Harry Belafonte, groundbreaking entertainer and activist, dead at 96

April 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Harry Belafonte in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Harry Belafonte, a legendary entertainer and activist, died of congestive heart failure at his New York City home on April 25, 2023. He was 96. According to the Associated Press, Belafonte’s publicist said that Belafonte’s wife Pamela Frank Belafonte was by his side at the time of his death.

Belafonte was born in New York City on March 1, 1927. His birth name was Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. His parents were Jamaican immigrants. Harold George Bellanfanti Sr. was a chef. His mother Melvine Bellanfanti was a housekeeper. From 1932 to 1940, Belafonte lived in Jamaica with one of his grandmothers, which is why Belafonte had a slight but noticeable Jamaican accent when he spoke.

In the 1950s, his first claim to fame in the entertainment business was as a singer. His most well-known hits were “Matilda,” “Banana Boat Song” and “Jamaica Farewell.” Belafonte, along with his longtime friend Sidney Poitier, were among the first black men to have starring roles in major motion pictures. Belafonte’s breakthrough movie role was in 1954’s “Carmen Jones.” Some of his other famous films included 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night” and 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman.”

He stepped away from acting in the 1960s to focus on his music career and civil rights activism. His last movie appearance was being interviewed in the 2022 Netflix documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” which chronicled African American-oriented movies from 1968 to 1978. Belafonte also made several appearances on television, most notably winning a Primetime Emmy Award (Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series) in 1960, for the 1959 TV special “Tonight With Belafonte.” He was the first black person to win an Emmy Award.

Belafonte and Poitier were outspoken activists in the U.S. civil rights movement. The two friends would have occasional periods of estrangement because of their different opinions on civil rights movement strategies. Belafonte said in many interviews over the years that he believed in more progressive political ideals, while Poitier was more conservative. Other causes that Belafonte supported in his life included anti-war efforts, feminism and LGBTQ rights. Belafonte was also a prominent humanitarian who supported the African American Students Foundation, the TransAfrica Forum and the Institute for Policy Studies, among many other groups aimed at helping those who are disadvantaged.

Belafonte received several accolades in his life, including three Grammy Awards, one Emmy Award and one Tony Award. In 1989, he was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1994, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2014, he received the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In 2022, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and became the oldest living person to be inducted.

Belafonte was married three times and had four children. He and first wife, Marguerite Byrd, were married from 1948 to 1957, with the marriage ending in divorce. They had two daughters: Adrienne and Shari. Belafonte’s marriage to second wife Julie Robinson (a former dancer) lasted from 1957 to 2004. Their children David and Gina were born from that marriage, which also ended in divorce. Belafonte’s widow, Pamela (a former photographer), married him in 2008.

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