The singer-actress has the distinction of being the first black woman to sign a contract with a major studio, MGM. Content with her singing career, Horne wasn’t keen on breaking into film, as she didn’t like the way blacks were portrayed on screen in the 1940s–as domestics, mammies, jungle natives, etc. Her contract stipulated that she would never play a maid, the Washington Post reported. With then NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White at her side, Horne worked to counteract the entertainment industry’s tendency to cast blacks in stereotypical roles.
For her efforts, she suffered the resentment of other black actors and of MGM producer Arthur Freed. Freed grew angry with Horne after she turned down a role in a Broadway show he was involved in because she found the black characters to be clichéd and offensive. According to the Post, Freed lashed out at Horne by ignoring her requests to be cast in the roles that did interest her.
“I was not trying to embarrass anyone or show up my colleagues,” the Post said Horne explained to biographer Richard Schickel of her stance. “I was only trying to see if I could avoid in my career some of the traps [other blacks] had been forced into. It was no crusade, though of course I hoped that if I could set my own terms in the movies and also be successful, then others might be able to follow.”
While others may have resented her for refusing to indulge Hollywood’s racist views of blacks, film historian Donald Bogle told the Post that Horne’s challenging of the entertainment industry helped transform the image of black women on the silver screen. MGM, for example, featured Horne in promotional junkets in which she was portrayed as beautiful and glamorous. It was the same treatment given to white actresses of the time such as Betty Grable.
Horne not only challenged stereotypes on screen but segregation. In the 1940s and ’50s, it was customary for luxury hotels not to receive blacks. But Horne defied this norm by insisting that she and her band be permitted to stay at the high-end hotels she performed at in Miami Beach and Las Vegas, the Post reported. According to the paper, one Vegas hotel is said to have burned Horne’s sheets after she slept there. And during Horne’s early days singing with the all-black Noble Sissle’s Society Orchestra, Horne had to endure sleeping on circus grounds when hotels refused to accommodate the group.
Because of the segregation she and other blacks experienced, Horne began to question the wisdom of singing about penthouses in the sky “when with the housing restrictions the way they are, I wouldn’t be allowed to rent the place,” she told the New York Times. That paper reported that when Horne wanted to move to Hollywood, which was once closed to blacks, she had to send a white friend to procure a house on her behalf. When the neighbors found out that the house was being occupied by a black woman, however, they circulated a petition to have her removed. Soon actor and Hollywood resident Humphrey Bogart heard about the petition and got those responsible to back down.
Due to her stance on not taking stereotypical roles, Horne often found herself with no work for long periods of time. Rather than filling these days with mundane activities, she became an advocate for fair employment and anti-lynching laws, the Post reported. In addition, she sang for soldiers on a studio-sponsored tour. During a performance at Fort Reilly, Kan., however, she was astonished to see German prisoners of war seated ahead of black soldiers and filed a complaint about what she had witnessed to the NAACP. This move didn’t sit well with MGM. Despite being told not to make waves, Horne persisted. She appeared at the 1963 March on Washington and was one of a group of black entertainers to approach then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ask that the government move swiftly and aggressively to end segregation.
Although today’s celebrities actively contribute to political campaigns and raise awareness about atrocities in developing nations, it’s rare for them to make a move that could actually hurt their careers. Horne should be applauded for taking such risks and experiencing backlashes as a result. Her experiences are all the more compelling when you consider that the light-skinned Horne could have skirted racial discrimination by passing for white. Early in her career, a club owner told Horne to tell everyone that she was “Spanish,” but she refused. Considering that other entertainers from Horne’s era–Raquel Welch, Carol Channing and Merle Oberon–all downplayed their racial heritage in the name of career advancement, Horne’s refusal to deny hers reveals her as a woman concerned more about integrity than what Hollywood could offer. Because of the sacrifices she made and her consistent activism to better the lives of others, Horne deserves to go down in history as a race relations trailblazer.