The 1950s were a time of strident purpose and striking achievement for African Americans.
Though the postwar “feel good” era of American industrial might and suburban prosperity did not immediately include Black America–a significant portion of which were still mired in poverty in big-city ghettos in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia–a number of Blacks earned worldwide acclaim for courageous actions and accomplishments.
During World War II, Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D., a graduate of Jefferson High School and UCLA, became a well-known authority on African issues and was often solicited by world policymakers to answer questions about Africa’s stability and possible Axis planning.
Working with the State Department, Bunche supplied U.S. troops with cultural and diplomatic manuals about the political and economic conditions in Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia) at the beginning of the Axis push into North Africa. This would lead to Bunche becoming the first African American desk officer in the State Department and, in 1945, he became head of the Division of Dependent Affairs and helped draft the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.
Bunche is best known worldwide as Secretary of the Palestine Commission and his role as mediator during the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. Bunche was able to negotiate an armistice between the warring factions and convinced the Arabs and Israelis to accept the 1949 Armistice Agreements, essentially dividing Jerusalem into one-half Jew, one-half Muslim.
In 1950, Bunche became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and would later serve as undersecretary of the United Nations. An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Bunche in 1963 received the Medal of Freedom Award from President John. F. Kennedy. The Ralph Bunche Home, 1221 E. 40th Place, Los Angeles, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Harlem during this period exemplified the urgency of social change Blacks had been pressing for since the post-World War I migration north, but with this move from a defined southern agrarian social status came a reaffirmation and resurgence of Jim Crow politics nationwide. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell came to national prominence in the 1950s by exposing the weaknesses of Harlem’s health systems and revealing to the world the economic and political inequities within the U.S. inner city.
Powell became a political hero and, by mid-century, was the most prominent voice from the big-city ghetto resonating in Congress.
However, such forceful and adamant demands by a Black man in the national media eventually drew ire from White congressional colleagues, and much of proposed civil rights legislation was never pursued outside of committee nor debated or voted upon on the House floor. Powell’s determined efforts did give impetus to President Dwight Eisenhower in submission of a civil rights bill to Congress in 1959 and he was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Locally, Dr. H. Claude Hudson was one of the original leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and he played a significant role in the formation of the local Black middle class which, by the tens of thousands, made Los Angeles home after World War II, specifically because of the industrial and housing booms of the 1950s.
His arrival in 1923, however, saw him literally “swimming” in controversy. At what was once called “The Inkwell” (a narrow strip of beach in Venice at the end of Pico Boulevard where Blacks were permitted to swim), Hudson and a group of USC students were bent on testing the segregation laws. He was arrested for swimming, but the tumult in the Black community surrounding the case resulted in bad publicity for a city then trying to attract new residents. The verdict was overturned and Los Angeles beaches became integrated.
Hudson built the H. Claude Hudson Building on Central Avenue in South Los Angeles, and this facility served as the first home of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP. Hudson helped found Broadway Federal Savings and Loan Assn. in 1949 and lived to see the assets of the small thrift grow from $3 million to $66 million.
Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn drew on Hudson’s advice to help build the King/Drew Medical Center in Watts-Willowbrook, and Hudson was pivotal in the increase of Black elected political leaders locally, including Augustus F. Hawkins, Mervyn Dymally, Gilbert W. Lindsay, Tom Bradley and Yvonne Burke.
Elijah Muhammad was leader of the Nation of Islam during, perhaps, that organization’s most effective years. During a time of advocacy for independent, Black-owned businesses, institutions and religious denominations, Muhammad built in Chicago the Temple of Islam, the nation’s most important center for Black Muslim studies. Muhammad advocated an independent nation for African Americans, taught that Blacks were the original human beings and instructed all members to remain true to strict guidelines in dining, personal habits and appearance (crisp suits and bow ties for men, long hems and head scarves for women).
Though Muhammad was no pacifist, he argued that the only “war” that African Americans should participate in would be a future “battle of Armageddon” in which Blacks would reassert to humankind their “rightful superiority.” These and other such statements of “Black militancy” had earlier landed Muhammad in prison for sedition and conspiracy, but by the 1950s the demand within Black America for national change drew sympathy from his Christian counterparts, and the Nation of Islam would become a more mainstream organization in its ideology of and contribution for Black civil rights.
