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Rob Fink

The first image of an African American in film occurred in 1903 with the silent movie Uncle Tom's Cabin. The twelve-minute-long movie, though, starred a white actor in blackface as the title character. For African American actors and actresses, the opportunity to appear in films, and subsequently in television and serious theater productions, took a while to develop. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the white actors who portrayed black characters, such as those who performed in D. W. Griffith'sThe Birth of a Nation in 1915, established several derogatory characters. Over the next century, black actors and actresses found themselves working against these stereotypes.

The practice of excluding African Americans from performing began during the post Civil War period and extended to all forms of acting In Wild West shows and circuses black actors and actresses were almost nonexistent The African Americans who appeared usually ...

Article

Kathleen Thompson

Ambitious, talented Debbie Allen has broken ground for black women in a variety of roles, primarily behind the scenes of the entertainment industry—directing, producing, writing, and choreographing television shows, films, and musical theater.

Debbie Allen was born into a remarkable family in Houston, Texas. Her father, Andrew Allen, was a dentist, and her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, is a poet who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her sister, Phylicia Rashad, is a well-known actor, and one of her brothers is Andrew “Tex” Allen, a jazz musician.

Allen decided early that she wanted to be a dancer She began her training when she was three and by the time she was eight she had decided to go into musical theater When she tried to enroll in the school of the Houston Foundation for Ballet she was rejected for reasons her mother considered discriminatory As a ...

Article

Alonford James Robinson

The Sam ‘n’ Henry radio show, as it was first called, was created in 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, by two white entertainers, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The show portrayed its two African American characters in full racial stereotype, complete with broken English. In 1928 the characters were renamed Amos ‘n’ Andy and were crafted to reflect white stereotypes of African American life and culture in Harlem, New York, in the years immediately following the Great Migration, the mass movement of blacks from the South to the North in the early twentieth century. While Amos was portrayed as weak and submissive, Andy was lazy and pretentious. Together, they were bumbling fools. When the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) acquired the radio program in 1929, they became a national comic sensation.

Due to its great popularity the show was played on the radio in many of the country ...

Article

Frank E. Dobson

Amos ’n’ Andy, both the radio show and the television show that followed, is a name that conjures up racial stereotypes. Amos ’n’ Andy was one of the twentieth century's most popular and controversial comedy shows depicting black characters.

The show was the creation of two enterprising white actors and musicians, Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll. In 1925 Gosden and Correll debuted as musicians on WGN radio in Chicago. After discussions with station management regarding a new radio show, the pair suggested a blackface minstrel show in which they would play black characters. The original names of the characters were Sam and Henry; Sam ’n’ Henry debuted on 12 January 1926. The show used stereotypical representations of black speech and black urban life.

Sam ’n’ Henry ran on WGN for two years and was quite successful Some critics such as Mel Watkins suggest that the ...

Article

Timothy J. O'Brien

rock-and-roll pioneer. Chuck Berry is truly the father of rock and roll. His vibrant songwriting, innovative guitar playing, and live performances inspired legions of followers, and he was the single most important figure in defining a new genre that mixed country and rhythm and blues.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born to Henry William Berry Sr., a carpenter, and Martha Bell Banks, a housewife, in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1926. The family belonged to a Baptist church, and Berry's earliest memories were of his parents singing gospel songs around the house. His first try at show business, singing “Confessin’ the Blues” to a friend's guitar accompaniment at a high school talent show, inspired him to play guitar.

While still in high school in Saint Louis he left for a trip to California with two friends When their money ran low they robbed a few small businesses and ...

Article

Charmaine A. Flemming

In 2002 the highest honor for a film actor, the Oscar, was awarded for the first time to an African American female, Halle Berry, for her work in Monster’s Ball. Berry is considered one of America’s most beautiful women, a first-rate performer, and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading ladies.

Born to Jerome and Judith Berry in Cleveland, Ohio, Halle Berry was the second daughter of this interracial couple. Halle and her older sister, Heidi, lived their early childhood years in an inner-city neighborhood. When Berry was four, her abusive father left the family, leaving his daughters to be raised almost totally by their mother, a psychiatric nurse. Some time later, Judith Berry moved Halle and her sister to the predominantly white Cleveland suburb of Bedford.

When discussing the family s move to Bedford Berry said it was there that her growth as an interracial child and teenager was ...

Article

Stephanie Y. Evans

actor. Halle Berry was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Jerome Berry, an African American hospital attendant, and Judith Hawkins Berry, a white psychiatric nurse. Leaving an abusive relationship, Judith Berry moved Halle and her older sister Heidi to the Cleveland suburb of Bedford where, despite many racist attitudes, Halle flourished in high school.

