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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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


Alexander Battles

comedian, was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Fred Sanford, an electrician, and Mary Carson, a radio preacher and domestic worker. He spent his early childhood in St. Louis. After his father deserted the home in 1926, he and his mother moved to Chicago, where she worked for the vice president of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. While attending DuSable High School, he and two friends formed a washtub band, the Bon Bons. In 1939 the trio hopped a freight train to New York, where they met with sporadic success. Although they performed mostly on street corners and in subway stations, they occasionally appeared at the Apollo Theater and on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.

Friends nicknamed Sanford “Chicago Red” because of his red hair. He then added the surname Foxx in admiration of the baseball star Jimmie Foxx ...


Mia L. Mask

actress and comedian, was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in New York City, the second of two children of Emma Harris, a sometime teacher and nurse, and Robert Johnson, who left the family when Goldberg was a toddler. Goldberg attended St. Columbia School, a parochial school located several blocks from the family's working-class neighborhood. New York provided a stimulating, multicultural environment that encouraged Goldberg to reject the strictures of her Catholic education. By age eight, with the support of her mother, she began acting at the Hudson Guild in the Helena Rubinstein Children's Theater, and she also showed a precocious interest in ballet and music.

Goldberg appeared in as many Hudson Guild productions as possible but was less focused on her schoolwork Her academic difficulties were exacerbated by dyslexia though this was not diagnosed until later and she dropped out of Washington Irving High School at age fourteen ...


Kathleen Thompson

Whoopi Goldberg claimed a unique position in American entertainment, in large part because of her remarkable talent, but in some part because of the way she exploited the ambiguous position black women occupy in the American mind.

Whoopi Goldberg was born Caryn E. Johnson to Robert James Johnson, a clergyman, and Emma Johnson. Her parents separated when she was young. She had one brother, Clyde K. Johnson They grew up together in a New York City housing project Goldberg received a Catholic education at St Columbia Church Parish School and started acting when she was eight years old at the Helena Rubinstein Children s Theatre at the Hudson Guild Theater She spent her childhood and adolescence watching old movies and television comedy and then after dropping out of Washington Irving High School in the 1960s she became an active part of the counterculture While participating in civil ...


Daniel Donaghy

actress, comedian, and talk show host, was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in New York City, the daughter of Emma (née Harris), a teacher and nurse, and Robert James Johnson, a clergyman. Goldberg's father left the family when his daughter was very young, and Goldberg's experiences growing up with a single mother helped shape the way she carried herself as a woman and as a performer. Also influential to her theatrical career was her time as a child as part of the Helena Rubenstein Children's Theater. Goldberg did not perform well in school, partly because she suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia, and she dropped out of high school after only a few weeks. During the next couple of years, Goldberg battled drug addiction and struggled to keep low-paying jobs as a bricklayer, mortuary makeup artist, and bank teller. She ended up marrying her drug counselor, Alvin Martin shortly ...


Shelia Patrice Moses

comedian, civil right activist, nutritionist, and actor, was born Richard Claxton Gregory in St. Louis, Missouri. He grew up on North Taylor Street with his mother, Lucille, and his five siblings. His father, Presley Sr., abandoned the family when Gregory was very young. On North Taylor Street, Gregory told jokes to the neighborhood children, jokes that would later lead to his fame as a comedian. For most of his childhood, however, he faced poverty and racism. His first brush with segregation came at an early age when he raised his hand and volunteered to give five dollars to needy children after the teacher asked his class if their parents would be able to make donations for Christmas. His teacher told him to “put your hand down, Richard this money is for your kind The entire class laughed at him as he ran out ...


Karl Rodabaugh

Americancomedian and satirist, human and civil rights activist, author, and nutritionist. Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory has been recognized as the first African American comedian to break through to white audiences on a national level. Appearing at the Playboy Club and other trendy Chicago nightclubs, Gregory gained fame as a stand-up comic whose humor offered a lighter side to the emerging civil rights movement. From the perspective of comedic history, Gregory is listed alongside other “satirical renaissance” comics of the 1950s and 1960s—Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and Shelley Berman. By the early 1960s Dick Gregory and other satirical comics had been brought to the fore by the supportive hosts of the Tonight Show: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson.

Gregory was popular among urbane whites sympathetic to the early civil rights movement They readily ...


Robert W. Logan

A young girl in a small town facing an uncertain future, Jackie “Moms” Mabley ran off with a minstrel show when she was thirteen and never looked back. Her six-decade career encompassed black vaudeville, the chitlin circuit, the Harlem Renaissance, off-Broadway revues, Broadway musicals, records, television, nightclubs and movies. She was a path-breaking comedienne and social satirist who nurtured the careers of younger performers and anticipated the day when no subject matter would be considered out of bounds for standup comedy.

