Julie Robinson Belafonte, Dancer, Actress and Activist, Dies at 95

Julie Robinson Belafonte, Dancer, Actress and Activist, Dies at 95

Julie Robinson Belafonte, a dancer, actress and, with the singer Harry Belafonte, one half of a interracial power couple who used their high profiles to aid the civil rights movement and the cause of integration in the United States, died on March 9 in Los Angeles. She was 95.

Her death, at an assisted living facility in the Studio City neighborhood, was announced by her family. She had resided there for the last year and a half after living for decades in Manhattan.

Ms. Belafonte, who was white and the second wife of Mr. Belafonte, the Black Caribbean-American entertainer and activist, had an eclectic career in the arts. At various times she was a dancer, a choreographer, a dance teacher, an actress and a documentary film producer.

Ms. Belafonte traveled the nation and the world with her husband and their children during Mr. Belafonte’s sellout concert tours in the late 1950s and ’60s, presenting an image of a close interracial family that was otherwise rarely seen on television or in newspapers and magazines.

She was at Mr. Belafonte’s side when they planned and hosted fund-raisers for civil rights groups, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the more militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Mr. Belafonte died last April at 96, and during a memorial service for him on March 1, at Riverside Church in Manhattan, Ms. Belafonte’s efforts were remembered by their son, David Belafonte. “She marched, she endured racial hatred and abuse through the years,” he told the crowd, “when a high-profile relationship between a Black man and a white woman was seriously risky business.”

Julia Mary Robinson was born on Sept. 14, 1928, in Washington Heights in Manhattan to Clara and George Robinson, both of whom had Russian Jewish roots. She was raised in what she called “an interracial environment,” reared by liberal parents and going to school with both Black and white children, she told the magazine Redbook in 1958. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), where she excelled at dance.

Around the age of 16, Ms. Robinson won a scholarship to the newly opened Katherine Dunham School of Dance in Manhattan and dropped out of high school to pursue a dance career. (She later earned her G.E.D. diploma.) She soon worked her way up to student-teacher at the school; among her students were Marlon Brando and Alvin Ailey, who was to gain fame as a dancer, choreographer and director.

When an opening came up at Ms. Dunham’s renowned all-Black dance company in the mid-1940s, Ms. Robinson auditioned in Philadelphia and was hired as its first white member.

“I never thought she’d integrate her company,” she recalled in an interview with the radio station WBAI in 2015, “but I knew I was a good dancer.”

Ms. Robinson, recognizable for her dark eyes, olive skin and black hair, which she wore in a distinctive ponytail or in pigtails that fell nearly to her waist, toured the world with the Dunham dancers, sometimes rooming with her fellow dancer Eartha Kitt, before Ms. Kitt became a celebrated singer and actress.

When the company was barred from hotels because of race, a not infrequent occurrence in the United States and abroad, Ms. Robinson insisted on staying wherever the other dancers stayed. She remained with the company for seven years.

By the early 1950s, her parents had moved to Los Angeles, and Ms. Robinson wound up in Hollywood, helping to choreograph dance sequences in at least one film and later obtaining small parts in a few others, including “Mambo,” a 1954 drama set in Italy and produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti, and “Lust for Life,” the 1956 biopic about Vincent Van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. By then she was going by Julie rather than Julia.

She met Mr. Belafonte on the set of “Carmen Jones,” the 1954 movie musical in which he starred opposite Dorothy Dandridge, introduced to him by Mr. Brando, a good friend of Mr. Belafonte’s. She had dated Mr. Brando off and on for several years after appearing with him in a touring production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Ms. Robinson and Mr. Belafonte became lovers, although Mr. Belafonte was still married to Margurite Belafonte, a Black schoolteacher and psychologist. He and Margurite separated shortly after, though in public they maintained the trappings of a happy marriage for the sake of his skyrocketing career.

Their marriage ended in divorce, in Las Vegas, in February 1957. Eight days later, Mr. Belafonte, about to turn 30, and Ms. Robinson, who was pregnant at 28, married in Mexico, Mr. Belafonte wrote in his 2011 book, “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance.”