In 1985 Berry won the Miss Teen All American pageant, in 1986 she was first runner-up in the Miss USA pageant, and also in 1986 she represented the United States in the Miss World competition in London. After her pageants she enrolled in Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College to study broadcast journalism. She moved to Chicago and then to Manhattan, where she managed to get small roles in several television programs.

Berry first gained widespread recognition as Vivian, a crack addict, in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991), and she won roles in The ...

Article

Qrescent Mali Mason

Robert L. Johnson is the black entrepreneur responsible for Black Entertainment Television (BET). Johnson was born in Hickory, Mississippi, on 8 April 1946, the ninth of ten children. He went on to receive his bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 1968. It was at UIUC that Johnson became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and met Sheila Crump, who later became his wife. Johnson completed graduate studies at Princeton University, earning his master's degree in public administration in 1972.

In 1976 Johnson joined the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). At this time, Johnson more closely considered an idea he had to start a channel that focused its programming on African Americans. At an NCTA convention, he met Bob Rosencrans the chief of UA Columbia Cablevision Johnson inquired about using a two hour block of programming time on Friday nights ...

Article

The broadcast industry in the United States was born in the early 1920s as a result of the mass production of radios. It expanded significantly in the 1950s with the addition of television and has since become a constant presence in American life. From the birth of broadcasting, African Americans have played a vital part in the industry as performers, executives, and consumers.

In the 1920s recorded music found its first widespread audience through airplay on the earliest radio stations. Although jazz music, which was pioneered and usually performed by blacks, was popular at the time, angry whites quickly denounced what they considered to be the decadence and lewdness inherent in the music. As a result, black jazz musicians found themselves receiving less airplay than their white counterparts did—even though these counterparts often performed the same material. Still, African American musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, and Duke ...

Article

Meredith Broussard

actor and director, was born Levardis Robert Martyn Burton Jr. in Landstuhl, Germany, to Levardis Robert Burton Sr., a career army photographer, and Erma Christian. The couple separated when their son was three. Erma returned to the United States with her son and his two elder sisters and settled in Sacramento, California. The family were devout Roman Catholics, and Burton decided at thirteen to enter a Catholic seminary to become a priest. While there, he changed his mind and decided to become an actor instead.

Burton's big break came while he was a drama student at the University of Southern California's School of Theatre. While playing Ali Hakeem, the Persian rug dealer in the musical Oklahoma!, he tried out for the miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley s landmark book tracing the generations of his family through America and back to Africa Burton landed the part ...

Article

Hilary Mac Austin

Diahann Carroll was only six when she joined the Tiny Tots choir at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Her life appears to have been a nonstop rollercoaster ride ever since. As she said in Diahann: An Autobiography, “All I ever wanted to do was sing. What happened was more.”

Carroll grew up in Harlem, New York, although she was born in the Bronx as Carol Diann Johnson. Her parents were John and Mabel Faulk Johnson. She has one sister, Lydia, thirteen years younger. Her father was a subway conductor, and her mother, who trained as a nurse, stayed at home to raise her daughters. The household, while not wealthy, was solidly middle class.

At the age of ten, Carroll won a music scholarship through an organization affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera. At fourteen, she got her first modeling job with Ebony magazine and by the age of ...

Article

Courtney Q. Shah

singer and actress. Carol Diahann Johnson was born in the Bronx, New York. As a teenager she performed as a nightclub singer and a model while attending the famous New York High School of Music and Art. She made her film debut in 1954 in Carmen Jones, working with Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Paired again with Dandridge, Carroll had a role in Porgy and Bess (1959). Film and television appearances continued, including an Emmy nomination in 1963 for her work in the crime drama Naked City.

In 1968 Carroll made television history by becoming the first black actress to star in her own series. NBC's Julia received both popular praise and critical acclaim, and Carroll received an Emmy nomination in its first year. Generations of African American performers remember Carroll's Julia as a turning point providing inspiration that roles for black actors ...

Article

Mark D. Cunningham

comedian, producer, and actor, was born David Khari Webber Chappelle in Washington, D.C., the youngest of three children. His parents, William David Chappelle and Yvonne Seon, were both educators. His father was a professor of the arts at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and his mother, who earned an MA in Divinity Studies and a PhD in African American Studies, founded the world's first African American Studies Program at Ohio's Central State University in 1974. She also worked closely with Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during the early days of civil unrest in the African country. Chappelle's parents separated when he was two years old. He divided his time between living with his mother in Washington, D.C., and spending summers with his father in Yellow Springs.

Despite his parents professions Chappelle was not an enthusiastic student ...

