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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 ...

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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 ...

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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 ...

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Hilary Mac Austin

Suzanne de Passe learned from her mentor, Berry Gordy, that “a business based on principles is more important than a business based on revenue.” She has held true to that motto. Amazingly, in the cutthroat, white-male-dominated world of Hollywood, she has not only survived but succeeded magnificently.

One of the first and still one of the only African American women powerbrokers in the television and film businesses, Suzanne Celeste de Passe grew up middle-class in Harlem. Her parents, both West Indian, were divorced when she was three. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father worked for Seagrams. He remarried six years after the divorce and is credited with providing de Passe with a strong role model. De Passe attended an elite, integrated private school in Manhattan, the New Lincoln School. While still young, she began modeling clothes designed by DeVera Edwards.

De Passe entered Syracuse University as ...

Article

Tiffani Murray

actor, was born Charles Stanley Dutton in Baltimore, Maryland. When he was a teenager Dutton quit school and joined his peers on the street corners of Baltimore. He earned the nickname “Roc,” a shortening of “Rockhead.” What started as simple fights between teens throwing rocks at each other turned lethal when Dutton was only seventeen. It was then that he was stabbed eight times. In retaliation he took his attacker's life.

Dutton was sent to prison in 1967 where he gained a passion for reading due in part to the time he spent in solitary confinement for insubordination He was released on parole after two years but returned to jail on a weapons possession charge His sentence was lengthened when he attacked a prison guard The turning point during his internment occurred when a fellow inmate stabbed him severely damaging one of his lungs Refusing to retaliate Dutton ...

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James Gavin

jazz musician, composer, and record, television, and film producer, was born Quincy Delight Jones Jr. on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, the son of Sarah (maiden name unknown) and Quincy Jones Sr., a carpenter who worked for a black gangster ring that ran the Chicago ghetto. When Quincy Sr.'s mentally ill wife was institutionalized, he sent their sons, Quincy Jr. and Lloyd, to live in the South with their grandmother. In his autobiography Jones writes of growing up so poor that his grandmother served them fried rats to eat. By the age of ten he was living with Lloyd and their father in Seattle, Washington. “My stepbrother, my brother, and myself, and my cousin … we burned down stores, we stole, whatever you had to do,” Jones said (CNN Online, “Q and A: A Talk with Quincy Jones,” 11 Dec ...

Article

Stephanie Y. Evans

businesswoman, actress, and talk-show host. In 1994, for her fortieth birthday, Oprah Winfrey ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and finished in four hours, twenty-nine minutes, and fifteen seconds. Her ability constantly to challenge herself, as exemplified by the Marine Corps Marathon, has resulted in Winfrey's becoming an international icon for motivation, a universal symbol of business savvy and philanthropy, and an unsurpassed representation of popular American culture.

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born to unwed parents in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was an eighteen-year-old domestic worker, and her father, Vernon Winfrey was a twenty year old doing duty in the armed forces Oprah initially was reared by her grandmother on a farm in Mississippi where she reportedly learned to read aloud and perform recitations in church at the age of three From age six to age thirteen she lived in Milwaukee ...

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Lisa E. Rivo and Julie Wolf

talk show host, actor, and entrepreneur, was born Oprah Gail Winfrey in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to eighteen-year- old Vernita Lee, and Vernon Winfrey, a twenty-year-old soldier. Vernita intended to call the baby “Orpah,” after the biblical figure, but accepted “Oprah” when the name was misspelled by a clerk. Shortly after her daughter's birth, Vernita left Mississippi for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leaving her newborn under the watchful eye of Oprah's paternal grandparents, Hattie Mae Bullock and Earless Lee, who were pig farmers. In 1960 Oprah went to Milwaukee to join her mother, who was working as a maid and who had given birth to a second daughter, Patricia. Another child, Jeffrey followed a few years later and Vernita struggled to support herself and her three young children Bright and precocious Oprah skipped several grades in elementary school but despite her siblings and her early academic ...

Article

Kathleen Thompson

It should surprise no one with a sense of history that, as soon as race and gender obstacles began to fall in society, an African American woman rose to a position of dizzying success and influence. All the characteristics and values that helped black women survive against the worst forms of oppression helped one black woman, Oprah Winfrey, to soar.

Oprah Winfrey was born to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey in Kosciusko, Mississippi When her parents who were not married separated she went to live with her maternal grandmother on a farm Although life was austere the young girl thrived She learned to read before she was three and was in the third grade by the age of six At that point she went to live with her mother in Milwaukee Vernita Lee managed a subsistence level existence with income from welfare and domestic work and she had little ...