African Americans in the Arts

1760

Poet Jupiter Hammon, an ex-slave living in New York, publishes his first poem, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penetential [sic] Cries”

1773

First major African American author and poet Phyllis Wheatley publishes her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

1821
African Grove Company, the first all–African American acting troupe, debuts in New York City, performing Shakespeare plays and popular melodramas; in one of the Company’s productions, James Hewlett becomes the first African American to play Othello

1853

William Wells Brown, the first African American novelist, publishes Clotel; later works include the play The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858) and the nonfiction work The Rising Son (1873)

1896
Production of John W. Isham’s Oriental America becomes the first Broadway show with an all–African American company

1898
First African American musical comedy, Bob Cole’s A Trip to Coontown, is directed and managed by blacks and runs for three seasons in New York City

1899

Pianist and composer Scott Joplin pioneers the ragtime style with the “Maple Leaf Rag”; he goes on to write more than 40 ragtime pieces, including the popular favorite “The Entertainer”

1900

James Weldon Johnson writes the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Which goes on to become an unofficial black national anthem; Johnson’s later works include the novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and the collection of verse sermons God’s Trombones

1902

Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton begins performing in the Storyville district of New Orleans

1904

“Mother of the blues” Ma Rainey begins touring as a vaudeville singer

1910
Bert Williams, the first major African American male theater star, becomes the first black man to appear in an otherwise all-white Broadway production, the Ziegfeld Follies

1912

W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues,” the first published blues song, goes on sale

Pioneer black filmmaker Bill Foster directs the comedy The Railroad Porter, the first major African American film

1914

Sam Lucas becomes the first African American to star in a full-length Hollywood film when he portrays Tom in the film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

1915
Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first African American movie production company, is founded in Los Angeles

1919
Oscar Micheaux, the first African American independent filmmaker, releases his film The Homesteaders

1920

Charles Gilpin earns critical acclaim for his title performance in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City

1921

Langston Hughes’s first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appears in Crisis magazine

Ragtime composer Eubie Blake’sShuffle Along is one of the first musicals to be written, directed, and produced by African Americans

1923
First Broadway play written by an African American, Willis Richardson’s The Chip Woman’s Fortune, opens

1924

Florence Mills, the first major African American female theater star, stars in the New York production of Dixie to Broadway

1925

Dancer and singer Josephine Baker begins performing in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris; she goes on to become a popular and provocative cabaret star

Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong begins work on his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, which cement his reputation as a master jazz musician

1931

Jazz vocalist Billie Holiday lands her first singing work in a Harlem club; she records her first songs two years later

1933
Caterina Jarboro becomes the first African American to perform with a major American opera company when she is featured in a Chicago Opera Company production of Verdi’s Aida at the New York Hippodrome

1934

Harlem’s Apollo Theater hosts its first Amateur Night, which goes on to launch the careers of many important African American performance artists

1935

Bandleader Count Basie assembles his nine-piece band and goes on to become of the most influential figures in big-band jazz

1937

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is published

1938

Jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald has her first hit; she goes on to record hundreds of songs and tour internationally with numerous jazz greats

1940

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African American ever to receive an Academy Award, for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind

Richard Wright‘s novel Native Son becomes a bestseller; Wright later receives similar acclaim for his memoir, Black Boy (1945)

1942

Actress Lena Horne moves to Los Angeles to pursue a film career

1943

Paul Robeson stars in a Broadway production of Othello that sets the all-time record for a Broadway run of a Shakespeare play

1945

Bandleader and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker pioneer the style of bebop jazz

Swing musician and vocalist Nat King Cole becomes the first African American to have his own radio show, which runs for two years on NBC Radio; later, he becomes the first African American to have his own network television show, The Nat King Cole Show, which airs on NBC

1949

Jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis releases his album Birth of the Cool

1950

Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, awarded for her book of poetry Annie Allen

1951

Blues guitarist B.B. King records “Three O’Clock Blues,” his first major hit

1952

Ralph Ellison wins the National Book Award for his novel Invisible Man

1953

James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is published

1954

Tap dancer Gregory Hines makes his Broadway debut; he goes on to star in many films and plays and contributes to a major rebirth in American tap dance

1955

Marian Anderson becomes the first African American to be signed by the Metropolitan Opera, with her performance as Ulrica in Verdi’s A Masked Ball

Dorothy Dandridge is the first African American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her role in Carmen Jones

1956

Singer, dancer, and actor Sammy Davis Jr. debuts both on Broadway (Mr. Wonderful) and film (The Benny Goodman Story)

1957

Soprano Leontyne Price, the first African American opera singer to win international renown, debuts with the San Francisco Opera

1958

In New York City, choreographer Alvin Ailey establishes the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, which goes on to become world-renowned

1959

Singer Ray Charles has his first million-copy hit single with “What I’d Say”

1960

Lorraine Hansberry’sA Raisin in the Sun becomes the first play by a black writer to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award and the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway

1964

Sidney Poitier becomes the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, for his performance in Lilies of the Field

1965

The Autobiography of Malcolm X becomes a major bestseller

Bill Cosby becomes the first black star of a network television snow, NBC’s I Spy

1967

Pearl Bailey headlines an all-black Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! that runs for two years in New York and then goes on a lengthy national tour

1968
Henry Lewis becomes the first African American to serve as musical director of an American orchestra (the New Jersey Symphony)

James Earl Jones wins a Tony award for his role in the Broadway production of the boxing drama The Great White Hope

1969

African American soprano Jessye Norman makes her opera debut in Berlin, in Wagner’s Tannhäuser

Filmmaker Gordon Parks’sThe Learning Tree, the first film directed by an African American for a major movie studio, is released; Parks goes on to direct Shaft (1971)

Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is published

1970

The Jackson 5 have four consecutive number one hits on the pop charts

1972

R&B pioneer Stevie Wonder releases his hit album Talking Book

1976

Alex Haley publishes his novel Roots, which becomes a hit TV miniseries in 1977

1977

Song of Solomon brings Toni Morrison attention as a major literary talent; she goes on to further critical success with Beloved (1987) and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993)

1982

Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple receives wide critical praise
Michael Jackson wins eight Grammy awards for his album Thriller

1984

The Cosby Show debuts on NBC; it runs for eight seasons

1986

Playwright August Wilson wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fences; he goes on to win another Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson (1990)

1990

Denzel Washington wins an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Glory, a retelling of the story of the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War

1992

Terry McMillan publishes her novel Waiting to Exhale, which is acclaimed for its portrayal of independent black women; the film adaptation (1995) is a major hit

2002

Denzel Washington and Halle Berry win Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress for their respective roles in Training Day and Monster’s Ball

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