Article

Chuck D  

Alice Knox Eaton

rapper, educator, and music entrepreneur, was born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour in Queens, New York, to Lorenzo and Judy Ridenhour, both political activists. Lorenzo worked as a warehouse manager before starting his own trucking company at age forty. Ridenhour's home was full of the sounds of jazz and R&B, and he grew up with an acute awareness of the political events of the 1960s as they unfolded: the murder of Medgar Evers, the 1963 March on Washington, and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Black Panther leaders, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The family, including his sister Lisa and brother Erik, moved from predominantly black Queensbridge to another largely black community in Roosevelt, Long Island, when Ridenhour was eleven. He spent the summers of 1970 and 1971 attending programs at Adelphi and Hofstra universities on the African American experience further shaping his early sense of the ...

Article

Charles L. Lumpkins

Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans promoted in newspapers, in newsmagazines, and on radio and television their quest for civil rights, including eliminating segregation, discrimination, and racial barriers to social, political, and economic advancement. Through such media black people counteracted racist ideologies and dehumanizing characterizations that supported the view that African Americans did not deserve full rights of citizenship. Whenever feasible, black men and women founded their own media to voice the civil rights message that white media regularly ignored, trivialized, blocked, denounced, or sought to channel within limits acceptable to majority-white audiences. But neither the black nor the white media was monolithic; each had factions that advanced their own definition, scope, and extent of civil rights.

Article

Steven J. Niven and Kirsten Condry

puppeteer, children's entertainer, and voice of Elmo on public television's Sesame Street, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the third of four children of George Clash, a flash welder operator, and Gladys Clash, a daycare provider. Clash grew up in Turner Station, Maryland, a mainly black, working-class, semirural community on Chesapeake Bay, ten miles from downtown Baltimore.

His interest in puppetry and in entertaining children began at an early age. He learned to understand children from living with his mother, who provided daycare in her own home. Clash observed children at close quarters and eventually learned how to entertain them. As a six-year-old, he became fascinated with children's puppet shows on television, sitting close to the screen trying to figure out how to make the puppets he saw on Kukla, Fran & Ollie, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, and, after 1970, Sesame Street ...

Article

Mark Steven Maulucci

musician, actor, and raconteur, known to millions as the “Big Man,” was born and raised in Norfolk County (now Chesapeake), Virginia, to a very religious family. His grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher and his father, Clarence Anicholas Clemons Sr., owned a fish market. Clarence Jr. received an alto saxophone for Christmas when he was nine years old. He grew up hearing a lot of gospel music but was enthralled with early rock and roll where saxophone rather than guitar was usually the solo instrument. Clarence switched to tenor saxophone after being deeply influenced by the legendary King Curtis, whose most famous solo was perhaps on “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters in 1958. Clemons also enjoyed the soul music of the 1960s and cited Junior Walker as another significant influence, as well as Gato Barbieri.

Clemons was a gifted athlete and played football in high ...

Article

Todd Steven Burroughs

In the late nineteenth century, black comedy was about to burst out of the shadows of minstrelsy that it had been forced into by whites. Born in Africa via folktales and verbal contests and raised in America, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American humor was created by several tensions: the relationship between the master and the slave, the folktales stressing trickery and mental skill, the stories that showed the superiority of the slave over the master, and the parodies of slave life. The creation of the minstrel shows had resulted in a struggle between whites attempting to control black humor and black minstrels attempting to subvert the degrading black stereotype, performing instead a pantomime that mocked the white audience by playing exaggeratedly to its expectations while at the same time injecting a strain of human dignity into the parts they played.

Bert Williams, who appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies ...

Article

Jason King

actor and comedian, was born William Henry Cosby Jr. in Germantown, Philadelphia, the son of William Henry Cosby Sr., a U.S. Navy mess steward, and Anna Pearl Cosby. Many of the vicissitudes of Cosby's childhood in the poverty-stricken Richard Allen housing projects would be transformed later into fodder for his hilarious comedy routines and television shows. As a youngster, Cosby worked many hours shining shoes and performing menial tasks at a local grocery. He attended the Germantown High School for Gifted Students, where he was elected captain of the track and football teams.

At age nineteen, Cosby dropped out of school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, in which he served for four years (1956–1960). During his stint in the navy, he managed to earn his high school equivalency diploma through correspondence and studied physical therapy. In 1960 with four years of military service under his ...

Article

Donald Roe

comedian, actor, philanthropist. When Bill Cosby, the wealthy, well-educated, mild-mannered comedian, goes on stage and begins a monologue of funny stories relating to his poverty-stricken background, the stories are most likely true. William Henry Cosby Jr. was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to William Henry Cosby Sr. and Anna Cosby in 1937. Known by its inhabitants as the “Jungle,” the Richard Allen housing projects, where Cosby grew up, were depressing, stylized, beige-colored, concrete housing, seemingly designed to prevent poor people from “contaminating” the rest of society.

When an IQ test confirmed that Cosby was highly intelligent his mother enrolled him in Central High School a school for gifted children However Cosby found it difficult to adjust there and transferred to Germantown High School There athletics provided a positive outlet for Cosby but his academic performance declined When school officials required him to repeat the tenth grade he ...