Lena Horne: A Musician and Civil Rights Activist

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Lena Horne was an American singer, actress, and civil rights activist. She rose to fame in the 1940s and became one of the first African-American performers to achieve success in both the entertainment industry and the broader society. Horne’s talent and beauty made her a popular figure, but she also faced racial discrimination and struggled to find roles that reflected her true abilities. Throughout her career, she used her platform to advocate for civil rights and challenge racial stereotypes. Lena Horne’s legacy as a groundbreaking artist and activist continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations.


Do you have a passion? A passion is something you truly enjoy doing, like singing, writing, art, sports, or any other activity you love. Many people have a passion for what they do. However, not everyone can use their passion to make a difference in the lives of others. Today’s Wonder is about one such person! Lena Horne, a highly talented musician, utilized her music to fight for civil rights. But who exactly was Lena Horne?

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, Lena Horne had an actress mother and a banker father. Her parents separated when she was only 3 years old, and she primarily lived with her mother. However, due to her mother’s acting career, Lena often found herself living with her grandparents or friends. Despite the challenges she faced, Lena knew from an early age that she wanted to become a performer herself.

At the age of 16, Lena left school to pursue a career as a singer. She began her journey at the renowned Cotton Club in New York, which was known for showcasing Black performers. The likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, two famous jazz musicians, frequently performed there. During that time, racial segregation was prevalent, and Black and white individuals were not allowed to be in the same spaces. Although Black musicians performed at the Cotton Club, the audience was exclusively white.

Lena did not stay at the Cotton Club for long. She went on to perform on Broadway and later joined an all-white band, becoming the first Black singer to tour with such a group. However, despite the band’s integration, they encountered numerous challenges during their travels. For instance, Lena was often unable to stay at the same hotels as her bandmates due to racial discrimination. In many places, she could perform for the audience but was not allowed to be a part of the audience herself simply because she was Black. These difficulties made touring incredibly tough, leading Lena to decide to stay in New York.

Upon returning to New York, Lena Horne formed connections with other Black musicians and actors. She developed friendships with Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and the actor Paul Robeson. Through these relationships, she delved deeper into African American history and the civil rights movement, ultimately becoming an activist for Black civil rights.

She utilized her talent to promote equality for Black performers. For example, when she secured a new acting job in the 1940s, she insisted that the studio agree not to cast her in certain roles. During that era, Black actresses were typically limited to playing domestic workers, such as maids or cooks. Lena refused to be boxed into such stereotypical roles. Her contract explicitly stated that she would not portray a domestic worker. Consequently, she became the first Black singer to sign a contract with a major studio.

Although she refused to play stereotyped roles, the film studios were also hesitant to cast her as a love interest to white actors. As a result, she did not receive many film opportunities. However, she did showcase her singing abilities in several musicals. One of her most well-known roles was in the film Stormy Weather, where she sang the titular song. It became her most popular song.

Lena Horne: An Actress, Singer, and Civil Rights Activist

In addition to her successful acting career in the 1940s, Lena Horne was actively involved in the fight for civil rights. She took legal action against discriminatory practices by suing restaurants and theaters. During World War II, when she performed for soldiers, she advocated for the inclusion of Black soldiers. Later on, she demanded equal treatment at nightclubs where she performed. Horne also collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt to push for legislation against lynching.

However, Horne faced opposition for her activism. In the 1950s, she was blacklisted and prevented from getting hired. Blacklisting was a practice used against individuals suspected of being Communists, and her friend Paul Robeson was also a victim. Despite these challenges, Horne never ceased her singing and acting career and continued her activism. In the 1960s, she participated in the March on Washington and used her voice to support civil rights rallies.

Throughout her life, Horne remained dedicated to her artistic endeavors. She achieved great popularity with her records and even starred in an all-Black adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” called “The Wiz.” Additionally, she had her own successful Broadway show for several years. However, in the early 1990s, she retired from singing. Lena Horne passed away in 2010 at the age of 92.

Lena Horne utilized her talent and fame to champion civil rights, even in the face of adversity. She courageously turned down opportunities that treated her poorly and refused to conform to stereotypes, which limited her movie roles. Her activism and political views led to her blacklisting. Horne’s passion for her beliefs and music serves as an inspiration. It prompts us to reflect on our own passions and consider how we can use them to make a difference in the lives of others.

Take Action

Let’s embark on a musical journey together!

  • With the guidance of an adult, conduct research on Lena Horne using the Internet or your local library. You can start by visiting the following sources: [insert URLs]. Utilize Canva or any available materials to create an infographic or poster that educates others about Lena Horne and her contributions to music. Share your creation with friends and family!
  • Feeling inspired? You can also become a singer! Unleash your creativity by writing a song and performing it for your loved ones. Alternatively, you can try singing one of Lena Horne’s famous songs.
  • Writing and singing aren’t the only ways to express your creativity. With adult supervision, listen to Lena Horne’s music and let it inspire you. Use paints or any other materials you have to create artwork that reflects her music. Share your creation with family and friends.

References

  • https://www.britannica.com/dictionary (accessed 7 Mar., 2023)
  • https://www.biography.com/musicians/lena-horne (accessed 6 Feb. 2023)
  • https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Lena-Horne/311732 (accessed 6 Feb. 2023)
  • https://kids.kiddle.co/Lena_Horne (accessed 6 Feb. 2023)
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cotton-Club (accessed 7 Feb. 2023)

FAQ

1. Who was Lena Horne?

Lena Horne was an American singer, actress, and civil rights activist. She was born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. Horne started her career as a singer in the 1930s and gained popularity for her unique vocal style and beauty. She later transitioned into acting and appeared in several films and Broadway shows. Horne was also a prominent civil rights activist, using her platform to fight against racial discrimination in the entertainment industry and beyond.

2. What were Lena Horne’s notable achievements?

Lena Horne achieved many notable accomplishments throughout her career. She was the first African American performer to be signed to a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Horne also broke barriers by becoming the first African American woman to tour with an all-white band. She received numerous awards and accolades for her contributions to the entertainment industry and civil rights movement.

3. What impact did Lena Horne have on the civil rights movement?

Lena Horne played a significant role in the civil rights movement. She used her platform and celebrity status to speak out against racial discrimination and advocate for equal rights. Horne refused to perform for segregated audiences and insisted on fair treatment wherever she went. Her activism helped pave the way for future generations of African American entertainers and artists.

4. What is Lena Horne’s legacy?

Lena Horne’s legacy is one of talent, strength, and activism. She broke down racial barriers in the entertainment industry and fought for equality throughout her life. Horne’s impact on civil rights and her contributions to music and film continue to inspire and empower people today. Her groundbreaking achievements and unwavering dedication to justice made her an icon and a role model for generations to come.

5. How did Lena Horne’s career impact future generations of performers?

Lena Horne’s career had a profound impact on future generations of performers, particularly those from marginalized communities. Her success and activism paved the way for greater representation and opportunities for African American artists in the entertainment industry. Horne’s determination and resilience continue to inspire young performers to pursue their dreams and use their platforms for social change. Her legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of using art and talent to challenge inequality and create a more inclusive society.

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