Delta Sigma Theta

The Lady and the Legend: Lena Horne

"Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody's got to stand up and be counted." ~ Lena Horne

Even in her eighties, the legendary Lena Horne has a quality of timelessness about her. Elegant and wise, she personifies both the glamour of Hollywood and the reality of a lifetime spent battling racial and social injustice. Pushed by an ambitious mother into the chorus line of the Cotton Club when she was sixteen, and maneuvered into a film career by the N.A.A.C.P., she was the first African American signed to a long-term studio contract. In her rise beyond Hollywood's racial stereotypes of maids, butlers, and African natives, she achieved true stardom on the silver screen, and became a catalyst for change even beyond the glittery fringes of studio life.

Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Lena Horne became one of the most popular African American performers of the 1940s and 1950s. At the age of sixteen she was hired as a dancer in the chorus of Harlem's famous Cotton Club. 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.

Lena gives us some attitude. (1:59)

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. "In every other film I just sang a song or two; the scenes could be cut out when they were sent to local distributors in the South. Unfortunately, I didn't get much of a chance to act," she said. "CABIN IN THE SKY and STORMY WEATHER were the only movies in which I played a character who was involved in the plot." 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. Her renditions of "Deed I Do" and "As Long as I Live," and Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things" became instant classics. For the thousands of black soldiers abroad during World War II, Horne was the premier pin-up girl.

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