In honor of the passing of entertainer and activist Lena Horne, theGrio and Rehema Ellis of the NBC Nightly News remember the great lady’s work and history.
“Stormy Weather” was her signature song, and she certainly kicked up a storm, as both a performer and as a civil rights activist.
Born in Brooklyn, NY in June 1917, Lena Mary Calhoun Horne took the stage at age 16 at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. Nine years later, she signed with MGM studios and became one of the first African-American women to be showcased in Hollywood for her talent and stunning beauty.
With her stunning voice and compelling presence, Lena brought something special to every role, no matter how small. She was part of the movement to break Hollywood stereotypes and cast black actresses in roles beyond maids and domestics. But her success was incomplete.
“She would sing a song [in a film], then she would disappear,” says film historian Donald Bogle. “The studio could cut those scenes out if they felt that audiences in the South might object.”
Lena Horne was a beloved heroine in the black community for her tireless efforts supporting racial equality and fair treatment, in spite of possible career repercussions.
While touring with the USO during World War II, Lena stood up for black soldiers who were forced to sit behind German prisoners during one of her performances.
Back at home, she sued restaurants and theatres for racial discrimination. Even when she was scheduled to perform, nightclubs would have her enter through the “Coloreds only” back door.
She was an associate of singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson, and in 1963, she joined in the historic March on Washington.
By 1981, Lena Horne enjoyed a resurgence of her career with a hit show on Broadway, although she was in her 60s. “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” earned her a special Tony Award and two Grammys. Even following a Lifetime Achievement Award for singing in 1989, her soulful vocal performances gained her recognition with another Grammy in 1995, for the jazz album, “An Evening with Lena Horne”.
Her popularity transcended age, with memorable guest appearances on Sesame Street and The Cosby Show, and a turn as Glinda, the Good Witch in the movie-musical, The Wiz.
Although she often stood alone in the spotlight, Lena Horne shared her stage – and her success – with generations.
WATCH NBC NIGHTLY NEWS REMEMBER LENA HORNE WITH REHEMA ELLIS