Black Women Who Slayed History: Lena Horne
Lena Horne is remembered for her timeless elegance and her Hollywood glamour. Rather little is known of her lifetime spent battling racial and social injustice.
Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917. She left school at age 16 to help support her family and became a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem. There she was introduced to the growing community of jazz performers, including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. She also met Harold Arlen, who would write her biggest hit, “Stormy Weather.” For the next five years she performed in New York nightclubs, on Broadway, and touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Singing with Barnet’s primarily white swing band, Horne was one of the first black women to successfully work on both sides of the color line.
Within a few years, Horne moved to Hollywood, where she played small parts in the movies. At this time, most black actors were kept from more serious roles, and though she was beginning to achieve a high level of notoriety, the color barrier was still strong. During the war, she traveled with the USO to perform for the troops. When the military excluded black servicemen from one concert, Horne stayed longer and did a separate show just for them. In return, black soldiers wrote to MGM and thanked the studio for giving them their own pin-up girl.
Her elegant style and powerful voice were unlike any that had come before, and both the public and the executives in the entertainment industry began to take note. By the mid-40s, Horne was the highest paid black actor in the country. She was the first African American signed to a long-term studio contract. Her renditions of “Deed I Do” and “As Long as I Live,” and Cole Porter‘s “Just One Of Those Things” became instant classics.
In 1963, she participated in the march on Washington and performed at rallies throughout the country for the National Council for Negro Women. She followed that with a decade of international touring, recording, and acting on both television and the silver screen.
When Ms. Horne died in May 2010, President Barack Obama mourned her passing in a statement calling Horne “a most cherished entertainer who warmed hearts with her beautiful voice and dramatic on-screen performances.”