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Malinda Williams

poet, short story writer, mythologist, and folklorist, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to Cornelius A. Bennett, a baker, and Kerene Robinson Bennett, a seamstress. Bennett's father died when she was just seven years old, leaving her mother to support the family. Bennett received a typical colonial education at St. Simon's College (1933–1936) and Excelsior High School (1936–1938), which greatly influenced her later interest in elevating and legitimizing traditional Jamaican culture. Though in high school Bennett began writing poetry in English, she later switched to writing in West Indian English, which linguists would eventually come to recognize as a language rather than just a dialect.

Bennett also began performing versions of her poems to audiences in high school and her success caught the attention of Eric Coverley who would later become Bennett s husband Coverley a draftsman and impresario organized a popular Christmas concert ...


Joseph Boskin

actor and comedian, was born in New York City, the son of Alexander Cambridge, a bookkeeper, and Sarah (maiden name unknown), a stenographer. Godfrey's parents emigrated from British Guiana in the West Indies to Sydney, Nova Scotia, later settling in Harlem. Although his parents were trained professionals, neither could secure work in their fields. Consequently Godfrey's father became a day laborer, digging ditches, unloading coal cars, and unpacking trucks, and his mother worked in the garment district of New York City.

Critical of Harlem s schools Cambridge s parents sent him to Sydney for grammar school where he lived with his grandparents until he was thirteen years old he then returned to New York to enroll at Flushing High School in Queens He excelled academically and engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities He was dubbed the Unforgettable Godfrey Wonder Boy Cambridge in his high school yearbook which foreshadowed ...


Born in Harlem, New York, to Sarah and Alexander Cambridge, Godfrey Cambridge had an active career in theater, film, and stand-up comedy. He won an Obie Award for his role in the off-Broadway play The Blacks (1961 and he was nominated for a Tony Award for ...


Mary Krane Derr

singer, actor, and comedian, was born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, one of nine children. Nell's parents were Edna Mae Humphrey, a homemaker, and her second husband Horace Hardy, an Army sergeant. At age two, Nell witnessed his accidental electrocution death. Deeply affected by Dinah Washington, B. B. King, and Elvis Presley records, Nell began singing in her church choir, on a local radio show called the “Y-Teens,” and on the gospel circuit. She never grew taller than four feet eleven inches but had a large, commanding voice and presence. Her show business ambitions made her a “weirdo” in a social environment where “most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses” (CNN.com, Entertainment, 23 Jan. 2003). At age 13, the Presbyterian-raised Nell discovered that one of her grandfathers probably had Jewish ancestry. Although not converting until 1983 she started ...


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 ...


Eric Bennett

Born in a poor Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bill Cosby left home for a stint in the United States Navy that lasted from 1956 to 1960. He studied at Temple University in Philadelphia but dropped out to devote his time to stand-up comedy. After establishing his name on the nightclub circuit in 1963, Cosby auditioned successfully to fill a guest spot on American television entertainer Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. An instant success, Cosby became the first African American to host the program regularly. In 1965 he became the first black person to have a starring role on a predominantly white television drama, appearing alongside Robert Culp on the program I Spy. Because of Cosby's Emmy Award–winning success on I Spy, many fans paralleled his success with that of African American professional baseball player Jackie Robinson.

As a rising television celebrity Cosby ...


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 ...


Elton C. Fax

Born in Texas, Sherman H. Dudley, like many Southern blacks who resented being addressed by their first names by whites, used only his initials in an effort to ward off the insult. In the tradition of most black performers of his day he worked the medicine-show circuit. Talented singers and dancers often began their professional careers as performers hired by itinerant street salesmen of patent medicines. The performances were designed to attract prospective buyers to the hucksters' medicinal wares. Most such entertainers of the South were blacks, many of them mere boys.

While still in his twenties, Dudley joined the McCabe and Young Minstrels, working as a comic end man who called himself Hapsy. He followed that stint by teaming with singer and dancer Dude Kelly and performing as a substitute for Sam Lucas at Broadway s Star Theater So successful was the pair of substitutes that they ...


Kevin Byrne

vaudeville entertainer and theatrical entrepreneur, was born in Dallas, Texas. The names of his parents are unknown. Though in later interviews Dudley frequently changed the story of how he broke into show business, his earliest stage work was most likely in Texas and Louisiana as part of a medicine show. This job, in which he played music and told jokes to draw a crowd to the pitchman and his wares, was an appropriate beginning for a man who always sought to be the center of attention. Dudley eventually became an artist and businessman who, as demonstrated by both his actions and writings, was passionately concerned with cultivating the rights and strengthening the dignity of African American performers during an era when what it meant to be a black entertainer was greatly in flux.

