Sherman Hemsley dead: How George Jefferson helped black America ‘move on up’
Long before hip-hop bravado became a given in American pop culture, George Jefferson, played by the late Sherman Hemsley, was already making way for it. As television’s first “self-made” black man, George Jefferson was living the black American dream. While James and Florida Evans were “scratchin’ and surviving” on Good Times, George and his wife Weezy were thriving, “movin’ on up, to the east side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky.”
George was the ambitious, poor kid from Harlem who didn’t roll with the punches. Instead, he gave them out. Cashing in on the bloody receipts collected during the hard fought civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s, George realized that he could parlay his street smarts into a legitimate hustle way before Jay-Z became the hustler’s ambassador and Stringer Bell from The Wire got hip to the game, albeit too late.
Like Florence, George and Weezy’s black maid, many Americans were clueless to their reality. “How come we overcame, and nobody told me?” she quipped in one of the show’s early episodes. America may have met George Jefferson as Archie Bunker’s black, bigoted counterpart who could dole out “honky” as easily as others chanted the n-word, but he proved more than that.
Settling into a middle class existence in Queens wasn’t his American dream. No, he wanted to be rich and he didn’t have to tap dance or sing to do it. He was a black entrepreneur capitalizing on the unprecedented opportunities afforded to him. Even when his wife, his rock, doubted where his ambition would lead them, he never wavered. George Jefferson proved that he didn’t have to change himself to get money. He was as much a peacock on Manhattan’s posh east side as he had been as a scrappy kid in Harlem. In the end, the almighty dollar spoke loudly and he rather preferred it to shout. According to George Jefferson, the only thing better than being rich, was being richer.
To be clear, the actor Sherman Hemsley who etched George Jefferson firmly in television history, was an actor. In Hemsley’s obituary in the New York Times, Mel Watkins, author of On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, offers a 1996 quote as evidence. “I’m nothing like him,” Hemsley made clear. “I don’t slam doors in people’s faces and I’m not a bigot. I’m just an old hippie. You know — peace and love.”
Born on February 1, 1938 and raised by a single mother, Hemsley grew up in rough and tough Philadelphia. Like many who inherit less than ideal circumstances, he flirted with gangs and other lures of street life before dropping out of Edward W. Bok Technical High School as a sophomore and joining the Air Force. Returning to Philadelphia, he became a postman and began pursuing his childhood dream of becoming an actor, that was sparked by a school play on fire prevention.
It wasn’t an easy dream to pursue reports the Washington Post. In a quote from a 1986 interview with the Toronto Star, Hemsley said of his childhood dream: “I loved it, but had to forget about acting after elementary school because it was the sort of thing you just didn’t do in my rough neighborhood.”