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Article

Miles M. Jackson

explorer and businessman, was born a slave in German Flats, New York. He was owned by the Dougal family and spent his youth in Schenectady. It is very likely his mother was a slave (New York did not abolish slavery until 1827); his father was a freeman and a mariner. Following the death of his master, he was purchased by another owner. After gaining his freedom in 1796, Allen arrived in Boston in 1800 and went to sea just as his father had done. Indeed, many African Americans living in Boston had ties to the maritime industry in some way. Like other black mariners, Allen faced the risk of reenslavement when he traveled to Southern ports. Once he was saved from imprisonment by one of the ship's owners, who paid $300 for his release.

Allen's years at sea between 1800 and 1810 provided him with unique experiences ...

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

Clayton Bates was born in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. He lost his leg in a cottonseed mill accident at age twelve but decided at age fifteen to tour the country with a homemade wooden leg. Bates worked as a minstrel in racially integrated vaudeville circuits. He danced in Harlem ...

Article

C. S'thembile West

choreographer, dancer, and teacher, was born in Cedar Grove, Louisiana, the son of a housepainter. His parents' names are unknown. In the small town of Cedar Grove, right outside Shreveport, Beatty's earliest dance influence was the legendary Katherine Dunham. According to the historian Joe Nash, a close friend and colleague of Beatty, Dunham invited him to “watch dances in progress” when he was eleven years old. Dunham was in rehearsal for Ruth Page'sLa Guillablesse, scheduled to open at the Chicago Civic Opera in 1933, and was trying to keep the young boy's playing from disrupting her work. Beatty danced onstage for the first time in the opera's 1934 season and emerged as a dancer of note after studying from 1937 to 1940 at Dunham's Studio de la Danse in Shreveport. He danced the role of a priest in Dunham'sYanvalou a ...

Article

Thomas F. DeFrantz

Afro‐Caribbean dancer and choreographer, was born Percival Sebastian Borde in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the son of George Paul Borde, a veterinarian, and Augustine Francis Lambie. Borde grew up in Trinidad, where he finished secondary schooling at Queens Royal College and took an appointment with the Trinidad Railway Company. Around 1942 he began formal research on Afro‐Caribbean dance and performed with the Little Carib Dance Theatre. In 1949 he married Joyce Guppy, with whom he had one child. The year of their divorce is unknown.

Borde took easily to dancing and the study of dance as a function of Caribbean culture. In the early 1950s he acted as director of the Little Carib Theatre in Trinidad. In 1953 he met the noted American anthropologist and dancer Pearl Primus who was conducting field research in Caribbean folklore Primus convinced Borde to immigrate to the United States as ...

Article

Constance Valis Hill

tap dancer, raconteur, and stage, vaudeville, and television performer, was born Charles Coles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George Coles and Isabel (maiden name unknown). He learned to tap-dance on the streets of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other in time-step “cutting” contests, and he made his New York debut at the Lafayette Theater in 1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired another dancer to replace him, Coles retreated to Philadelphia, determined to perfect his technique. He returned to New York City in 1934 confident and skilled in his ability to cram several steps into a bar of music Performing at the Harlem Opera House and at the Apollo Theater Coles was reputed to have the fastest feet in show business And at the Hoofer s Club where only ...

Article

Alexander J. Chenault

television show host and producer, was born the son of a postal worker and a homemaker on the predominantly black South Side of Chicago, Illinois. In 1954, after graduating from DuSable High School, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1956 he married his childhood sweetheart, Delores Harrison, with whom he had two sons, Anthony and Raymond. After a subsequent divorce, he married Viktoria Chapman in 2001. The couple divorced in 2009.

When he returned to Chicago after eighteen months of service in Korea, Cornelius held several different jobs, first working as car salesman, then selling tires and insurance before a stint with the police department. While issuing a traffic ticket, Cornelius was advised by the motorist he had stopped that with his resonant voice, he should get into broadcasting. The driver, Ed Cobb was a radio personality and he hired Cornelius as an ...

Article

Dance  

Katrina Hazzard-Donald

With its origins in the dances of traditional West African and central West African village communities, and having survived through two and a half centuries of human enslavement in mainland North America, by the 1890s African American dance had proliferated into numerous distinguishable forms, sacred and secular, social and theatrical. In the early twenty-first century the theatrical branch, which originated primarily as an entertainment form, was also an artistic genre. With some of its roots in the traveling tent shows, gillies, and early vaudeville, through its uneasy and distressful relationship with minstrelsy, African American dance as performance art refined both the plantation cakewalk and the tap dance, along with the cyclical social dances, into high-culture performance idioms.