Born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1897 in Brevard, North Carolina, Mabley was one of twelve children of Jim Aiken a businessman and grocer and a mother whose name is not known Her ancestry was mixed African American Cherokee and Irish She was especially close to her grandmother some sources say her great grandmother a former slave who lived to be 104 years old She credited her grandmother ...


Damon L. Fordham

comedian and actor, was born in Durham, North Carolina, to unknown parents. As a comedian, his career spanned the eras of minstrel shows, vaudeville, radio, motion pictures, and television.

As a young man Markham began performing in tent shows and minstrel shows. By 1917 he was gaining attention as a comedian on the Chitlin' Circuit, the nickname for the network of theaters and nightclubs in African American neighborhoods, with such performers as Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. The origin of his famous nickname is uncertain, although the phrase “Pigmeat” was commonly used as a sexual metaphor in blues songs of the early 1900s. It is known that he was performing under the name Pigmeat by the 1920s.

According to the music historian Bill Dahl, Markham originated his most famous character, Judge Pigmeat during the late 1920s while performing at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem This ...


Lloren A. Foster

comedian, actor, writer, and director. Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III in Peoria, Illinois, to Gertrude Thomas and LeRoy Pryor Jr. (a boxer called “Buck Carter”), Pryor, who was raised by his paternal grandmother, Marie Carter Pryor Bryant, forever changed comedy.

Pryor's irreverence upset the comedy vanguard, and his “in your face” style pushed the limits of comedy by poking fun at blacks, whites, relationships, racism, religion, and most notably himself. From drugs to sex, and setting himself on fire accidentally, no topic was taboo once Pryor found his comedic voice. His award-winning stand-up albums, Richard Pryor, Is It Something I Said?, Bicentennial Nigger, That Nigger's Crazy, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, and Richard Pryor Here and Now revolutionized the stand up comedy genre taking it out of the clubs ...


David F. Smydra

comedian and actor, was born Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor in Peoria, Illinois, the son of LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor Jr. and Gertrude Thomas. Carter managed the family bar, the Famous Door, while Thomas and her mother-in-law—whom Pryor called Mama—managed a handful of mixed-clientele brothels in Peoria's black neighborhood. Between spying on the couples (which occasionally included his mother) and frequenting the Famous Door, Pryor lived a childhood of inconsistency and emotional turbulence; he did, however, credit Mama and his parents for the relative affluence that accompanied their professions. Prompted by Thomas's severe alcoholism and subsequent disappearances, sometimes for as long as six months, Carter divorced her in1950. Thomas moved to her family farm in Springfield, Missouri, and Pryor would later identify his visits there as the most peaceful moments of his life.

When Pryor was six years old a local teenager sexually molested him at ...


Ulrich Adelt

singer, disc jockey, comedian, and dancer, was born in Cayce, Mississippi, to Rufus Thomas Sr., a sharecropper, and his wife Rachel. At age two Thomas came to Memphis with his parents and four older siblings. He proved his talents as a performer early on, appearing as a frog in a school play at age six and as a tap dancer in theater productions at Booker T. Washington High School. In tenth grade, he performed in blackface at his first minstrel show, the Brown Brevities. After one semester at Tennessee A&I University, Thomas decided to become a professional entertainer. He participated in a number of traveling entertainment troupes in the 1930s, including the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the Georgia Dixon Traveling Show, and the Royal American Tent Shows.

In November 1940 Thomas married his high-school sweetheart, Cornelius Lorene Wilson Their three children would become ...


Pamela Lee Gray

actor, comedian, movie director, producer, and writer, was born into a family living on the west side of Chicago. His mother raised the family alone. Growing up as the second of four children, Townsend had his sights set on a professional baseball career, but he was also interested in acting from an early age. He was selected to join the Experimental Black Actors Guild at the age of sixteen. He attended Illinois University and Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. While going to school in New Jersey, he took acting lessons in New York City from the noted teacher Stella Adler and acted in the Negro Ensemble Theater. Townsend's stage debut was in a 1979 New York production of Take It from the Top, starring Ruby Dee and directed by Ossie Davis. He also studied acting with Milton Katselas ...


David Marc

comedian, actor, and writer, was born Clerow Wilson Jr. in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of Clerow Wilson and Cornelia Wilson, whose maiden name was also Wilson. His father, a handyman, was unable to support the large family of twelve children, and the boy was given up to foster care at an early age. Although his schooling was sporadic, he managed to appear in a number of school plays, including one in which he played the part of Clara Barton. Drag comedy would later become central to his success. He gained the nickname “Flip” as a teenager because of his inclination to break into sudden impromptu comic performances. Friends said he appeared to be “flippin' out.” At age sixteen he left school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving from 1950 to 1954 It was there that he began to find his ...