Black History Month Trailblazers: 8 Badass Black Girls in Entertainment
Dear Badass Black Girl,
Get to know these 8 Badass Trailblazers in Entertainment (1900–1969).
Born in 1896 in Mississippi, screen actress and jazz singer Evelyn Preer was the first Black actress to achieve celebrity status. She was nicknamed the “First Lady of the Screen” by her fans in the Black community. Preer starred in the first of her many film appearances in 1919. She was also a talented stage actress who acted in plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, starred on Broadway, and recorded with notable jazz artists like Duke Ellington. She walked away from a five-film contract with Al Christie Studios after she refused to put on blackface makeup to further darken her complexion.
Josephine Baker left the United States for Paris when she decided she’d had enough of performing for segregated audiences. In Paris, she was known to bring her pet cheetah, Chiquita, with her on stage. Chiquita made things even more exciting for audiences by regularly jumping into the orchestra pit to scare the musicians. Baker was the first Black female lead in a major motion picture, Zouzou, in 1934. During World War II, she was part of the French resistance to Nazi occupation and was awarded a medal by the French government for her work as a spy. She was such a fierce advocate for Civil Rights that, after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his widow, Coretta Scott King, offered to let her lead the Civil Rights Movement, but Baker refused out of concern for her children’s safety.
Hattie McDaniel is best known for being the first Black woman to win an Academy Award in 1940 for her role in Gone With the Wind. She was also the first Black American woman to sing on the radio in the United States and has not one but TWO stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Carmen Jones. The year before year, she was also the first Black woman to appear on the cover of LIFE magazine.
Marian Anderson became the first Black woman to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera and, at the invitation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first to perform at the White House. Anderson’s father died when she was only twelve years old, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings alone in Philadelphia. With no extra money to pay for formal lessons, Anderson was largely self-taught and practiced soprano, tenor, alto, and bass parts for her church choir. Impressed by her vocal range and dedication to singing, her congregation raised five hundred dollars to pay for formal lessons. And that’s all it took for Marian Anderson to gain recognition for her talent. Soon, she performed at the Lincoln Memorial and Carnegie Hall and gained fans on both sides of the Atlantic. She sang the national anthem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Kennedy.
Ethel Waters became the first Black actress to earn an Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on the “Goodnight Sweet Blues” episode of Route 66. She was also the first Black actress to integrate “The Great White Way,” as Broadway was known in the 1920s and 1930s, and was the first Black person, male or female, to host her own prime time variety show, The Ethel Waters’ Show, a fifteen-minute NBC program that aired a decade before Nat King Cole’s show.
Diahann Carroll became the first Black actress to land a leading role in the television series Julia. Her work on the series brought her the very first nomination for a Primetime Emmy for a Black actress and helped her win a Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress in a Television Series.” Her role in Julia was notable because it was one of the first television roles with a Black actress who wasn’t cast a domestic worker in a white household.
Linda Martell, a rhythm and blues and country singer, became the first Black woman to join musician Roy Acuff on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium for the weekly radio broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. At the time, Martell was only the second Black performer (after Charley Pride) to grace the stage of the longest continually running radio program in the United States, which first aired its program in 1925. Martell was also one of the few Black country singers to make a guest appearance on the weekly television variety show Hee Haw.
Find more Badass Trailblazers in Entertainment from Badass Black Girl: Quotes, Questions, and Affirmations for Teens.
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