Dudley s apprenticeship in the professional theatrical world took place during the last decade of the ...


Theresa Vara-Dannen

banjoist, actor, minstrel comedian, was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Sampson Easton and his wife, Louisa (maiden name unknown). Although there has been some confusion among scholars about his date of birth, the 1850 Federal Census indicates that a male child named “Hoser” (sic) was one year old, living with his Massachusetts-born father, a laborer and later “hackman” (a carriage driver for hire), and his Connecticut-born mother. His paternal grandfather, after whom he was named, was Hosea Easton, the minister of the Talcott Street Congregational Church in Hartford. The first Hosea Easton earned great respect for his groundbreaking work, A Treatise On the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them; With A Sermon on the Duty of the Church To Them (1837 The family was also descended directly from James ...


comedian, was born Jodie Edwards in Marietta, Georgia. Little is known about his early life, including his exact birth date, which has been listed as both 1898 and 1895. It is believed that Edwards began performing professionally in carnivals at age twelve with the Moss Brothers Carnival doing minstrel routines.

In 1915 Edwards met Susie Hawthorne, who later became his wife, while they were both working for the Smart Set variety show, which was run by Ma Rainey and performed out of a tent. In 1916 the pair left the show and set off on their own, originally as a dance act. Soon they added comic banter in between their dances. In 1917 they left Smart Set for good and went off on their own as a musical comedy team.

In May 1917 Edwards and Hawthorne were married on stage as a publicity stunt in either ...


Caryn E. Neumann

vaudeville comedian best known for his signature phrase “Open the Door, Richard!,” was born in El Dorado, Arkansas. (Some sources also give an 1897 date of birth in Des Moines, Iowa.) There is little information available about his early life.

By the mid-1920s, Fletcher emerged as a top comedic talent, albeit one known chiefly to African American audiences. A physical comedian, Fletcher had a good voice and excellent timing. His humor derived from the time-honored formula of making fun of a drunk. He appeared on stage in sketches and monologues, often opening with, “Yeah, it's me, and I’m drunk again!,” before launching into a tall tale. One of the most popular black comics, he also received some criticism from African Americans for portraying a ne’er-do-well. Fletcher made his first, and apparently only, appearance on Broadway as himself in Bomboola the story of a black girl from the South who ...


Debbie Clare Olson

singer, musician, actor, and comedian, was born Eric Morlon Bishop in Terrell, Texas, to Shaheed Abdullah, a stockbroker, and Louise Annette Dixon. His mother had difficulty caring for him after her marriage broke up and so allowed her adoptive parents, Mark and Esther Talley, to adopt young Jamie when he was just seven months old. When Foxx was three years old his grandmother insisted he begin piano lessons, thus sparking Foxx's lifelong passion for music. His grandparents were avid churchgoers and encouraged Foxx's involvement in the church. As a teen Foxx became the director of the church choir and music programs. At Terrell High School he formed his own rhythm and blues band and played quarterback on the football team, meriting attention from the Dallas press.

Foxx earned a music scholarship to the United States International University in San Diego later the Allian ...


Robert Fay

Redd Foxx was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Missouri. Called Redd because of his red hair and light complexion, he added the name Foxx after baseball player Jimmy Foxx. Redd Foxx dropped out of high school to play in a washtub band with friends. In 1939 they went to New York, calling themselves the Bon-Bons, but the band dissolved during World War II (1939–1945).

Rejected by the army, Foxx began to perform standup comedy in nightclubs. Teamed with Slappy White, he worked the African American nightclub circuit from 1951–1955. After the two broke up, Foxx moved to the West Coast to work. In 1956 he recorded the first of his fifty “party albums,” comedy records featuring adult humor. The albums eventually sold over twenty million copies.

Although he had never acted, Foxx accepted a small role as a junkman in the Ossie ...


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 ...


Eric Bennett

Whoopi Goldberg was born in New York City, where she exhibited early talent as a performer. She struggled with schoolwork and was later diagnosed as dyslexic. Dropping out of high school, Goldberg spent her teen years amid the fashions, credos, and drugs of the hippie movement.

In 1974 Goldberg moved to California and worked in a variety of jobs while she tried to launch her acting career. She helped found the San Diego Repertory Theater and began performing one-woman shows, including Moms, which showcased the life of black comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Goldberg's satiric wit, as well as her talent for playing numerous character types, attracted the attention of producer Mike Nichols, who helped her stage an eponymous show of skits on Broadway.

Goldberg's success in New York caught the attention of Hollywood, and in 1985Steven Spielberg cast her in his adaptation of Alice Walker ...


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 ...