Article

Carolyn L. Quin

Davis, Sammy, Jr. (08 December 1925–16 May 1990), variety performer and entertainer, was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American dancer, and Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus girl, both in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland, a vaudeville troupe. He lived with his paternal grandmother, Rosa B. Davis, whom he called “Mamma.” After his sister was born in 1927, his parents separated.

Davis went on the road at age three with his father, performing with a Will Mastin vaudeville show, known then as an all-colored revue. The group came on between the main acts and served as just another anonymous comedy group to liven up the audience. Davis affectionately referred to Mastin as his uncle. The first show Mastin developed that included Davis was Struttin’ Hannah from Savannah When he was seven he got the billing Silent Sam ...

Article

Sammy Davis Jr., was born in New York City, the son of vaudeville performers Elvera Sanchez Davis and Sammy Davis Sr. He began a life-long career of entertaining at the age of three, appearing in the vaudeville group in which his parents danced, Will Mastin's Holiday in Dixieland. Two years later, after his parents' divorce, he stayed with his father and officially joined the group. Davis made his movie debut with Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President (1933). Throughout the 1930s he toured with the Will Mastin Trio, becoming the central figure in the group, singing, dancing, and playing several instruments.

In 1943 Davis joined the United States Army and served for two years directing shows and touring military installations. After leaving the army he returned to the Will Mastin Trio, which became an established part of the club circuit, playing bills with American entertainers Jack ...

Article

Sholomo B. Levy

singer, dancer, and actor, was born in Harlem, New York, the first of two children of Sammy Davis Sr., an African American vaudeville entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus dancer. Sammy's paternal grandmother, “Mama Rosa,” raised him until he was three years old, when his father, who had separated from Elvera, took his son with him on the road. Within a few years, the child's role grew from that of a silent prop to that of a show-stealing singer and dancer, the youngest member of the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis Jr.

Fellow performers were the only family Sammy knew and the world of the theater was the only school he ever attended He was billed as Silent Sam the Dancing Midget to hide him from truant officers and child labor investigators After a period during which the group could not find work or shelter ...

Article

Kofi Natambu

actor and film director, was born William Garfield Greaves in Harlem, New York, one of seven children of Garfield Greaves, a cabdriver and part-time minister, and Emily Muir. A precocious student who was active in the arts and sports, Greaves won a scholarship at the age of fourteen to the prestigious Little Red Schoolhouse in New York's Greenwich Village. Later he attended the highly competitive and academically demanding Stuyvesant High School (a science- and math-oriented magnet school that only accepted New York's finest public school students), graduating in 1943. In 1944 Greaves enrolled as an engineering student at the City College of New York, but he soon left to pursue his love of dance. He became a skilled performer in several African and African American dance troupes, including the Pearl Primus Dance Troupe and the (West African) Sierra Leonean Asadata Dafora Dance Company.

Greaves also began studying acting ...

Article

Constance Valis Hill

jazz tap dancer, was born Charles Green in Fitzgerald, Georgia, to parents whose names and occupations are unknown. As a young boy he stuck bottle caps to the bottoms of his bare feet and danced on the sidewalk for coins. At the age of six he won third place in an amateur dance contest in which Noble Sissle was the bandleader and soon thereafter toured the South as a child tap dancer. At the age of nine he was spotted by a talent agent and taken to New York to study tap dance.

Nat Nazzaro, known as the “monster agent” by those who knew of his practice of signing vulnerable young performers to ironclad contracts, signed Green to his own contract when he was twelve years old. A few years later Green formed the team of Shorty and Slim with childhood friend James Walker a talented comic ...

Article

Rachel Shor

dancer, choreographer, and educator, was born in Statesville, North Carolina. The family moved to Washington, D.C., where Johnson, nimble in gymnastics and athletics, was noticed at the local YMCA. Recommended to the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, which he attended on scholarship, the teenager was selected by the school's founders, Doris Jones and Clara Haywood, to apply to the prestigious School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City. Along with classmate Chita Rivera, Johnson was accepted, again on scholarship, as one of the first African Americans and the first “black black” (Dunning, New York Times, 25 September 1975) to achieve this honor. He decided to first finish high school, where he was studying art, another talent that aided his professional career.

At SAB, Johnson was mentored by Jerome Robbins co director of the New York City Ballet had a solo in the ...

