Growing up in a segregated America was just the way it was for black children in the 1950s. I grew up knowing that there were things black people could not do; it was the law. At the time I didn’t know that Lena Horne was fighting these battles of racism, I just knew that when I saw her photos she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
I didn’t know anything about “black role models” except those black women in my family. And yes, there were plenty of those around: my mom, grandmama and my many aunts. We were a matriarchal family; women outnumbered the men in our family. Early in my life I never saw movies, and we didn’t have a television until I was 9 or 10 years old; it was black and white, and we were the first to have one on our block. When I started seeing black people on the TV, it was only as maids and such. But Ms. Horne was something very different from the others.
She had already signed with MGM and made several films, Panama Hattie (1942), Cabin in the Sky (1943) and, of course, Stormy Weather (1943), before I was born. She had also helped break some of the color barriers in show business, like those at the Savoy Hotel in New York City, to name just one example. Ms. Horne was a star in the eyes of all black people, and my family was no exception—especially my female relatives.
Now as I look back, I see that every single one of them emulated her look. I was born in 1944, so she was a young starlet when my mom and aunts were young ladies, and they all loved to dress up. I have pictures of them sporting the same hairstyles as Ms. Horne. Being one of the first beautiful black women in Hollywood, she influenced the young black women of the day. Certainly she was a hero to the black community and helped profoundly in that community’s fight for equality, even though it may not have helped in her personal life. I read Ms. Horne’s story recently, and cannot believe how much pain she endured throughout her life, when we all admired and loved her so.
When I was with the Supremes, we met Ms. Horne in London at the Talk of the Town in 1968, I believe. We were very excited when, upon arriving in Great Britain, we learned that the Ms. Horne was appearing there a few days before our performance. Berry Gordy knew her, of course, and arranged for us to attend her show. Boy, what a thrill it was to see her show and then go backstage to meet her; she was just swell. We stayed in her dressing room and talked for a long while. She was so down to earth. I remember feeling like she was part of my family, like one of my aunts.
Throughout the years I was fortunate to be in her company on many occasions. I always felt I was in the presence of royalty whenever we met. In the late ’90s I attended NYU and received my associate’s degree. I ran into Ms. Horne later at an event in New York City, where she came over and gave me a hug, saying how proud she was of me going back to school to get my degree. I remember thinking, “Wow, I didn’t even know she knew I was in school.” I wish I could give her a big hug right now, to erase her pain and tell her how much she really meant to us.Originally Published