Black Musicians and Entertainers #blacklivesmatter Series


How has the world changed in the last six months? The fight is still going on for Black rights. There is so much hate and violence as well as peaceful protests. We are in a Movement and we can decide how we are going to respond. We can sit back quietly and watch or we can take part. There are two sides and depending one where you fall you can take action. Know that sitting back quietly and watching is an action. It is accepting what you are seeing. I know at times this summer I have wondered if my actions, my posts, my discussions are making any difference. I even considered giving them up. But I knew in my heart I had to try to make a difference and help there be change. Today we have come to the end of my list. My short list. A list of names to research and share with you because Black lives are part of everyone's history. Black people matter! Although this will be my last post in this series for now, I know I will continue it again. I know there will be future books that share about Black lives, as well as more people to feature. If you have Black people I should feature please leave their names in the comments or contact me.  But I also know I want to focus on Native Americans for Native American History Month. I know we need to also focus on them as they are suffering with Covid and not making it much into the news. 

Today we are taking a look at three Black entertainers: Bert Williams, Paul Robeson, and Harry Belafonte. Come learn about these three men and why their lives matter to us.

Bert Williams

Bert Williams, stage actor (SAYRE 11054)
Egbert Austin Williams was born on November 12, 1874 in Nassau, Bahamas. He came to the United States permanently in 1885. First his family moved to New York and then California. He began to study civil engineering at Stanford but was forced to quit so he could make a living. He used his self-taught musical skills and comedy talent and began his career. His first job in the entertainment field was as a barker for medicine shows in the Riverside area. At this time medicine shows traveled to small towns and villages giving entertainment in return for listening to the sales pitch for the often useless medicines. Bert told tall tales, sang songs and praised the show inside the tent to entertain the crowd outside the tents. Later he worked in smoky and poorly lit bars in San Francisco. They catered to sailors on shore leave and Bert had to shout his songs to be heard over the din of the bar. 

In 1892 Bert sang songs in front of the curtain at the San Francisco Museum while sets were changed backstage. In 1893 he joined Martin and Selig's Mastodon Minstrel Show. He began working with George W. Walker and the two became one of the most successful comedy teams in their era. They billed themselves as "Two Real Coons." In 1901 the two recorded their songs and work with Victor Company. It is said they were the first Black performers to record with a major recording company. In 1903 their comedy routine elevated to a full scale musical on Broadway. They produced, wrote and performed in In Dahomey, the first Black musical comedy on Broadway. 

George Walker died in 1909. Bert joined the Florenz Zeigfeld shows and starred in the Follies from 1910 to 1919. He was the only Black performer in the famous Zeigfeld Follies. Bert created the persona of "Jonah Man" the unluckiest man in the world. He added dimension to the classic dimwit man. As a single act Bert became the first Black star comedian on Broadway. Theatre Magazine called him "a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage." Bert was the first Black featured in a Broadway revue and the first Black to join Actor's Equity, thanks to W.C. Fields. He also did a command performance for King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace. 

Bert also performed mime that shared a range of emotions. He also played the Jim Crow role but was able to push it out of the stereotypical role at times. He tried to base his characters on universal situations that anyone could find himself in and find humor in it. Unlike many of the other blackface entertainers he did not try to poke fun of other Blacks. He did paint his face black like the white performers. He experienced many white performers who did not want to perform in the same show as him and others complained that his routine was better than theirs. Bert wrote his own routines. He also found the sting of discrimination even harder when hotels wouldn't let him ride in the elevators where white patrons rode while the ringing of the applause and cheers from the white audience was still ringing in his ears.  

In 1914 Bert became the first Black performer on the cinema in Darktown Jubilee. However a screening for an all-white audience created an almost riot with catcalls and boos because they were not willing to accept an all Black film. The film was taken out of circulation by the distributor. 

In 1916 Bert produced and performed in A Natural Born Gambler and Fish. He was praised for his subtle facial expressions in A Natural Born Gambler but highly criticized for trying to play a boy in Fish when he was 42. Fish was his last film since he found them to be constraining. 

He continued to perform in vaudeville shows and record his songs from the shows. His recordings were numerous and very popular. He was considered one of the best recording artists of his time. He cut seventeen titles during his four-year contract with Columbia Records. 

Bert had a hard time trying to deal with his success on the stage and the discrimination he received off the stage. He drank a lot and was very depressed as a result. However he never missed a show. He even performed with pneumonia. On February 25, 1922 Bert collapsed during his second show that day at the Shubert Theater in Chicago. He was gravely ill and returned to his home in New York City. He died on March 4, 1922. W.C. Fields once said of Bert was "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew."


To teach kids about Bert Williams I put together some books about him as well as recordings of him.

