Black History Month 2019
By MARGIE HILL
A year ago, the movie “Black Panther” was released in movie theaters worldwide. Directed by an African American with a predominantly African American cast, the movie was an immediate hit, earning positive reviews and breaking box office records. It has gone on to win numerous awards and accolades. Who were the African American trailblazers who paved the way for today’s multitude of successful African American actors and actresses?
One of the earliest was Ira Aldridge, an actor who achieved the highest success, but is still obscure in American theatrical history. Aldridge was born in 1807 near Baltimore, Md. He was the son of an African chieftain who was brought by missionaries from Senegal to the United States. His father later became a minister. Ira attended the African Free School in New York City.
Ira’s father wanted him to study medicine, but Ira wanted to become an actor. When he was about 17, his father sent him to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow. But Ira could not forget his love of the theater. He soon left school and went to London to appear on stage.
Ira became a star in London’s More famous theater. Soon he was one of the greatest actors in Europe. He appeared in all the major European cities. He was awarded medals by the King of Prussia, the King of Sweden, and the Emperor of Russia.
Aldridge was so great an actor that people watching him perform would forget he was acting. Once in a scene that required him to stab an actress, a man ran from the audience begging him not to kill her because she was innocent.
Aldridge left his country because he knew that a black man could not perform on the stage in America. He died in Poland in 1867.
Another trailblazer was Ossie Davis, a native of Cogdell, Clinch County, GA, born July 9, 1898. When his mother, Laura Cooper Davis, attempted to register his birth at the Clinch County Courthouse, the clerk misheard her as she called him “R.C.,” and he was thereafter known as Ossie.
His father, Charles Davis, was a railway construction engineer. Ossie experienced the harsh realities and terrifying hate of racism at a very young age when his father was threatened by the KKK who felt that no black man should have such an advanced and well-paying job.
Ossie and his siblings were expected to achieve greatness. Their achievements included scientist William Conan Davis, social worker Essie Morgan Davis, pharmacist Kenneth Curtis Davis, and biology teacher James Davis.
Ossie attended Howard University but soon dropped out to fulfill his desire for an acting career in New York. He began with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem in 1939. He made his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film, “No Way Out.”
Davis found recognition late in life by working in several Spike Lee films, including “Do The Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “She Hate Me,” and “Get on the Bus.” He also found work as a commercial voice-over artist and served as the narrator of the early-1990s CBS sitcom “Evening Shade,” starring Burt Reynolds, where he also played one of the residents of a small southern town. He voiced Anansi the Spider on the PBS children’s television series, “Sesame Street.”
Davis was one of the notable African-American directors of his generation: he directed movies such as “Gordon’s War,” “Black Girl,” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem.”
Ossie was married to famed African American actress Ruby Dee. He and his wife were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame, were awarded the National Medal of Arts, and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. He died in Miami, Fla., Feb. 4, 2005
Black History Month 2019