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The Principles of Lena Horne

Published: 6/30/2014
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Lena Horne circa 1950 (Getty Images / Silver Screen Collection)

Onstage and on screen, Lena Horne was always elegant and beautiful, commanding attention with her expressive voice and timeless grace. But Horne, who died May 9, 2010 at age 92, was far more than just a pretty face. She was a strong, principled woman who battled racism throughout her career. To mark June 30, which would have been Horne's 97th birthday, here are 10 items that serve as evidence of Horne's commitment to what was right, not what was easy. As The Guardian newspaper noted after her death, Horne will be remembered "for her fiery pride and her refusal to kowtow to the small-mindedness of the times."

1. Horne was born into a family of civil rights activists. Her grandparents were early members of the NAACP. At age 2, Horne's photo appeared on the cover of the organization's monthly publication.

2. In 1941 Horne moved to Hollywood. Because the district did not allow African-Americans, club owner Felix Young, a white man, signed the lease on the home she rented. "When the neighbors found out, Humphrey Bogart, who lived across the street from me, raised hell with them for passing around a petition to get rid of me," Horne said later, according to her obituary by The New York Times. He also "sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know."

3. Horne became the second African-American performer to obtain a long-term contract with a major studio when she signed a seven-year deal with MGM, according to the Times. "I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept," she once said, according to her obituary by The Los Angeles Times. "I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked."

4. The contract did not guarantee good work, however. As Horne's New York Times obituary noted, "She might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early: she languished at MGM for years because of her race. …" During her years under MGM contract, the performance that garnered the most attention was actually for 20th Century Fox. (MGM approved the loan.) The role was Selina Rogers in Stormy Weather. Horne's rendition of the title song became her signature piece.

5. Horne later said World War II made her a star because "the black guys couldn't put Betty Grable's picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine," The New York Times obituary said. While entertaining troops in Kansas, she became angry that German prisoners of war were seated in front of African-American soldiers, according to an appreciation of Horne in The Guardian. She filed a complaint with the NAACP and MGM pulled her from its tour. Horne then used her own money to travel the country and entertain African-American troops.

6. Horne campaigned with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for anti-lynching legislation. (It was unsuccessful.) She also worked with Japanese-Americans who faced discrimination, according to Horne's entry on the National Park Service website. She later said her outspokenness and relationships with liberal thinkers like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois led to her being blacklisted for seven years beginning in 1950.

7. In 1947 Horne married Lennie Hayton, a white composer. The wedding took place in Europe because it would have been illegal in the U.S. The couple kept the marriage a secret for three years, The New York Times obituary noted.

8. Horne "reviled the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them," according to Horne's obituary by The Associated Press. In 1960 Horne overheard a man in a Beverly Hills restaurant, angry that she was receiving service before him, call her a racial epithet, The Guardian said. In response, she pelted him with an ashtray, drinking glasses and a lamp.

9. In 1963 Horne took part in the March on Washington. She was in Jackson, Miss., supporting Medgar Evers the weekend before he was assassinated, as Life magazine noted. She also sang at many civil rights rallies, including one held in Alabama after 1965's Selma to Montgomery walk, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research Institute's website entry on Selma. Horne supported the work of the National Council for Negro Women. She is included in Atlanta's International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, established in 2004 by the National Park Service. Others so honored include retired South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall.

10. Despite the challenges and hardships, Horne once said, "I wouldn't trade my life for anything, because being black made me understand," according to The Los Angeles Times. Reflecting on her life at age 80, Horne said, "My identity is very clear to me now," her New York Times obituary said. "I am a black woman. I'm free. I no longer have to be a 'credit.' I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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