accept. As a result, she was blacklisted by Hollywood and shunned by the African-American community. Her career came to a halt.
In spite of the challenges Lena faced in the United States, at the request of the United Service Organization she agreed to visit Europe to entertain the troops. However she soon realized that African-Americans were being treated just as badly in Europe as they were back in the states. Lena was appalled to find the audiences were segregated and African-American soldiers were forced to sit behind German POWs. She refused to perform. After learning about Lena’s personal encounters with racism, I completely understand her defiance.
Lena did not yield to the opposition she faced. She confronted racism head-on and sued many restaurants, movie theaters and hotels for their discrimination against African-Americans. She joined the Progressive Citizens of America and became one of its most outspoken members. Lena also met with many prominent officials, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, to discuss America’s need to pass anti-lynching laws. Lena was an “ambassador” for those whose voices were being silenced throughout the country.
Although she was still blacklisted, Lena would continue to lend her support to the civil rights movement. Before participating in the famous “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963,” Lena traveled to Jackson, Mississippi with Medgar Evers. She performed at what would become Evers’ last rally. He was assassinated a few days later.
After Evers’ untimely death, Lena joined Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry at a meeting with United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This group was committed to pressuring the administration to put an end to the violence in the south and segregation.
Lena was in for the long haul. She continued to perform at rallies around the country on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW).
The years following the civil rights movement were very difficult. In the early 1970s Lena buried her only son Teddy and her father Edwin. Apart from one brief tour with Tony Bennett, and a few television appearances, she spent several years in mourning and was much less visible. In 1978 Lena made her final film appearance in the movie The Wiz where she played Glenda the good witch.
In 1981 she made a successful return to Broadway with her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The show was an instant hit and enjoyed a 14-month run on Broadway before touring throughout the United States and abroad. For her performance, Lena won a Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.
In 1994 Lena gave one of her last concerts at the famous Supper Club in New York City. It is reported that fans came from all over to see her on stage once again. The performance was recorded and was released to the public in 1995 as An Evening With Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club. She received a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album. Though Lena contributed to occasional recordings after 1995, she largely retreated from public life until her death in May of 2010.
Through her voice, Lena gave rise to a brilliant career and she was one of the civil rights movement’s most vocal supporters. For more than seven decades, Lena graced audiences here and abroad with her talent, poise, beauty and grace.
We at Brooklyn Legends are proud to salute Lena Horne for her achievements as an entertainer and champion for social justice.
Lena Horne Biography – Biography.com http://www.biography.com/people/lena-horne-9344086?page=1.
Lena Horne: Tireless Campaigner for Social and Economic Justice from The Nation – http://www.thenation.com/blog/lena-horne-tireless-campaigner-social-and-economic-justice
Lena Horne – “Gorgeous Mosaic”: Remembering Lena Horne with Former NYC Mayor David Dinkins. Posted June 2012 by wsnr.parsons.edu
Lena Horne on the cover of the album Stormy Weather
Lena Horne visits the troops. Photo courtesy of Mr. Robert Brown of the Air Force Historical Research Agency, nationalww2museum.org
Lena Horne with Eleanor Roosevelt in Mrs. Roosevelt’s Manhattan apartment. June 26, 1960, vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com
Lena Horne with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a party in Dr. King’s honor in 1963 taken by Steve Schapiro, vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com
Lena Horne with Dorothy Height, Lena Horne and Edith Savage in 1968 courtesy of Google.com