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Lillian Evans Evanti

Lillian Evans Evanti

Lillian Evans Evanti

Lillian Evans Evanti (1890-1967) was the first African American to sing opera with an organized company in Europe.

In 1941 she founded the National Negro Opera.

She was born in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Armstrong Manual Training School.

She graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor’s Degree in music and studied in France and Italy. Evanti, a soprano, sang at the Belasco Theater in 1926 with Marian Anderson.

She debuted in 1927 in Delibes’s Lakmé at Nice, France. As an opera singer and concert artist, she toured throughout Europe and South America.

  • In 1943, she performed with the Watergate Theater barge on the Potomac River. In 1944, she appeared at The Town Hall (New York City). She received acclaim as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata as produced by the National Negro Opera Company in 1945.
  • In 1963, she walked with her friend Alma Thomas in the March on Washington.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music made her a superstar of her time. Today, Holiday is remembered for her masterpieces, creativity and vivacity, as many of Holiday’s songs are as well known today as they were decades ago. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.

Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) grew up in jazz talent-rich Baltimore in the 1920s. As a young teenager, Holiday served the beginning part of her so-called “apprenticeship” by singing along with records by Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in after-hours jazz clubs. When Holiday’s mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to New York in search of a better job, Billie eventually went with her. She made her true singing debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs and borrowed her professional name – Billie Holiday – from screen star Billie Dove.

Although she never underwent any technical training and never even so much as learned how to read music, Holiday quickly became an active participant in what was then one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country. She would move from one club to another, working for tips. She would sometimes sing with the accompaniment of a house piano player while other times she would work as part of a group of performers.  Continue reading

Jersey Joe Walcott

Jersey Joe Walcott

Jersey Joe Walcott

1914 – 1994. The oldest heavyweight (37) to ever win the championship; lost four championship bouts before knocking out Ezzard Charles in the seventh round in 1951; lost the title the following year, losing to Rocky Marciano; won 50 bouts, 30 by knockout, lost 17 and fought one draw as a professional; later became sheriff of Camden County, NJ.

Jersey Joe Walcott was the picture of perseverance. He won the heavyweight title in his fifth try, accomplishing the feat at the age of 37. He held the record for oldest heavyweight champion until 45-year-old George Foreman won the crown in 1994.

Born Arnold Cream in Merchantville, New Jersey, Walcott took the name of his boxing idol, Joe Walcott, the welterweight champion from Barbados. He turned pro in 1930 at the age of 16 and embarked on a slow, but steady, rise to the top.  Continue reading

Peter Williams, Jr.

williams_peter

Described as a “genuine African,” Peter Williams and his parents were enslaved Africans. Williams’ enslaver, Mr. Aymar, was a tobacconist. He was also a Loyalist who left the country during the Revolutionary War. Having developed a skill, Williams went into business for himself as a tobacconist. He would eventually own a house, store, and other property–including himself. In 1783, Williams became the “property of the John Street Methodist church who bought him for forty (40) pounds.” From June 10, 1783, through October 20, 1796, Peter Williams worked off the debt and “refunded every pound the trustees had paid his master, and thus purchased himself.”

When Peter Williams led the African American members of the congregation from the church, he was leaving a church that compelled its African American members to wait to be served communion until all of the white members had been served. The realization that the church was not serving the needs of the African and African American community, and that African Americans could not be ordained as minister, were part of what motivated Williams to secede. Williams was the father of Peter Williams, Jr. (1780-1840), the first African American ordained minister in the Protestant Episcopal church. Peter Williams, Jr., became the first leader of St. Phillips African Church in 1819.

Marion Anderson

Marion Anderson

Marion Anderson

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an African-American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century. Music critic Alan Blyth said “Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty.” Most of her singing career was spent performing in concert and recital in major music venues and with famous orchestras throughout the United States and Europe between 1925 and 1965.

Although offered roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson declined, as she had no training in acting. She preferred to perform in concert and recital only. She did, however, perform opera arias within her concerts and recitals. She made many recordings that reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from concert literature to lieder to opera to traditional American songs and spirituals.  Continue reading

Alexander L. Twilight

TWILIGHTAlexander Lucius Twilight is the first African American to graduate from a U.S. college, receiving his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in 1823. Also a pioneer in Vermont politics, Twilight became the first African American to win election to public office in 1836, joining his home-state legislature. He died in Brownington, Vermont, on June 19, 1857.

Born on September 23, 1795 (though sources vary on the month and day of his birth, with some saying September 26 and others noting July 15), in Corinth, Vermont, where he also grew up, Alexander Lucius Twilight was one of six children born to Ichabod and Mary Twilight. The Twilights were one of the few African-American families living in the area at the time. According to the Old Stone House Museum’s website, Ichabod Twilight served in the American Revolutionary War.  Continue reading

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