Emmy-winning entertainer Harry Belafonte, a national treasure, nay, an international treasure, has passed away of congestive heart failure at the age of 96. He as a singer, an actor, and a civil rights advocate. Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born March 1, 1927, in New York City, NY. He died April 25, 2023, in New York City. He introduced Calypso music to a wider audience. He was also active in charity work. He divided his childhood between New York City and Jamaica, where his grandmother lived.
He was one of the organizers behind the Grammy Award winning song “We Are the World“, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa, and performed in the Live Aid concert in 1985. For many years he supported the American Cancer Society.
Belafonte left high school the day after his seventeenth birthday to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He spent eighteen months in the navy, and was assigned to Port Chicago, California. That was the home of the infamous Port Chicago Mutiny, where many Black stevedores were arrested for conspiracy to mutiny for refusing to load munitions ships until better safety standards were implemented after over three hundred Black sailors were killed and dozens injured. Civil rights attorney Pauli Murray claimed white officers were betting on how fast their Black troops could load the ships and were more concerned with speed than safety.
Belafonte served two weeks in a naval prison in Portsmouth, Virginia, where he was dismayed to see German POWs receiving better treatment than Black Americans enlisted in the United States Navy. The Washington Post reported: “The injustice of this sickened me,” he wrote, adding that the experience “radicalized” him politically. He later said, “I wasn’t an artist who became an activist. I was an activist who became an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I’d felt the need to fight injustice wherever I saw it, in whatever way I could.”
Harry Belafonte was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, a friend and confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He broke racial barriers as easily as breathing; his talent and dedication proving he was as good or better as any other entertainer. At a time when most middle class white suburbanites would not have thought of inviting a Black man into their homes, millions of white Americans bought his records and sang along to them. He was the first Black performer to earn a Tony Award in 1954, as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Musical) for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. In 1959 He was the first Black man to receive an Emmy Award, with his first solo TV special Tonight with Belafonte. At 6’1″, he was tall, dark, handsome and radiated sensuality. White housewives and Black sisters alike swooned for him.
He made his film debut in 1953 in Bright Road with Dorothy Dandridge. The pair were reunited in Carmen Jones (1954), loosely based on the Bizet opera Carmen, where Dandridge played a Bad Girl who leads a handsome soldier astray, forcing him to lose his chance to be one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. He would co-star with Dandridge again in Island in the Sun (1967), highly controversial at the time for its portrayal of a romantically involved interracial couple. Despite both Dandridge and Belafonte being excellent singers, the studio chose to dub their voices for the movie, hiring opera singers.
Harry Belafonte had nearly 200 film and television roles. His best known movies were the Preacher in Buck and the Preacher (1972), Joe in Carmen Jones (1954), David Boyeaur in Island in the Sun (1957), Ralph Burton in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), Seldom Seen in Kansas City (1996), and Jerome Turner in BlackkKlansman (2016)
Some of his songs were featured in the horror/comedy Beetlejuice (1988), and brought the film to life.
Ninety-six years is a long, full life. Think of how much Harry Belafonte saw and did in almost a century. All the changes he saw, including changes he helped make. Activist, singer, actor, veteran. His album Calypso in 1956, was the first million-selling album by a single rtist. He had six Gold Albums. He was awarded three Grammies, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 (appropriate for a man who performed at John Kennedy’s inaugural gala and interviewed Robert F. Kennedy when he was a guest host on the Tonight Show. He was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He was te American Civil Liberties Union Celebrity Ambassador for juvenile justice.
For most of us the death of Harry Belafonte is a sad event, but not a tragedy. We have his incredible portfolio of records and CDs. We can play his music whenever we like. Program directors at various cable channels will be rearranging their schedules to play his movies.
But his family have lost a father and a grandfather. He was married three times and divorced twice. He leaves behind a widow, Pamela Frank, four children, and eight grandchildren. He and his first wife, Marguerite Byrd, were married from 1947-1957. They had two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. He and his second wife, Julie Robinson, were married from 1957 -2004. They had two children together, David and Gina. Our condolences out to them. Perhaps it will be a comfort to them to know their father and grandfather will be remembered fondly forever.
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as 26 short stories, mostly fantasy in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, Swords &Sorceries Vols. 1, 2, & 5, “Cat Tails” “Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.