African American research chemist Percy Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs such as cortisone and steroids. Julian was one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry (from the University of Vienna). His research resulted in the mass production of hormones, which led to widely available methods of birth control.
Early in his career, Julian attracted attention for synthesizing the drug physostigmine (used to treat glaucoma) and, working with George Washington Carver, refined a soy protein that became the basis of Aero-Foam, a type of foam fire extinguisher that was used by the U.S. Navy during World War II.
In 1950, Julian was named Chicago’s Man of the Year by a Chicago Sun-Times poll, but upon moving to the all-White suburb of Oak Park, his home was bombed.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew was the first person to develop the blood bank. His introduction of a system for storing of blood plasma revolutionized the medical profession; this new method of blood transfusion was first utilized on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific during World War II and in Korea. “Blood for Britain” was a popular call at the outset of the war and this first blood bank would solidify Drew among the great American medical innovators such as Walter Reed or Daniel Hale Williams.
Drew was the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, which was a permanent, but smaller program similar to the earlier British blood drive.
Ironically, Drew died from blood loss in an automobile accident in 1950 in North Carolina when segregation laws would not permit him to be treated at a Whites-only hospital.
James Baldwin’s stunning first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953), captured not only his story of the Black family transported north, but the similar tale of African Americans nationwide.
The work had startling realism and brought the Harlem and Black experience vividly to life. Moving through time from the rural South to the northern ghetto, Baldwin’s characters were caught up in a dramatic struggle within a fading society confronting inevitable change.
Baldwin’s daring, provocative prose would lead him to write one of the most controversial short stories in American literary history in “Going to Meet the Man” (1963) in which a sexually impotent White deputy sheriff (Jesse) in the Jim Crow South is “outed” to colleagues by Baldwin.
Among Baldwin’s other critically acclaimed masterpieces were the powerful collection of essays “The Fire Next Time” (1963) and the short play “Blues for Mister Charlie” (1964).
Chester Himes’ role in hard-boiled fiction has its roots far outside the typical pulp and dime novel origins. His early life and works were similar to those of Richard Wright or Baldwin and, like so many other Black artists, he exiled himself to Paris, France. Himes’ first novel, “Cast the First Stone” (1952), was based on his time in the Ohio State Penitentiary and was cited by critics as the “classic prison novel.” Two of Himes’ later novels “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1960) and “Come Back Charleston Blue” (1967) were turned into popular motion pictures during the “Blacksploitation” movie era of the early 1970s.
When Dorothy Dandridge departed Jefferson High School in 1939, her first stop was the Cotton Club in Harlem. She and sister, Vivian, and friend, Etta Jones, performed with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra at the famous night spot, but it wasn’t long before Hollywood called. Her glamorous good looks and sex appeal landed her small roles-including the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” (1937), and, after a stint with the Desi Arnaz Orchestra at the Mocambo in Hollywood, she rocketed to international stardom at venues in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
Dandridge won her first starring role in 1953’s “Bright Road” opposite Harry Belafonte. The two would team up again for the star-studded film presentation of Bizet’s “Carmen” in director Vincente Minelli’s “Carmen Jones” (1954). Dandridge became the first African American to be nominated for Best Actress for that role, but lost to Grace Kelly (“The Country Girl”).
Dandridge was on her way to becoming the first non-White actress to achieve the kind of superstardom that had accrued to contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner and was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1955. Her only other great film was playing opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1959 application of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” The racially divisive 1950s, sadly, would frustrate Hollywood producers in creating a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge.
Musician, actor, author and social activist are all attributes that describe the amazing career of Harry Belafonte. A native of Harlem, Belafonte’s parents moved back to Jamaica when he was 5 years old, and it was there that the Calypso melody would influence his vocal work, particularly in American folk music. “The Banana Boat Song” was based on his boyhood years of backbreaking labor harvesting and loading produce onto Caribbean merchant ships.
His breakthrough album, Calypso (1956), was the first LP to sell more than 1 million copies and that disc is No. 4 on Billboard’s “Top 100 Albums” list for having spent 31 weeks at the top.
Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes and American standards. He scored a huge hit in 1959 with the old Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” and it became one of his signature songs.
By then, Belafonte had become a much sought-after actor having studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur, Walter Matthau and Sidney Poitier.
