African-American Film Pioneersby Riverbends1 | created - 07 Dec 2012 | updated - 18 Aug 2018 | Public
1. Evelyn Preer
Actress | Within Our Gates
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, pioneering black actress Evelyn Preer was educated in Chicago, where she and her mother moved after the death of her father. She entered show business vis vaudeville and the "chitlin' circuit" of minstrel shows that served the country's strictly segregated black ...
Writer | Within Our Gates
Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to produce a feature-length film (The Homesteader (1919)) and a sound feature-length film (The Exile (1931)), is not only a major figure in American film for these milestones, but because his oeuvre is a window into the American history and psyche ...
Actor | The Bronze Buckaroo
This velvet-toned jazz baritone and sometime actor was (and perhaps still is) virtually unknown to white audiences. Yet, back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Herb Jeffries was very big...in black-cast films. Today he is respected and remembered as a pioneer who broke down rusted-shut racial ...
Although his brand of humor has been reviled for decades, black character actor Mantan Moreland parlayed his cocky but jittery character into a recognizable presence in the late 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in a long string of comedy thrillers . . . and was considered quite funny at the time!
5. Ethel Waters
Actress | Cabin in the Sky
The child of a teenage rape victim, Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. "No one raised me, " she recollected, "I just ran wild." She excelled not only at looking after herself, but also at singing and ...
Actor | A Natural Born Gambler
One of the first black superstars of popular entertainment, Egbert Austin Williams, although born in the Bahamas, was raised largely in California. Nursing show business aspirations early on, he teamed with boyhood friend George Walker to form a highly successful vaudeville act, which continued ...
7. Rex Ingram
Director | The Great Problem
Renowned director Rex Ingram started his film career as a set designer and painter. His directorial debut was The Great Problem (1916). A true master of the medium, Ingram despised the business haggling required in the Hollywood system. He was also unhappy with the level of writing he found in ...
8. Tim Moore
Actor | The Amos 'n Andy Show
Although Tim Moore will forever be known as "The Kingfish" in the pioneering series The Amos 'n Andy Show (1951), he was actually far better known for his career on the stage and as a comedian in vaudeville than he was for his film and television work. In fact, he had only made (as far as is known)...
Actor | Juke Joint
American actor, writer, director, and producer whose early pioneering work in African-American or "race" films was eclipsed in fame by his role as one of the title characters in the equally pioneering and also controversial 1950s sitcom The Amos 'n Andy Show (1951). A native of Vidalia, Louisiana, ...
10. Lena Horne
Soundtrack | Cabin in the Sky
Lena Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. In her biography she stated that, on the day she was born, her father was in the midst of a card game trying to get money to pay the hospital costs. Her parents divorced while she was still a toddler. Her mother left later in order ...
11. Benny Carter
Soundtrack | Raging Bull
Saxophonist, songwriter ("Because of You", "Hot Toddy", "Cow Cow Boogie"), conductor, arranger and composer, educated at Wilberforce University in theology. He was a saxophonist in Horace Henderson's Wilberforce Collegians, then played in the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb. He went...
Actress | Carmen Jones
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Ruby Dandridge (née Ruby Jean Butler), an entertainer, and Cyril H. Dandridge, a cabinet maker and minister. Under the prodding of her mother, Dorothy and her sister Vivian Dandridge began performing publicly, usually in ...
14. Ruby Dandridge
Actress | Beulah
Ruby Dandridge was born on March 3, 1900 in Wichita, Kansas, USA as Ruby Jean Butler. She was an actress, known for Beulah (1950), Dead Reckoning (1947) and Cabin in the Sky (1943). She was married to Cyril Dandridge. She died on October 17, 1987 in Los Angeles, California, USA.
15. Duke Ellington
Composer | Anatomy of a Murder
Composer ("It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", "Solitude", "In a Mellotone", "Satin Doll"), pianist and conductor, holder of an honorary music degree from Wilberforce University and an LHD from Milton College, Duke Ellington led his own orchestra ...
