In 1914, actor Sam Lucas became the first African American actor to star in a full-length film and play in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” His career began in blackface minstrelsy, but he soon branched out to pursue serious dramas such as “The Creole Show” and “A Trip to Coontown”.
In May of 1921, the Broadway play “Shuffle Along” opened as the first musical written and performed by African Americans. This altered the face of Broadway musicals in New York City, bringing together all lovers of dance and jazz.
At 21 years old, dancer Katherine Dunham formed a group called Ballets Negrés for African American dancers. The dance group became one of the first Black ballet companies in the United States. After a well-received single performance in 1931 the group was disbanded.
In 1933, Caterina Jarboro became the first African American to perform with an American Opera company, twenty-two years prior to Marian Anderson’s debut in Metropolitan Opera. Impresario Alfredo Salmaggi hired Jarboro to sing with his opera company at the New York Hippodrome. She played the role of Seleka in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”.
In 1940 Hattie McDaniel was the first African American person to win an Academy Award for her supporting role in “Gone With the Wind”. This came after McDaniel marched into the Culver City offices of producer David O. Selznick to show him the reviews “Gone With the Wind” received. The movie had become an instant cultural sensation and McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy- the head slave at film’s fictional Southern plantation Tara- was singled out by both White and Black critics.
Rock and Roll
Singer and guitarist Chuck Berry refined areas of Rhythm and Blues by changing major elements that made Rock & Roll distinctive. He recorded his hit “Maybelline” in 1955 in Chicago; the song helped shaped the evolution of Rock & Roll.
Dance in Harlem
Arthur Mitchell became the only African American dancer in the New York City Ballet. Mitchell will later become the creator and director of the first African American classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Raisin in the Sun
Raisin in the Sun debuted in 1959 by Lorraine Hansberry and became the first drama written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The title came from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. The story tells a Black family’s experiences in the Washington Park subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood as they try to make their lives better with insurance money from the death of the father.
Start of Motown
In 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Motown Record Corporation. This was the start of the Motown sound dominating popular music throughout the ‘60s and attracted a crossover audience, which became the sound of young America.