The Arts

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Thelma ‘Butterfly’ McQueen

Thelma ‘Butterfly’ McQueen

1811-1995 - Stage and film actress best remembered for her part in film history with Gone With the Wind (1939). McQueen received her nickname of ?Butterfly? when she appeared in the Harlem Theater group’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Butterfly ballet sequence. Despite the notice she received from her role in Gone With the Wind, roles became harder to get and she was out of films by the 1950s.

She worked at various jobs, including waitress at a soul food restaurant, a receptionist, and dance instructor between occasional acting jobs in small parts on Broadway. She received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1975 from New York’s City College at the age of 64 and had a radio show in Augusta, Georgia before she died in a fire that consumed her one-bedroom cottage.

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

(b. Sept. 4, 1908, near Natchez, Miss., U.S.–d. Nov. 28, 1960, Paris, France), novelist and short-story writer, who was among the first black American writers to protest white treatment of blacks, notably in his novel Native Son (1940) and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He inaugurated the tradition of protest explored by other black writers after World War II.

Wright’s grandparents had been slaves. His father left home when he was five, and the boy, who grew up in poverty, was often shifted from one relative to another. He worked at a number of jobs before joining the northward migration, first to Memphis, Tenn., and then to Chicago.  Continue reading

Big Joe Turner

Big Joe Turner

One of the key figures, the vehicle we took from R&B to Rock N’Roll, was Big Joe Turner. Born in 1911 in Kansas City, Big Joe’s dad was killed when he was 15. To help his family, Joe worked at a variety of odd jobs..from shining shoes to running liquor. In 1929 he began to play boogie-woogie with Kermit “Pete” Johnson in clubs around the Midwest. They were discovered and brought to New York to play Carnegie Hall.

The next week they began recording for a label and a star was born. Joe was characterized by his incredible deep singing voice. He didn’t play any instruments, his voice was all he needed. New York Times music critic Robert Palmer said: “…his voice, pushing like a Count Basie solo, rich and grainy as a section of saxophones, which dominated the room with the sheer sumptuousness of its sound.” Big Joe died of kidney failure in 1985..

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Poet and author Paul Lawrence Dunbar was so talented and versatile that he succeeded in two worlds. He was so adept at writing verse in Black dialect that he became known as the “poet of his people,” while also cultivating a white audience that appreciated the brilliance and value of his work.

Majors and Minors (1895), Dunbar’s second collection of verse, financed by several white friends, was a remarkable work containing some of his best poems in both Black dialect and standard English. Melodic and rhythmical, his lines in this and other works often sing and swing along gloriously.  Continue reading

Alex Haley

Alex Haley

Author of ‘Roots’. Journalist, writer. Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and graduated from high school at age 15. Haley studied at State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for two years, and joined the Coast Guard in 1939.

He started out as a mess attendant, Third Class, and in 1952 became the first to hold the title of Coast Guard Journalist. Haley’s friends quickly discovered his writing talent and began requesting his help when writing their own love letters. Haley also used his talents to recount the old tales of sea captains, which turned into his first published story.  Continue reading

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