16. Louis Armstrong
Actor | High Society
Louis Armstrong grew up poor in a single-parent household. He was 13 when he celebrated the New Year by running out on the street and firing a pistol that belonged to the current man in his mother's life. At the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, he learned to play the bugle and the clarinet and joined ...
17. Hattie McDaniel
Actress | Gone with the Wind
After working as early as the 1910s as a band vocalist, Hattie McDaniel debuted as a maid in The Golden West (1932). Her maid-mammy characters became steadily more assertive, showing up first in Judge Priest (1934) and becoming pronounced in Alice Adams (1935). In this one, directed by George ...
Actress | Gone with the Wind
Thelma McQueen attended public school in Augusta, Georgia and graduated from high school in Long Island, New York. She studied dance with Katherine Dunham, Geoffrey Holder, and Janet Collins. She danced with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. The "Butterfly" stage name, which does describe her ...
19. Diahann Carroll
Actress | Julia
One of television's premier African-American series stars, elegant actress, singer and recording artist Diahann Carroll was born Carol Diann (or Diahann) Johnson on July 17, 1935, in the Bronx, New York. The first child of John Johnson, a subway conductor, and Mabel Faulk Johnson, a nurse; music ...
20. Josephine Baker
Actress | Zouzou
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, MO, in 1906 to Carrie McDonald, a laundress, and Eddie Carson, a musician. Her early life hinted at her future career. She first danced for the public on the streets of St. Louis for nickels and dimes. Later she became a chorus girl on...
21. Paul Robeson
Actor | King Solomon's Mines
This handsome, eloquent and highly charismatic actor became one of the foremost interpreters of Eugene O'Neill's plays and one of the most treasured names in song during the first half of the twentieth century. He also courted disdain and public controversy for most of his career as a staunch Cold ...
22. Ernest Morrison
Actor | Ghosts on the Loose
"Sunshine Sammy" Morrison was most famous as one of the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids, but he was probably the most experienced actor of that group. Morrison made his film debut while still an infant; his father worked for a wealthy Los Angeles family that had connections in the film industry, and ...
23. Louise Beavers
Actress | Imitation of Life
1930s and 1940s film actress Louise Beavers was merely one of a dominant gallery of plus-sized and plus-talented African-American character actresses forced to endure blatant, discouraging and demeaning stereotypes during Depression-era and WWII Hollywood. It wasn't until Louise's triumphant role in...
24. Dooley Wilson
Actor | Casablanca
"You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh; the fundamental things apply, as time goes by...". . The gentleman who crooned this now legendary tune for the morose Humphrey Bogart and moist-eyed Ingrid Bergman at Rick's Cafe Americain amid the bleak WWII backdrop was none ...
25. Bill Robinson
Soundtrack | The Shape of Water
Bill Robinson quit school at age seven and began work as a professional dancer the following year. Bojangles (the name referred to his happy-go-lucky ebullience) starred in vaudeville, musical stage and movies. He invented the stair tap routine and was considered one of the world's greatest tap ...
26. Harold Nicholas
Soundtrack | Kid Millions
Harold Nicholas, the younger half of the world famous Nicholas Brothers dance team, is known as one of the world's greatest dancers. He and his brother Fayard Nicholas were established superstars at Twentieth Century Fox with their astounding dance numbers in the studios musicals features. Harold ...
27. Fayard Nicholas
Actor | The Pirate
Fayard Nicholas was one-half of The Nicholas Brothers, a famous African-American tap dancing team who appeared in several movies and became one of the famous and most beloved dance team of all time. Both brothers appeared in films such as An All-Colored Vaudeville Show (1935), The Pirate (1948) and ...
28. Sidney Poitier
Actor | In the Heat of the Night
A native of Cat Island, The Bahamas (although born, two months prematurely, in Miami during a visit by his parents), Poitier grew up in poverty as the son of farmers Evelyn (nee Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, who also drove a cab. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to...
