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 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.

Calypso Songs Song and story magazine about Harry Belafonte 1957 - ink on printed paper

Calypso Songs

Song and story magazine about Harry Belafonte 1957

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

His first film role was in “Bright Road,” which debuted in 1953. He co-starred alongside Dorothy Dandridge. The two then starred in Otto Preminger's hit musical, “Carmen Jones” in 1954.

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,” in 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."

Harry Belafonte receives the National Medal of Arts award from President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Harry Belafonte was one of 12 recipients, and the only African American, to receive the National Medal of Arts award from President Bill Clinton during a White House South Lawn ceremony on October 14, 1994. Fred Watkins Jr. Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

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. 

Belafonte was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted confidants. 

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. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Funeral: King Family and Friends. Image includes Coretta Scott King, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Funeral: King Family and Friends, 1968.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Burk Uzzle

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.

Harry Belafonte Jr. seated with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and her children January 15, 1969; printed 2011 ink on paper

Harry Belafonte Jr. seated with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and her children January 15, 1969.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Horace C. Henry, © Horace Henry

Life Offstage

Discover images of Harry Belafonte's life from the Johnson Publishing Company Archive. 

Harry Belafonte photographed sharing a father-daughter moment in his office.

Harry Belafonte photographed sharing a father- daughter moment in Belafonte's New York office, 1956. Moneta Sleet Jr. Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Harry Belafonte is photographed making dinner with wife Marguerite Belafonte.

Harry Belafonte is photographed making dinner with wife Marguerite Belafonte. Bertrand Miles. Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Image of Harry Belafonte in a drop top car with his daughter

Harry Belafonte is photographed sharing a intimate moment with his daughter in the car.

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Harry Belafonte sings to Mahalia Jackson during a visit to her Chicago home.

Harry Belafonte sings to Mahalia Jackson during a visit to her Chicago home in this undated photo. Isaac Sutton. Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Harry Belafonte is pictured with his wife Julie Belafonte at the American Music Awards

Harry Belafonte is pictured with his wife Julie Belafonte at the American Music Awards, where he took home an Appreciation Award for his work with USA For Africa. The 13th annual American Music Awards was held January 27, 1986, at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. Isaac Sutton. Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Harry Belafonte and daughter Adrienne Belafonte.

Harry Belafonte and daughter Adrienne Belafonte.

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Actor and singer Harry Belafonte and baseball great Jackie Robinson receive an award.

Harry Belafonte is photographed receiving an award along side baseball great Jackie Robinson. G. Marshall Wilson. Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Picture of legendary entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte relaxes in front of a Charles White work of art in this undated photo. Moneta Sleet, Jr. 

Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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 Young
Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
Joan Baez, Selma to Montgomery March, 1965 1965; printed ca. 1990 silver and photographic gelatin on photographic paper

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. 

Learn More about Art as a Platform for Justice
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