About fifteen years ago I was a member of the planning and design team for the newly established Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama. Fundraising was a big part of our mission and we asked a large core group of airmen who they would like to see as a national spokesman for the effort. To a man, the response was, "Lena Horne!" who made a number of visits to their two Tuskegee airfields during World War II. They adored her. She was beautiful, had a sultry voice, the perfect figure for a World War II pinup, and a highly successful musical career on stage and screen. She was also strong-willed and, at times, defiant, both characteristics that served her well in the American civil rights movement following the war. No wonder she appealed to them.
Who was this international star and favorite pinup? Lena Horne was born on this day in Brooklyn in 1917. Those familiar with the singer will always remember her remarkable talent as a legendary performer with a sparkling personality and a beautiful smile, In her almost seventy years in entertainment she worked the big band and cabaret circuits, movies, Broadway, and television. She became politically active in the fight for civil rights following World War II, a decision that placed her on the federal entertainment blacklist for over a decade. Readers can enjoy more details about Horne's life and career in a New York Times obituary published following her death in May 2010.
|Horne at Tuskegee Institute banquet, Tuskegee, Alabama|
Due to her age and disabilities, Horne was unable to take on the role the Tuskegee Airmen so enthusiastically desired but fundraising commenced in a different direction and eventually contributed to construction and interpretation at the park. Her image and the stories of her visits are embedded in the exhibits.
I remember Horne well from her frequent television performances and recording beginning in the 1950's. She's always been a personal favorite among pop and jazz singers and the stories of her association with the Tuskegee Airmen story tells me she was one very special lady.
Here she is performing her signature song, Stormy Weather, from the 1943 film of the same name.
Photos and Illustrations:
Noel Parrish Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington