The King of Calypso: Tribute to Harry Belafonte

“I am who I am despite what America has put before me. I am who I am despite the obstacles that we have all faced based upon race and based upon social and spiritual humiliation.” ~Harry Belafonte

On April 25, 2023, award winning singer, actor, and human rights activist Harry Belafonte passed away at the age of 96 in New York City, New York. His long and successful career garnered him many awards, accolades, and honors for his talent, creativity, and dedication to equality. Belafonte was one of a very few people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT) awards. He is best known for his song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and portraying Dorothy Dandridge’s love interest in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. Belafone received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award from Africare in 2002, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. Belafonte was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in Boston and was an honorary member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Close-up view of Actor and Vocalist Harry Belafonte.] (NAID 542075)

Harold George Bellanfantini, Jr. was born on March 1, 1927, to West Indian immigrant parents George, Sr. and Melvine, in Harlem, New York City, New York. He spent a lot of his childhood in his mother’s home country of Jamaica. The warmth and culture of the country, as well as seeing the extreme poverty and inequality, greatly influenced his future music career and activism. As a teenager, Belafonte returned to New York City full time, to attend George Washington High School.

Belafonte dropped out of high school in 1944, to enlist in the Navy during World War II. He was stationed at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, near San Francisco. Belafonte arrived just a few months after a major explosion killed over 300 Black men, who were assigned to load ammunition onto ships bound for the Pacific theater. The Port Chicago Mutiny occurred after the deadly blast on July 17, 1944, where enlisted African American sailors protested and refused to work until conditions were improved. Belafonte credited his time at Port Chicago as an educational experience. He learned about Black history from books given to him from other African American sailors, in addition to hearing their stories about injustices across the United States.

Secretary Ken Salazar touring the Port Chicago [Naval Magazine National Memorial, Concord, California: highlighting first addition to the National Park system under the Obama Administration] – 3/22/2010 (NAID 55072471)

Belafonte was honorably discharged from the Navy and returned to New York City. He was able to take acting courses at the New School along with other inspiring actors that included Sidney Poitier (who would become a life-long friend), Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Marlon Barando. Belafonte landed a few leading roles in the 1950s, but came to fame for his singing. He performed at several New York City jazz clubs, sometimes backed by musicians Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Building on his Jamaican roots, Belafonte incorporated folk into his style and signed his first record deal in 1949. His 1956 album Calypso, topped the Billboard charts with hits that included “Day-O,” “Brown Skin Girl,” and “Jamaica Farewell.”

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Actors Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston.] (NAID 542061)

Along with a successful singing career, Belafonte continued with acting. He worked on Broadway in plays such as John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and 3 for Tonight, as well as starred opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the movies Bright Road (1953) and Carmen Jones (1954). Belafonte had the rare opportunity to host and produce his own late night television special, Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte, in 1959, which included performances by Odetta, Arthur Mitchell, and The Belafonte Folk Singers. Into the 1970s, Belafonte joined with his friend Sidney Poitier to star in Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). He also made several guest appearances on The Muppet Show.

(Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Actor Harry Belafonte.] (NAID 542067)

Even though Belafonte was one of the highest paid entertainers of the era, his passion was for social activism. He befriended and supported the non-violent preachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and often made public appearances at sit-ins and marches. Belafonte, along with his good friend and fellow actor Sidney Poitier, provided financial and moral support to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Belafonte helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and continued to support strategize with civil rights leaders throughout the 1960s.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Belafonte in Brussels, Belgium (NAID 196158)

Belafonte continued his activism into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In 1985, he joined with other entertainers to support “USA for Africa” that raised money for famine and drought relief. Belafonte also worked to end apartheid in South Africa, in addition, he elevated African artists like Miriam Makeba to the international stage. Constantly fighting for social justice, he was very vocal against the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay detentions during the early 2000s. Belafonte served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1987 and was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s Spingarn Medal in 2013.

The National Archives and the Presidential Libraries hold several documents, photographs, moving images, and sound recordings on Harry Belafonte. Most of these file units and items relate to his work as a social justice activist. Below are a few selections:

  • RG 65 Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files (NAID 5543936)
  • RG 306 Miscellaneous Subjects, Staff and Stringer Photographs (NAID 542067)
  • RG 306 Production Library Audio Recordings (NAID 125321)
  • RG 490 Moving Images Relating to International Volunteer Activities (NAID 88549)
  • RG 517 Sound Recordings of Radio Programs, Speeches, and Special Events (NAID 262327208)

Additionally, the National Archives holds records related to the Port Chicago Explosion that occurred on July 17, 1944:

  • RG 181 General Correspondence, 1919-1956 (NAID 5751983)
  • RG 26 Correspondence Relating to the Transportation and Handling of Hazardous Materials, 1940-1970 (NAID 568817)
  • RG 428 Subject Files, 1940-1958 (NAID 2799261)
  • RG 428 Moving Images Relating to Military Activities, ca. 1947-1980 (NAID 77390)
  • Collection JAM: Papers of John A. Miller Concerning the Port Chicago Naval Ammunition Depot, 1944-1967 (NAID 644366)

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