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Harry Belafonte


Harry Belafonte (Harold George Bellafanti, Jr.)
March 1, 1927 – April 25, 2023
Notable: Activist, Singer, & Actor
Nationality: American


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Harold George Bellafanti, Jr. was born in Harlem, New York City one of two sons of Melvine and Harold George Bellafanti, Sr. (Sr. later changed the spelling of the family’s name to Belafonte.) Both parents were biracial and from Jamaica but some sources state his father also had ties to Martinique. Belafonte’s mother worked as a dressmaker and housekeeper while his father earned a living as a cook aboard ships.

In the early 1930s, Belafonte went to live with his maternal grandmother in Kingston, Jamaica. (Sources vary as to whether or not his mother also moved to Jamaica and for what length of time.) This time spent in Jamaica would provide both positive and negative experiences that would affect Belafonte later in life. On the one hand, he was exposed to the island’s music and culture. But he also witnessed first-hand the oppressive and unequal treatment Black Jamaicans received from the British colonists.

When Belafonte returned to Harlem in 1940 his mother was working hard to provide for the family. Working long hours meant that she was often away from home and when possible Belafonte was left in the care of others. He would later lament understanding his mother’s sacrifice but still being affected by her absence.

Belafonte enrolled at George Washington High School but found it difficult to adjust to Harlem. In 1944, he enlisted with the US Navy but never saw combat despite America still being embroiled in WWII. Serving in the military provided some positive benefits for Belafonte. First, he had the opportunity to interact with college-educated Black men who inspired him to begin thinking about racism, segregation, colonialism, etc.

World War II was promoted as the world’s democracies fighting against tyranny and oppression. Yet, before enlisting Belafonte had lived in a society with a long history of systematic oppression based on race. While serving in the military, Belafonte was relegated to manual labor jobs. After returning home from fighting fascism, Belafonte found that the system of racial oppression was still in place. And like many other returning Black veterans he also noted the redoubled efforts to remind Black people of their place as second-class citizens.

Once again back home in Harlem, Belafonte found work as a janitor. He likely would have continued on this path of a normal life if it wasn’t for receiving two free tickets to the American Negro Theatre (ANT). Attending the show would prove life-changing and inspirational. Belafonte enjoyed the show and began volunteering at ANT as a stagehand. Volunteering led to him auditioning for and landing the lead role in a production of Juno and the Paycock.

Having caught the acting bug, Belafonte utilized the G.I. Bill to participate in a drama workshop that was also attended by Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Bea Arthur, and Walter Matthau. In a stroke of luck, Belafonte’s appearance in another AMT production was attended by Monte Kay, a music agent. This led to Kay creating opportunities for Belafonte to perform at jazz clubs. Belafonte’s musical performances created a buzz which led to him signing a record deal in 1949.

The 1950s would see Belafonte achieve several firsts and reach new heights as an entertainer. In 1953, Belafonte made his debut on both Broadway and the silver screen. The very next year Belafonte won a Tony Award and also appeared in the iconic Otto Preminger adaptation of Carmen Jones. The role in which Belafonte starred opposite Dorothy Dandridge raised his profile and minted Belafonte as both a Broadway and movie star.

Belafonte would go on to appear in numerous films. One of the most notable was 1957’s Island in the Sun. At the time the film was considered extremely controversial. It depicted an interracial romance between Belafonte’s and Joan Fontaine’s characters, a Black man and White woman.

Alongside his success in movies, Belafonte continued to perform music and released multiple albums. Despite not being a strong singer Belafonte had performed with jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker from the beginning of his career. But it was his third album, Calypso, which was released in 1956 that would mark the commercial high point of Belafonte’s music career.

The album featured The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) which became a major hit. Calypso launched a craze for the genre and went go on to become the first full-length album to sell one million copies in a year. By the late 1950s, Belafonte was producing films some of which starred an interracial cast which was rather avant-garde for the time. Keeping up his string of firsts, in 1959 Belafonte became the first Black person to win an Emmy and was also the first Black television producer.

Yet, during the high point of his career, Belafonte used his platform to call attention to racism. From 1954 to 1961, Belafonte protested systemic racism by refusing to perform in the South. Having met and befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s he lent his moral and financial support to the Civil Rights Movement. Belafonte personally provided funds for Dr. King’s family as despite King’s sacrifices he wasn’t earning much money. This was in addition to helping to finance the Freedom Rides, SNCC, and the Freedom Farm Cooperative.

At the time, being involved with the Civil Rights Movement was considered radical and controversial. As with several other entertainers, Belafonte was accused of being a communist and was blacklisted. Ignoring personal risks, Belafonte remained politically active.

Belafonte eventually moved into folk music before mostly shifting his focus away from performing to social activism. He was involved with various organizations and initiatives in addition to launching his own.

Harry Belafonte died in New York City from congestive heart failure on March 25, 2023, at 96 years old.


  1. Bernstein, Adam. 2023. “Harry Belafonte, Barrier-Smashing Entertainer and Activist, Dies at 96.” The Washington Post. WP Company. April 25, 2023.
  2. Biography.Com Editors, ed. 2023. “Harry Belafonte.” A&E Networks Television. April 25, 2023.
  3. Blake, John, and Chloe Melas. 2023. “Harry Belafonte, Activist and Entertainer with a ‘Rebel Heart,’ Dies at 96.” CNN. Cable News Network. April 25, 2023.
  4. Campbell, Brent. 2023. “Harry Belafonte (1927-2023).” April 25, 2023.
  5. “Harry Belafonte Biography.” n.d. Kinfolk. Accessed April 26, 2023.
  6. “Harry Belafonte’s Biography.” n.d. The HistoryMakers. Accessed April 26, 2023.
  7. Keepnews, Peter. 2023. “Harry Belafonte, 96, Dies; Barrier-Breaking Singer, Actor and Activist.” The New York Times. The New York Times. April 25, 2023.
  8. Puente, Maria. 2023. “Harry Belafonte, Trailblazing Singer, Actor and Activist, Dies at 96.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. April 25, 2023.

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