Article

Beth Kraig

model, singer, performance artist, and actress, was born in Spanishtown, Jamaica, the daughter of Marjorie and Robert Jones. Her mother was a clothing maker whose design skills influenced her daughter's eventual reputation as a fashion trendsetter. Her father was a minister whose charismatic preaching influenced his daughter's sense of drama. Jones, a twin, was one of seven children, and the large family shared an enthusiasm for music that shaped her childhood ambition of becoming a singer.

Like thousands of people of African descent from the Caribbean, the family relocated to the United States to seek more opportunities. They settled in Syracuse, New York, in the 1960s, with the parents preceding their children to the United States and then reuniting the family in 1964 in their new home. Jones continued her education in Syracuse and enrolled in Syracuse University in 1968 where she focused on ...

Article

Joe Street

songwriter and falsetto and tenor vocalist, was born Edward James Kendrick to Jonny and Lee Bell Kendrick in Union Springs, Alabama. Aged seven, Kendricks moved to Birmingham, and in 1955, with friends and singing partners Paul Williams (baritone) and Kell Osborne, formed a doo-wop group, the Cavaliers. In 1956, the group moved to Cleveland, Ohio. After moving to Detroit and changing their name to the Primes in 1957 or 1958, they lost Osborne but gained Otis Williams (baritone and tenor), Melvin Franklin (bass), and Elbridge Bryant. Through frequent performances at local dances and singing battles, the Primes soon developed a popular following on the Detroit circuit. A 1960 single, “Oh Mother, Oh Mine,” on the Motown affiliate Miracle, sank without a trace. Bryant departed soon after, to be replaced by David Ruffin tenor which also precipitated a name change with the Primes becoming ...

Article

Barbara Toomer Davis

tap and theatre dancer, teacher, and choreographer, was born in Harlem, New York, the second son of five children of Clarence and Marie, both of whom were from the Virgin Islands. Clarence and Marie LeTang owned a radio and phonograph repair shop in Harlem, where Clarence built and designed phonographs. Music and dancing were a family pastime, and so the LeTang children were all encouraged to play an instrument. As a young boy LeTang attended a dance recital that began his love of tap. He started dancing when he was seven years old and it became his life. LeTang started touring and at the age of fifteen and danced in the Sophie Tucker stage show.

LeTang went to the Lafayette Theatre almost every weekend to watch the stars of the time, including such great headliners as Stepin Fechit, Buck and Bubbles, Earl Snake Hips Tucker ...

Article

Scott Yanow

jazz and rhythm and blues pianist, was born Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. in Chicago, Illinois. His parents were Ramsey Lewis Sr. and Pauline Lewis. Lewis began playing piano when he was four years old. Some of his earliest playing experiences were accompanying the church choir during services; his father was the church's choir director. When he was fifteen years old Lewis worked regularly with the Clefs, a seven-piece jazz band that played at parties and college dances. He studied at Chicago Musical College (1947–1954), the University of Illinois (1953–1954), and DePaul University (1954–1955).

In 1956 he formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio and from the start the group was quite popular first in the Chicago area and then nationally Lewis always had a piano style that was distinctive and catchy melodic and soulful His trio with the bassist Eldee Young and the drummer ...

Article

Kevin Alan Whittington

movie, stage, and television actress, was born in Pompano Beach, Florida, the tenth of eighteen children of Jonathan Rolle and Elizabeth, vegetable farmers. She was the first of her siblings born in Florida after her parents moved there from the Bahamas. When Rolle was a young child, she and her family spent many hot and humid days working in the fields picking vegetables. Early on, her father instilled in her the importance of determination, perseverance in following one's dreams, and striving for a better life. Rolle's father told her that he did not want any of his children to become domestic workers. Ironically, Rolle became a famous actress primarily portraying maids and housekeepers.

Rolle s talent for acting developed during her childhood Her older siblings were actors and she often entertained her younger siblings by performing skits written by her older brothers and sisters She studied ...

Article

Pamela Lee Gray

tap dancer, was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but spent most of his youth in Los Angeles. The ten children in the Sims family made extra cash by “street tapping.” Street tappers danced on plywood or cardboard on street corners and took pride in creating unique tap combination steps; the more difficult the step, the better the audience reaction. The best dancers kept the choice corner stages where the tips were best, and Sims learned to protect his sidewalk dance stage by performing extremely complicated steps and challenging other tappers to repeat the step sequence.

Sims began boxing as a child and made money in the sport until the second time he broke his hand. After a tap dancing tour of South America, Sims left Los Angeles for New York in 1947 where his image became familiar to visitors at the Apollo Theater in Harlem His performances won ...