29. Eva Jessye
Actress | Black Like Me
Conductor and arranger, educated at Wilberforce University (MA), and Allen University (Mus. D.) She conducted the Eva Jessye Choir, with appearances in universities and colleges with symphony orchestras and in festivals throughout the United States and Europe. On Broadway, she appeared in the ...
Actor | Moan & Groan, Inc.
Allen 'Farina' Hoskins was born on August 9, 1920 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA as Allen Clayton Hoskins. He was an actor, known for Moan & Groan, Inc. (1929), Love Business (1931) and School's Out (1930). He was married to Frances. He died on July 26, 1980 in Oakland, California, USA.
31. Anita Bush
Actress | The Crimson Skull
Anita Bush born in Washington, District of Columbia in 1883. began in Vaudeville theatre as part of the comedy team 'William and Walker' in the early 1900's, and later became well-known on the drama theatre's on Broadway. beautiful black performer who starred in only two movies, the first was a ...
33. Clarence Muse
Actor | Shadow of a Doubt
Clarence Muse was born on October 14, 1889 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA as Clarence Edouard Muse. He was an actor, known for Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Casino (1995) and Broken Strings (1942). He was married to Irene Ena Kellman, Willabelle Burch West and Ophelia Belle Labertier. He died on October ...
34. Daniel L. Haynes
Actor | Hallelujah
Daniel L. Haynes was born on June 6, 1889 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA as Daniel Leo Haynes. He was an actor, known for Hallelujah (1929), Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935) and John Smith (1922). He was married to Rosa Belle Sims. He died on July 29, 1954 in Kingston, New York, USA.
36. Fredi Washington
Actress | Imitation of Life
Fredi Washington was a pioneering African-American actress whose fair skin and green eyes often were impediments to her showing her extraordinary acting skills. Her talent was often overlooked because of people's obsession with her race and color. In the few films in which she acted her enormous ...
Actor | Mystery in Swing
John Lester Johnson was born in Suffolk, Virginia (his death certificate states South Carolina) on August 13, 1893. His middle name was Leslie, according to an "Ebony" magazine article about Johnson (January 1960), but he changed it to to Lester when he left Virginia in 1910 for New York City, ...
40. Leigh Whipper
Actor | Of Mice and Men
Leigh Whipper was an consummate actor who led an impressive life. Born in South Carolina in 1876, at the end of the Reconstruction Era in which his parents had participated, he was educated in Washington, D.C., attending Howard University, before turning permanently to a life in the theater. At a ...
41. Stepin Fetchit
Actor | Judge Priest
Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most controversial movie actors in American history. While he was undoubtedly one of the most talented physical comedians ever to do his shtick on the Big Screen, achieving the rare status of being a character actor/supporting player who actually achieved superstar...
42. Lorenzo Tucker
Actor | Wages of Sin
Lorenzo Tucker in his prime was billed and known as "The Black Valentino," named after Rudolph Valentino, because of his tall, dark, dashing good looks, muscular built, secret charm and coolness. Tucker was one of Black Cinema's most popular leading actors, appearing in close to 20 films. He ...
43. Mamie Smith
Soundtrack | Beginners
Mamie Smith was born on May 26, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. She was an actress, known for Beginners (2010), Paradise in Harlem (1939) and Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941). She was married to Jack Goldberg. She died on October 30, 1946 in New York City, New York, USA.
Actress | Maid of Salem
Madame Sul-Te-Wan was born on March 7, 1873 in Louisville, Kentucky, USA as Nellie Wan. She was an actress, known for Maid of Salem (1937), In Old Chicago (1938) and Safari (1940). She was married to Robert Reed Conley. She died on February 1, 1959 in Hollywood, California, USA.
Actor | Mush and Milk
Matthew 'Stymie' Beard was born on January 1, 1925 in Los Angeles, California, USA as Matthew Beard Jr. He was an actor, known for Mush and Milk (1933), A Lad an' a Lamp (1932) and Free Wheeling (1932). He was married to Annie. He died on January 8, 1981 in Los Angeles.
Actress | Torch Singer
The name Mildred Washington isn't remembered but she appeared in under 15 films in small parts but her presence, finesse, beauty and vivacious personality wasn't small. Mildred was a beautiful, curvaceous, popular Black actress and dancer in the 1920s and 1930s. She started on the stage appearing ...
Actress | Hallelujah
Nina Mae McKinney is known as the seductress "Chick" from Hallelujah (1929), the first all-black, all-sound musical. Even though she was acknowledged as a great actress, singer and dancer by audiences in the U.S. and Europe, today she is mostly forgotten. She certainly had the looks, enthusiasm, ...
48. Pearl McCormack
Actress | The Scar of Shame
Pearl McCormack was born on April 29, 1908 in Kingston, Jamaica as Leila Blandine McCormack. She was an actress, known for The Scar of Shame (1927), Phantom of Kenwood (1933) and Harlem After Midnight (1934). She was married to Paul Laguerre. She died on December 14, 2003 in Miami, Florida, USA.
49. Theresa Harris
Actress | I Walked with a Zombie
Theresa Harris appeared with more stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood than anyone else. She sang, she danced, she appeared in movies and TV. She graced the screen with her magnetic presence and most times stole scenes from the top stars of the day every chance she got and made a lot of dull films ...
53. Anita Thompson
Actress | A Man's Duty
Anita Thompson was born on March 28, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, USA as Anita Beatrice Thompson. She was an actress, known for A Man's Duty (1919) and By Right of Birth (1921). She was married to Guy Reynolds, Dwight Lloyd Dickinson and Charles Henri Ford. She died in December 1980 in Christiansted,...
54. Beulah Hall
Actress | The Realization of a Negro's Ambition
Beulah Hall was born on June 28, 1899 in San Antonio, Texas, USA. She was an actress, known for The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916), Black Narcissus (1929) and A Trooper of Troop K (1917). She was married to Emitt Emanuel Wyndon. She died on October 8, 1952 in Los Angeles, California, USA.
55. Bert Murphy
Actor | Black and White
Bert Murphy was born in September 1876 in Carbondale, Illinois, USA as Albert Murphy. He was an actor, known for Black and White (1914), A Milk Fed Hero (1918) and A Busted Romance (1918). He was married to Frances Ellick. He died on October 4, 1917 in Chicago, Illinois.
56. Blue Washington
Actor | Black Magic
Blue Washington was born on February 12, 1898 in Los Angeles, California, USA as Edgar Hughes Washington. He was an actor, known for Black Magic (1929), Ransom (1928) and Parade of the West (1930). He was married to Marion Lenán. He died on September 15, 1970 in Lancaster, California.
58. Clarence Brooks
Actor | Murder in Harlem
Clarence Brooks was born on December 23, 1896 in San Antonio, Texas, USA. He was an actor, known for Murder in Harlem (1935), Arrowsmith (1931) and Georgia Rose (1930). He was married to Cherry Hale. He died on March 12, 1969 in Pasadena, California, USA.
64. Frank Pollard
Frank Pollard was born on December 10, 1896 in Chicago, Illinois, USA as Franklin H. Pollard. He was an actor, known for The Adventures of Dick Turpin: The King of Highwaymen (1912), The Adventures of Dick Turpin: 200 Guineas Reward, Wanted Dead or Alive (1912) and Black and Tan Mix Up (1918). He ...
66. Iris Hall
Actress | The Symbol of the Unconquered
Iris Hall was born on December 10, 1892 in Barbados. She was an actress, known for The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and The Homesteader (1919). She was married to Richard J. Ryan and Julian Baird. She died on July 11, 1984 in East Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA.
68. Wes Jenkins
Actor | Little Miss No-Account
Wes Jenkins was born in January 1859 in Virginia, USA as John Wesley Jenkins. He was an actor, known for Little Miss No-Account (1918), The Kentuckians (1921) and Scarlet Saint (1925). He was married to Mattie Farrar. He died on April 9, 1930 in New York, New York, USA.
