The 1950s saw a burst of Black talent in Hollywood and in the world of entertainment in general. Seeing the start of the Civil Rights Movement, most of the better opportunities open to Blacks were found on television. Hollywood made its concessions as well, however, and several Black actresses found their names etched across the American pathos. The following are the top ten Black actresses of the 1950s.
The phenomenal Dorothy Dandridge was the brightest Black star in the universe during the 1950s. A successful actress and singer, with a major career in the nightclubs and supper clubs, her first notable role during the fifties came in 1953’s Bright Road, a film that was heralded by the NAACP. On landing the title role in Otto Preminger’s all Black 1954 classic, Carmen Jones, Dandridge was catapulted to instant celebrity and became, for a brief time, the highest paid actress, Black or white, in Hollywood. Her performance as Carmen Jones garnered her a 1954 Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. She was the first Black actress to be so honored. She had a score of other significant films after Carmen Jones, including Island in the Sun in 1957,Tamango in 1958, and Porgy and Bess in 1959. Her last major film in Hollywood was 1960’s Malaga. Tragically, she died of a blood clot resulting from an injury in 1965.
One of the most successful entertainers of all time, Pearl Bailey began her career as a successful Vaudeville and Broadway actress. By the 1950s, she had emerged in Hollywood as a popular actress and singer,landing the plum role of Frankie, the best friend, in the all Black 1954 classic Carmen Jones. She appeared in three more films that decade,including That Certain Feeling in 1956,St. Louis Blues in 1958,and Porgy and Bess in 1959.
The legendary Ethel Waters was already a superstar, famous as a Vaudeville and Broadway actress and as a blues singer by the 1950s. With decades behind her in the extent of her fame, in the fifties, Waters adopted the on-screen persona of the matron and saint-a huge contrast from the reputation she had earned as a sultry and seductive Black Venus during the 1920s. She appeared in four films during the decade,The Member of the Wedding in 1952,the all-Black film Carib Gold in 1957,The Heart is a Rebel in 1958, and Sound and the Fury in 1959.
Juanita Moore rose to instant fame in 1959 playing Annie Jane Johnson, the distraught Black mother of a biracial girl who passes for white in the classic remake, Imitation of Life. She appeared in twenty films during the 1950s, mostly with uncredited appearances. Her most significant roles during the decade include Affair in Trinidad,Witness to Murder,Women’s Prison,Ransom! and The Girl Can’t Help It.
A successful Broadway actress and an outspoken Civil Rights activist, Ruby Dee started off the 1950s playing the wife of Jackie Robinson, opposite Jackie Robinson himself, in his 1950 biopic, The Jackie Robinson Story. She appeared in eight more films that decade, including No Way Out in 1950, The Tall Target in 1951, Go Man Goin 1954, The Great American Pastime in 1956, Edge of the City in 1957, St. Louis Blues in 1958, Our Virgin Island in 1959, and the iconic Take A Giant Step in 1959.
The formidable Beah Richards began her career in film during the 1950s. Her first significant role came in the iconic 1959 race drama, Take A Giant Step starring opposite Ruby Dee, Frederick O’Neal, and Johnny Nash.
Hazel Scott was one of the most prominent African Americans of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. One of the premier pianists of her time, she traveled the world playing classical and jazz music. Scott began appearing in films in the 1940s and by the 1950s was such a popular presence that she earned the distinction of becoming the first Black woman to host her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show, which aired in 1950. Her career waned soon after the start of her television show, however, as she was blacklisted because of her criticism of McCarthyism and her public defense of friends and colleagues who had been targeted by McCarthy and because of her Civil Rights activism. In the 1950s, she appeared in two films, A Bullet in the Gun Barrel and The Night Affair, both in 1958. In 1945, Scott married New York Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr with whom she had one child,Adam Clayton Powell III. They divorced in 1956.
The sultry seductress, Eartha Kitt, who rose to fame in the 1940s in Paris, was one of the biggest stars in the world during the 1950s. Along with a successful recording career, Kitt made numerous appearances on American television during the 1940s and 1950s and appeared in three motion pictures during the decade, The Mark of the Hawk in 1957 and St. Louis Blues and Anna Lucasta in 1958.
Diahann Carroll made her start as an entertainer in the 1950s when a friend sent her photograph to Ebony Magazine, which subsequently led to a modeling contract. In 1954, she made her Hollywood and Broadway debuts in the iconic all-Black film Carmen Jones and House of Flowers respectively. In 1959, she appeared in another iconic film with an all-Black cast, Porgy and Bess.
Louise Beavers had a steady and active career in the 1930s and 1940s playing domestics on screen. By the 1950s, she was a well-known and well-respected presence in Hollywood. In 1950, she appeared as the mother of Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story alongside Jackie Robinson and Ruby Dee.