29 Black Music Milestones: Lena Horne Hits Silver Screen, Breaks Racial Barriers

Lena Horne

Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917, and by age 16, had already launched her singing career when she joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club in the Harlem sector of the city. Over the years, Horne moved up from the chorus line to landing a featured role in the Cotton Club parade to touring with Noble Sissle's orchestra and Charlie Barnet in 1940 and then becoming the featured vocalist on NBC's jazz series "The Chamber Music Society" in the early 1940s.

It was around the same time that Horne began to fight against racism. She was scheduled to perform at an Army base in Fort Reilly, Kansas, but refused to when she realized the audience was segregated, with Blacks sitting behind the German soldiers. Immediately after, she went to the NAACP office to file a complaint. Horne would go on to become one of the most well-known celebrities affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement.

It was also at this time that Horne caught the eye of a talent scout in Hollywood who got her a deal with Metro Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), becoming the first Black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. She'd go on to star in films like "Panama Hattie" and "Cabin in the Sky," among others. Although she took a break from acting in the 1950s due to racism she faced in Hollywood, she returned in the late 1960s and appeared in films like "The Wiz" and the one-woman Broadway show "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," which won her a special Tony award.

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