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson - 1930s

Paul Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His parents were Anna Louisa and William Drew Robeson. His father was an escaped enslaved person. He became a Presbyterian minister. Paul was the youngest of five children.  In 1901 William had a financial dispute with the white supporters of the church and resigned his position. Anna Louisa died when Paul was only six-years-old. His father moved Paul and his brother to a new town. His father was struggling to keep the family housed and fed.  At eighteen Paul earned a scholarship to Rutgers University. He was an All American football player at Rutgers. He received twelve major letters in four years and was his class valedictorian. He turned down a professional athletic career and went on to Columbia University Law School. In 1921 he married Eslanda Goode who was a fellow student. In the early 1920's he took a job with a New York law firm. However racial issues at the law firm ended his law career early. 

He turned his love for public speaking into an acting career. In 1924 he played the lead in Eugene O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings". And in 1925 he played the lead in "The Emperor Jones." In 1927 Eslanda gave birth to their son, Paul Robeson, Jr. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he became a widely acclaimed actor and singer. His song "Ol' Man River" helped him become one of the most popular singers of the time. In 1942 he was in his last movie, Tales of Manhattan. He criticized the movie for how it portrayed African Americans. 

His "Othello" was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history. He played the lead role, Othello. The show was performed 296 times in 1943-1944. His fame grew in the United States as well as internationally. He could speak fifteen languages. He performed benefits throughout the world. He believed more than any other performer that the famous have to fight for peace and justice. He spoke out for civil liberties and fought racism in the United States. He was friends with people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and W.E.B. du Bois. 

During the 1940s his outspokenness got the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Even though he had entertained the troops during the war, Senator McCarthy saw Paul as a threat to the American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence Paul. In 1950 his passport was taken away which hurt his entertainment career. He couldn't perform abroad. 

It took eight years before he was granted another passport. He performed mostly in England and Australia. However the fight had taken its toll. He suffered from depression and was hospitalized in London for it. He returned to the United States in 1963 and realized he talents as a singer and orator were not what they once were. He took a step back out of the public eye. He retired to Philadelphia. He went to live with his son after Eslanda died in New York City. Then he went back to Philadelphia and lived with his sister. He died on January 23, 1976 from complications from a stroke. 


I also put together some books and resources to help teach kids about this great man.

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte Civil Rights March 1963
Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. was born on March 1, 1927 in New York City. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. His mother was a dressmaker and house cleaner. His father worked as a cook on ships but left the family when Harry was young. Harry spent a good amount of his childhood in Jamaica, his mother's homeland. There he witnessed how the British were treating Black people and this left an impression on him. In 1940 he returned to Harlem to live with his mother. She was often working and he was left on his own or in the care of others. Being alone gave him time to think and be in anguish. 

In 1944 he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the United States Navy. After his discharge he returned to New York City and took a job as a janitor. He attended his first American Negro Theater production and loved it. He volunteered as a stage hand and eventually decided to become an actor. He studied drama at Dramatic Workshop run by Erwin Piscator. His fellow classmates included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, and Bea Arthur. He appeared in American Negro Theater productions and was offered to perform at the Royal Roost, a jazz club. He became a popular act at the club and got his first record deal in 1949. In 1948 he married Marguerite Byrd. They had two children together: Shari and Adrienne, before divorcing in 1957. In the early 1950's he changed his music to folk and explored folk music from around the world. He performed in New York City clubs. 

In 1953 he won a Tony Award for his part in "John Murray Anderson's Almanac". He also launched his film career in 1953 with Bright Road. In 1956 he released Calypso his album on Caribbean folk music which featured "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)". This album introduced America to a new genre of music. It became the first full-length album to sell one million copies. He got the nickname "Calypso King." In 1957 he married Julie Robinson. They had two children together, Gina and David before they divorced. He was the first Black man to win an Emmy for Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte in 1959 and the first Black television producer. 

Harry Belafonte was always outspoken and found inspiration in W.E.B. du Bois and Paul Robeson. He met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and they became good friends. He joined the Civil Rights Movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participated in several rallies and protests. He helped organize the March on Washington. 

Harry supported new African artists in the 1960s. He met exiled South African artist Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, in London in 1958. They won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording for their 1965, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. He introduced her to international audiences and called attention to life under apartheid in South Africa. In the 1980s he came up with the idea of recording a song with other celebrities to raise funds for famine relief in Africa. The song is "We Are the World," which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. 

He has supported many different charities including being a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF. He has also been outspoken about politics and gotten into trouble with the press over some of the things he has said, but refused to apologize for them. 

In 2000 Harry won a Grammy Award for his lifetime achievement in music. In 2006 Harry was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It has been successfully treated and he has become an advocate for it. He currently lives with his third wife, Pamela Frank, in New York City. They got married in 2008.

 To teach your kids about Harry Belafonte I put together this group of resources.

I hope you will check out all the people we have featured. And leave me the names of Black people you would like to see featured in the future.