The Lady and Her Music: Lena Horne's Legacy Endures in the First Major Entertainment Award Named for a Woman of Color

Photo: The Town Hall/Sunshine Sachs

In the history of Hollywood, there are few talents as multifaceted as actress, singer, dancer and legendary beauty Lena Horne. In her decadeslong career, the four-time Grammy-winner was known for her iconic renditions of songs like
Stormy Weather”and her starring role in the 1943 film of the same name. Also honored with a Kennedy Center Honor and NAACP Image Award, among other accolades, Horne would also win a Tony Award for her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway.

But as luminous as Horne was on stage and screen, she was an equally fierce presence in the fight for civil rights. During World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences of troops, eventually leaving the USO in protest. In the ‘60s, she would regularly protest alongside iconic activists like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr.; joined the DNC on a visit to then-President John F. Kennedy; and spoke and performed on the dais at the March on Washington.

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Photo: The Town Hall/Sunshine Sachs

Now, Horne’s immense talent and unwavering commitment to social justice are being recognized with a history-making honor: New York City’s landmark performing arts theater The Town Hall has announced the inaugural Lena Horne Prize for Artists Creating Social Impact. The award, “honoring excellence at the intersection of arts and activism,” was created to “recognize today’s leading artists that are using their platform to promote awareness and create social change,” according to a press release, which also read:

Horne’s place as the prize’s namesake is more than fitting as she spent her trailblazing career fighting for equality and justice. In an industry that perpetuated racial stereotypes, she only accepted roles that empowered African American women. When Hollywood producers suggested Lena pass as Latina or white, she outright refused, notably saying: “I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become.” Horne’s legacy extended into political activism, working with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws and later speaking at the March on Washington. Horne was awarded an honorary doctorate from Howard University, the Spingarn Medal by NAACP, Kennedy Center Honors, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Photo: The Town Hall/Sunshine Sachs

“My mother used her platform as an entertainer and activist to empower and stand up for women and people of color,” said Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, in a statement. “It was a family tradition. Lena Horne’s grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, was a suffragist, an activist and a director of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Federation. For my mother it was never just about being a household name, it was about advocating for equality and justice and I am so proud that her legacy will continue through the Lena Horne Prize.”

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Chosen by an esteemed advisory board that includes Lumet Buckley, Harry Belafonte, Billy Porter, former White House Social Secretary Deesha Dyer, Roxane Gay, and Jose Antonio Vargas, among others, the first recipient of the honor will be announced at an event at The Town Hall in February 2020. Prior to the event, the Lena Horne Prize will partner with the Grammy Foundation & Museum to create workshops to promote music education and activism. In tandem with the award, a $100,000 donation will be given to the charity of the recipient’s choice.

In addition to hosting countless performances and promoting progressive ideals and talents, The Town Hall has an activist history of its own, having been founded by a group of suffragists in 1921 and remaining “at the nexus of social justice movements and artistic excellence, making it a National Historic Landmark for cultural and artistic history,” read the press release.

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“We’re honored to pay tribute to Lena Horne, a true American hero, and to embrace her as a symbol of all that The Town Hall has aspired to since its inception,” said M.A. Papper, The Town Hall’s Artistic Director, in a statement. “Building on her example, we hope this award will amplify and support the awardee’s mission and their dedication to justice, inspire other artists to use their platform similarly, and promote respect and vigilance in the arts. We thank Lena Horne’s incredible family for this opportunity to celebrate her life and her dedication to humanity, and the hope of inspiring others.”

Speaking with The Glow Up, Horne’s granddaughter, screenwriter Jenny Lumet, explained why the Town Hall was the perfect partner in helping to expand her grandmother’s legacy, and the impact she believes it will have upon future generations.

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“We wanted to do it right, with the right team, with the full understanding that’s it’s about artistry that’s lasting and commitment that’s meaningful,” said Lumet. “It’s about who we are now. The recipients feel like her spiritual children, and will undoubtedly be walking the walk for the next hundred years.”

For more information please visit www.lenahorneprize.com.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.