Black History Month Spotlight on Notable Firsts

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Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner is in the collection of the White House, and hangs in the Green Room. Acquired during the Clinton administration with funds from the White House Acquisition Trust, it is the first artwork in the White House by an African American.

In honor of Black History month, here’s a brief listing of first achievements in the arts by black writers, actors and musical performers across genres.

Throughout the month of February, Americans celebrate the history and the achievements of black people in the United States. Here are but a few of the many notable accomplishments attained by African Americans in the popular fields of literature, film and music.

First Literary Achievements By African Americans

History details how Phillis Wheatly was born in Africa and sold into slavery in 1760. By the age of twelve, Wheatley was reading classical literature and the Bible. She wrote her first poem at age thirteen. In 1773, Wheatley became the first black American in the history of the United States to publish a book. Her book of poetry, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is considered by many to have ushered in the beginnings of African American literature.

Wheatly’s achievement paved the way for other black Americans in the field of literature. William Wells Brown is credited with being the first African American to write a novel (1853) and the first African American to publish a play (1858). In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks received renown as the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison (1988) later became the first black American in history to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Theatrical and Cinematic Firsts By Black Americans

In the early 20th century, the first Broadway musical written by African Americans and starring black Americans in leading roles took to the stage. That play was the musical comedy, In Dahomey. It opened in February 1903 at the New York Theatre and was considered to be one of the most successful musical comedies of its time. In Dahomey was also the first African American production in history to include all the popular musical genres of the era such as minstrel, vaudeville, and musical comedy.

In the motion picture industry, Josephine Baker starred in the international movie, La Sirène des Tropiques, in 1927. This was Baker’s first feature film and the first starring role for an African American. Black history month gives the nation the opportunity to acknowledge Hattie McDaniel and her achievement as the first black American to take home an Oscar. McDaniel won the Bes Supporting Actress award in 1940 for her role in the Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind. An African American would not be the recipient of an Oscar again until Sidney Poitier made history and won for Best Actor in 1963’s Lilies of the Field.

Though many people may know that actress Halle Berry was the first black American woman to win a leading actress Oscar for her stunning performance in Monster’s Ball (2001), few may be aware that Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American woman in history to get a Best Actress nomination for her work in the title role of the 1954 feature film, Carmen Jones.

Notable First Achievements by African Americans in Music

The 1950’s were also a high time for historical first accomplishments by black Americans in music of all genres.

Philadelphia-born contralto songstress Marian Anderson was the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1955. Her performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera went over so well that Anderson was granted permanent membership with the Met. In the same year, Leontyne Price became the first black American singer to appear in a televised production of an opera. As a show of protest, NBC television’s broadcast of Tosca was not shown on many of its affiliate stations.

In 1958, two black Americans won Grammy awards for the first time. The historic awards went to Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. 1958 was also the year The Mills Brothers went all the way to the top of the Billboard music charts, becoming the first African Americans to have a recording reach Number One. That recording was Paper Doll.

On a similar record-breaking musical note, the first African American musicians to be officially inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame were Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and Little Richard. All men were enshrined during the inaugural class of 1986. The following year, Aretha Franklin became the first woman in history – black, or otherwise – to be inducted.

Black History Month is a time when people from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds can take a moment to reflect on the contributions made by those of African American heritage. This article on black history highlights but a small sampling of achievements by black Americans within the arts.