In1949, Lena Horne was one of America’s most recognizable stars, but she couldn’t get a seat at Caruso’s. When she and a group of black and white friends arrived at the posh Italian restaurant in Chicago, a worker demanded to see their “membership cards.”
“Are you discriminating against Negroes?” Horne asked loudly. When the employee refused to answer, she repeated herself to no avail. This wasn’t the first time Horne had been turned away because of the color of her skin. Hotels had refused her rooms and casting agents declined to recommend her for roles.
Horne fought back. She sued Caruso’s for discrimination and told the papers about her treatment there. Only after the restaurant issued a public, printed apology did she drop the case.
Horne’s was a double legacy — she was one of the 20th century’s most influential singers and actors, and also a tireless agitator for civil rights. She hadn’t asked for the second legacy, but assumed the thankless role with brio, refusing to let the mores of the day constrain her.
Horne was born in Brooklyn in 1917, with resistance to the United States’ discriminatory status quo in her blood. She was raised largely by a civil rights activist grandmother who enrolled her in the NAACP when she was just two years old. Early in her career, she joined Noble Sissle’s Orchestra, an all-black band that traveled the United States. Wherever they went, they experienced discrimination, and Horne resented having to sleep on a bus instead of in hotels that refused to accept black customers. “It just wasn’t fair!” she recalled later. But when she told her colleagues they should protest, they refused. “At least from what I could see, they didn’t seem upset,” she said later. “I thought that was all wrong.”
Horne was billed as a “chocolate chanteuse.” Being pigeonholed as a black artist infuriated her. In 1942, MGM offered her a long-term contract — the second of its kind ever offered to an African-American woman. It made her the highest paid black actor in the United States.The NAACP, which had longpressured the studios to offer more contracts to black players, saw the arrangement, as a triumph. But MGM didn’t know how to use its new star. When the studio pressured her to rebrand as a Latin-American artist, she refused. MGM developed a special makeup just for her called “Light Egyptian” that was meant to make her skin look darker so audiences wouldn’t mistake her for white. She was refused roles aside white male actors, and her films were often censored.
She refused to take on roles as maids and spoke out against the studio’s censorship of movies for Southern audiences. Her performances, she said publicly, were filmed in ways that “won’t be missed when southern movie houses cut them out. And they always do.”
When a heckler called Horne a “nigger” at a night club, she threw dishes, a tray, and a lamp at him. She refused to apologize saying, “My anger was directed at something that is wrong, not at something I have to apologize for.”
Speaking out wasn’t the only way Horne fought racism. She soon learned that as the country’s most sought-after black star, she held clout — and she used it to help other African-Americans. During World War II, she refused to sing for segregated audiences. Army outposts relaxed their segregation rules in response, even in the South. After a group of black soldiers was excluded from one of her shows, she quit the tour. Instead of working further with the USO, she funded her own tour and played for black audiences only.
Horne’s growing visibility and her outspoken racial activism affected her personal life. In 1947, she married Lennie Hayton, a white bandleader, and kept her marriage secret. Three years later, when the marriage was outed by the press, the couple received death threats.
Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee went after Horne too. During the 1950s, she was written up in Red Channels, the HUAC’s published list of supposed Communists, due to appearances she had made on behalf of anti-fascist and racial justice groups during the 1940s and 1950s. (Unbeknownst to Horne, these groups were sponsored by Communists.) Despite publicly disavowing Communism, Horne seemed done for until Roy Brewer, a well-known anti-Communist, helped rehabilitate her reputation, reaching out to studio heads and vouching for her.
None of this kept Horne from publicly agitating for racial justice. In the 1960s, she aligned herself with the Civil Rights Movement, attending the March on Washington, and meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to demand racial justice alongside other black celebrities like Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin. She also publicly expressed her admiration for Malcolm X, despite his condemnation of her interracial marriage.
Horne struggled to make sense of her place in American culture. “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else, either,” she saidin 1974. “I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland.” Her beauty had made her a star, but her race blocked her from true acceptance.
Horne was stifled by Hollywood, but she came into her own in her racial justice work. “I had a right to be involved in the 60s,” she told an interviewer in 1996. “I just knew that I had to be with brave people…. I no longer have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”