70. Mattie Edwards
Actress | Within Our Gates
Mattie Edwards was born on June 2, 1866 in New York, USA as Martha Burns. She was an actress, known for Within Our Gates (1920), Give Us This Night (1936) and The Brute (1920). She was married to Edward Settle. She died on June 25, 1944 in Los Angeles, California, USA.
76. Walter Brogsdale
Actor | A Black Sherlock Holmes
Walter Brogsdale was born on December 2, 1887 in Macon, Georgia, USA. He was an actor, known for A Black Sherlock Holmes (1918), Are Working Girls Safe? (1918) and Black and Tan Mix Up (1918). He died on April 17, 1939 in Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA.
Actor | The Black King
A.B. DeComathiere was born on November 19, 1877 in New York City, New York, USA as Abram Benedict Comathiere. He was an actor and director, known for The Black King (1932), The Midnight Ace (1928) and The Exile (1931). He died on May 18, 1940 in Central Islip, Long Island, New York.
84. Alice B. Russell
Actress | Easy Street
Alice B. Russell is better known as Oscar Micheaux's wife, but she played important parts in almost all of her husband's films. Alice usually played the sympathetic mother figure, a mature role model, a guardian angel to young naive ladies, etc. She was a wonderful emotional actress, never ...
85. Alma Sewell
Actress | The Conjure Woman
Alma Sewell was born in July 1893 in Birmingham, Alabama, USA as Willie Alma Glenn. She was an actress, known for The Conjure Woman (1926), The House Behind the Cedars (1927) and The Dungeon (1922). She was married to James Harvey Sewell. She died on May 30, 1977 in Roanoke, Virginia, USA.
87. Ardelle Dabney
Actress | The Broken Violin
Ardelle Dabney was born in 1884 in Portsmouth, Virginia, USA as Harriet Ardella Mitchell. She was an actress, known for The Broken Violin (1927), Thirty Years Later (1928) and Wages of Sin (1929). She was married to Elijah Dabney and William Taylor. She died on March 13, 1965 in Chicago, Illinois, ...
88. Arline Mickey
Actress | Ten Nights in a Barroom
Arline Mickey was born on November 3, 1910 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She was an actress, known for Ten Nights in a Barroom (1926), The Prince of His Race (1926) and Children of Fate (1928). She was married to Nathan G. Chaney. She died on September 2, 1988 in Los Angeles, California, USA.
90. Bee Freeman
Actress | Temptation
Bee Freeman was known as "the sepia Mae West" because of her sexy voice and innuendo-laden manner of delivering her lines. Bee had a style all her own, though--cool, calm and collected with a lot of sex appeal. Bee Freeman was one of Oscar Micheaux's favorite ladies, appearing in his best films: ...
94. Blanche Thompson
Actress | The Vagabond King
Blanche Thompson was born on February 17, 1897 in Calhoun County, Texas, USA. She was an actress, known for The Vagabond King (1930), As the World Rolls On (1921) and A Son of Satan (1924). She was married to Pierre-Adolphe Jaureguiberry, Irvin C. Miller and J. Homer Tutt. She died on May 5, 1987 ...
95. Charles Allen
Actor | In the Depths of Our Hearts
Charles Allen was born on January 29, 1895 in Emporia, Kansas, USA as Charles Hayward Allen. He was an actor, known for In the Depths of Our Hearts (1920) and The Lure of a Woman (1921). He was married to Genevieve Marie Reynolds. He died in September 1978 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
96. Charles Olden
Actor | The Framing of the Shrew
Charles Olden was born on May 5, 1892 in Washington, District of Columbia, USA as Charles Kenneth Olden. He was an actor, known for The Framing of the Shrew (1929) and The Melancholy Dame (1929). He was married to Sarah Hughes. He died on September 29, 1943 in Portland, Oregon, USA.
100. Dink Stewart
Actor | A Son of Satan
A stalwart of the African-American stage, Ben "Dink" Stewart started out with his brother Alex singing and dancing for pennies on the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio. They soon worked up an act good enough to have them enter vaudeville. Dink went on to be known as a comedian and "sinegr of funny songs....