Lena Horne, who broke racial barriers for black performing artists in the face of often blatant discrimination, and did so with grace and talent, died Sunday at New York Presbyterian Hospital, a spokeswoman said. She was 92.
Born in Brooklyn June 30, 1917, Horne landed her first job at 16 in the chorus line of the famed Cotton Club in Harlem in 1932.
Horne came of age as a performer in the 1940s, when most public facilities frequented by whites, from hotels to restaurants, were off-limits to African Americans.
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she said.
“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.”
Indeed, Horne was strikingly beautiful, but she also possessed amazing talent.
In 1943, she landed the part of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical Stormy Weather. Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and solidified her as a bankable star.
She broke the color-barrer by becoming the first black performer to sing in an all-white band and was the first to play the then-legendary Copacabana nightclub in New York.
Horne took Broadway by storm as the lead in 1957 musicial “Jamaica.”
Despite her success, however, Horne often felt the sting of racism that permeated society at that time.
“I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out … it was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world,” she said, according to Brian Lanker’s book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.”
Once she gained fame, Horne was not afraid to buck the system she so hated. She became an outspoken proponent of civil rights and an inspiration for others.
She also faced criticism at times from other blacks, who accused Horne, who was light-skinned, of trying to pass for white. But Horne dispelled any such thoughts.
“I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become,” Horne once said. “I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
She was indeed. Here she is in the original version of “Stormy Weather.”