Harry Belafonte, Actor and Activist
Harry Belafonte made a host of trailblazing achievements in the arts and society.
From being the first Black American to win an Emmy to using his voice and his wallet to finance social justice, Belafonte was dedicated himself to the improvement of his people and humanity across the globe.
Affectionately known as the "King of Calypso," Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, to Caribbean parents. His mother was set on him getting an education but Belafonte found school to be difficult due to dyslexia. At 17 years old, he decided to drop out of high school and joined the Navy. When he returned home, he became a janitor’s assistant. While on the job, he was given theater tickets as a tip. This was his first introduction to theater and that night he found his true calling.
In the early 1970s, Belafonte appeared in more films, including two with Sidney Poitier - “Buck and the Preacher,” which debuted in 1972 and “Uptown Saturday Night,” which made its debut in 1974. Belafonte’s film career continued well into the 80s and 90s with “Beat Street,” “White Man's Burden,” “Kansas City,” and more.
His breakthrough album “Calypso,” (1957) introduced American audiences to Calypso music and became the first album in history to sell over one million copies within a year of release. Belafonte was the first Black American man to receive an Emmy Award, with his first solo TV special "Tonight with Belafonte."
While primarily known for Calypso, Belafonte recorded in many different genres, including blues and jazz. He would go on to produce the Grammy-winning single “We Are the World,” which raised consciousness and money around famine relief, selling more than 20 million copies.
Belafonte focused on the important issues of racism, poverty and oppression, not only among the African American community, but also around the world.
Harry Belafonte, King and Abernathy
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nipsy Russell, Tony Bennett, and Harry Belafonte Speaking with the Press, Selma to Montgomery March
Poster for a concert to aid sit-in movements and the Martin Luther King Defense 1960
Harry Belafante on stage
Harry Belafonte, Coretta Scott King, and Duke Ellington, 1956
Harry Belafonte wins Appreciation Award
Harry Belafonte onstage
Harry Belafonte posing for a photograph
He was part of the organizational team behind the March on Washington, and he also helped plan King’s memorial after King’s assassination in 1968.
Belafonte served as the facilitator of King’s estate and managed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Fund. His voluminous career-spanning archives were placed in the care of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City in 2020.
Discover images of Harry Belafonte's life from the Johnson Publishing Company Archive.
Belafonte, who died on April 25, 2023, will be remembered for helping break down the color barrier in film, bringing self-respect to the portrayal of Black characters, and fighting for equality across the globe.
In a career that spanned more than seven decades, Belafonte made a host of trailblazing achievements in the arts and in society. From being the first African American to win an Emmy to the March on Washington, from the fight against apartheid abroad and at home to using his voice and his wallet to finance social justice, Belafonte dedicated himself to the improvement of his people and humanity across the globe.Kevin YoungAndrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
Art as a Platform for Justice
One of the most esteemed entertainers of the 20th century, Harry Belafonte leveraged his decades-long career in music, movies, and theater to challenge racial barriers.