One of Belafonte’s first roles was in the Broadway revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” (1954) for which he received a Tony Award. The first African American to win an Emmy Award (“Tonight with Harry Belafonte,”1959), Belafonte’s anger towards southern racial policies led him to forgo any performance in the region from 1954-1961.
Sidney Poitier, once an understudy to Belafonte in a play called “Days of Our Youth,” was also one of Hollywood’s most bankable performers. Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 feature “No Way Out,” portraying a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he could not save. He honed his craft throughout the 1950s in movies such as “Cry, The Beloved Country” (about the apartheid regime in South Africa), the classroom drama with Glen Ford, “The Blackboard Jungle,” and in the prison-break movie “The Defiant Ones” with Tony Curtis. ,
Like Belafonte, Poitier is American-born (Miami) but reared in the islands. Poitier would begin to make his mark on popular culture in more sociopolitical roles in “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies of the Field” and his Oscar-winning performance in “In the Heat of the Night.”
“A Raisin in the Sun” came about by virtue of Lorraine Hansberry’s love of Langston Hughes and the short poem “A Dream Deferred.”
“A Raisin in the Sun” was an immediate hit at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York in 1959 where it ran 530 performances. Hollywood producers soon took notice, and the 1961 film version with Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands remains one of stage and screen’s most popular and intriguing forays into Black ghetto life. Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at age 34.
The 1950s offered the most dramatic change in popular music in American history. The Jazz and big-band eras had faded after the war, but Bebop innovators Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Sonny Rollins helped keep the jazz recording industry vibrant.
The big bands of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Jordan gave impetus to solo artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ike Turner and Big Momma Thornton.
Sugar Ray Robinson won the world boxing championship six times (once as a welterweight in 1951 and five times a middleweight between 1951 and 1960). He is considered by many authorities to be the best boxer pound for pound ever. Robinson was 89-0 as an amateur and won 40 consecutive professional fights before falling to Jake LaMotta in one of their six fights. In 201 professional bouts, Robinson had 109 knockouts and 19 defeats, most of the losses when he was past 40.
When Willie Mays received the 1951 Rookie of the Year award in the National League, the New York Giants knew they had an outstanding centerfielder, but they had no idea the young Alabama native would be the catalyst for their late-season heroics. The Giants were down to the Brooklyn Dodgers 10 games in late August that year, but Mays’ outfield prowess, base-stealing speed and clutch hitting–particularly the long ball–helped them overcome the Dodgers on the last day of the season and propel them to the pennant title. The “Say Hey Kid” served in the Army from 1952-54 and returned to the Giants for the 1954 season and led the league in hitting (.345) and had 41 home runs in helping the Giants to win the 1954 World Series.
Harlem toddler Althea Gibson first learned paddle ball in 1940 and became so proficient at the game that New York’s Cosmopolitan Tennis Club sponsored her to learn the game and proper social behavior. In 1946, a number of politically minded African Americans spotted Gibson as having the talent to help break down organized racism in professional sports. She had won junior championships sponsored by the American Tennis Association (the Black version of the United States Lawn Tennis Association) and she was finally allowed to play for the national organization when, in 1950, four-time U.S. Open champion Alice Marble spoke out on her behalf. By the end of the decade, Gibson was the world’s No. 1 women’s tennis player, winning the Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles title in 1957 and 1958.
Publisher John H. Johnson last week had his portrait placed on a 2012 “forever stamp” from the United States Postal Service. Johnson stands among the great names in 20th-century American publishing, including William Randolph Hearst, Henry and Claire Booth Luce and the Chandler family of Los Angeles. His Johnson Publishing empire in Chicago produced one of the great feature magazines in Ebony (1945) and this publication was arguably the best source of Black news during the Civil Rights Movement.
Johnson expanded from magazine publishing into book publishing, and owned Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the largest Black-owned cosmetics company in the world. He also helped steer Supreme Life Insurance Co., which catered to mid-Western Black families when white-owned firms would not issue policies to African Americans.
Prior to his 2005 death at age 87, Johnson received more than 30 honorary doctoral degrees, the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP and, in 1996, the Medal of Freedom Award from President Bill Clinton.
By the end of the 1950s, African Americans had made significant strides in fostering more discussion of their still neglected community.