They had sought at first to keep the marriage a secret to protect Mr. Belafonte’s two young daughters, Adrienne and Shari, with his first wife, he wrote. But white gossip columnists and the Black press were hot on their trail, forcing his publicist to announce the marriage.

Interracial marriage was uncommon in America then — half the states still legally barred it — and the fact that Mr. Belafonte had divorced a Black woman and so quickly married a white one carried the whiff of scandal. While the liberal entertainment circles in which the Belafontes traveled largely accepted the union, Mr. Belafonte faced harsh criticism elsewhere, especially in the Black press, where some columnists disparaged him as a rich, successful Black man who was no longer content with a Black wife.

Mr. Belafonte, by then a well-known supporter of civil rights and integration, took to the pages of Ebony, the leading African American magazine, writing an essay to proclaim that race had nothing to do with the marriage. “I believe in integration and work for it with all my heart and soul,” he wrote. “But I did not marry Julie Robinson to further the cause of integration. I married her because I was in love with her and she married me because she was in love with me.”

The commotion eventually died down, and Ms. Belafonte put her career aside to start a family in Manhattan. But racial animus still trailed them. When their first child, David, was born in the fall of 1957, Ms. Belafonte received racist hate letters. “My first child,” she recalled in the WBAI interview. “Can you imagine?”

For months the Belafontes were unable to obtain a larger apartment in Manhattan because landlords and real estate agents refused to rent to an interracial couple, a predicament that made headlines. They eventually found an apartment on West End Avenue, where they lived for decades.

Their daughter, Gina, was born in 1961, and the family was frequently photographed as they arrived at airports during concert tours, took vacations or posed for newspaper and magazine profiles, helping to destigmatize interracial marriage in the United States.

As Mr. Belafonte’s role in the civil rights movement deepened, so did Ms. Belafonte’s. She planned fund-raisers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC, hosting events at their home and at hotels for New York’s liberal moneyed class. She co-founded, with the actress Diahann Carroll, SNCC’s “women’s division,” sticking with the organization even after it began to lose favor among many white Americans during the Black Power era.

At the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, in which both Belafontes participated, it was Ms. Belafonte who told orange-jacketed private security forces that the ordinary citizens of Selma deserved to be at the front of it, ahead of the celebrities and dignitaries, and that’s where they were placed.

During her 50-year marriage to Mr. Belafonte, she sat in with him on strategy meetings with Dr. King at the couple’s apartment, dined with presidents at the White House and with foreign leaders abroad, including Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. At a time when Cuba and the United States had no official channels of communication, she even passed messages from the government in Havana to American officials, according to a declassified State Department memo.

Ms. Belafonte pushed her own causes apart from her husband’s, in one case helping to organize, with Coretta Scott King, a women’s march against the Vietnam War in Washington in January 1968. In advance of the event she placed an ad in The New York Times asking women to “Make Womanpower Political Power.”

She occasionally joined Mr. Belafonte’s tours as a dancer and, when their children got older, acted in a few more movies, including “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), in which she appeared with Mr. Belafonte and Sidney Poitier as the wife of an Indian chief, earning critical praise. She had learned a Native American dialect for the role.

The Belafontes divorced in 2007, and Ms. Belafonte kept a lower profile thereafter. In her later years she produced two documentaries, “Ritmo del Fuego” (2006), about African cultural heritage in Cuba and the Caribbean, and “Flags, Feathers and Lies” (2009), about the resilience of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in New Orleans.

Following Margurite Belafonte Mazique’s death in 1998, Ms. Belafonte assumed the role of family matriarch, not only to her own children but to those from Mr. Belafonte’s first marriage, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte. All of the children survive her, as well as three grandchildren.

“She was a real aggregator of types and created an atmosphere of diversity that was our home growing up,” David Belafonte said in an interview. “She opened the home to just a bouquet of people — it was staggering. And Julie was the social glue that held that stuff together. There was no person too big or too small whom she wouldn’t wrap her arms around and make them feel like they were part of the crew.”

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