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Friday, July 26, 2013

Montford Point Marines and Lena Horne: Trailblazers

How timely...this is my 51st post and a continuation of my discussion on the recovery of the 90 mm anti-aircraft. Members of the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions nicknamed their World War II artillery  "Lena". "Lena", of course is a tribute to Lena Horne (1917-2010), the legendary singer, dancer, actress and Civil Rights Activist.


Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917. She started her musical career at the famed Cotton Club in New York.  At the Cotton Club, African American female chorus dancers were required to be "tall, tan, and young" (fair complexion). Only White Patrons were permitted in the audiences of the Cotton Club, which was the launching pad for many Negro performers. The entertainment specialized in exotic, "Jungle" music, minstrel like shows, and of course, jazz. Some of the biggest names of the early twentieth century were patrons or performers at The Cotton Club.

 Lena Horne later was a member of a minuscule group of Black Actresses working in the movie industry during the 1940's. Most roles for African American females were limited to domestic roles, with limited speaking lines. These actresses were always depicted as either a sassy mammy archetype, or the child-like, timid maid.  Hattie McDaniel was famously quoted as saying, "Hell, I would rather play a maid than be one."  McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1939 for Best Supporting Actress. Her performance was that of the maid in Gone With the Wind. She sat in a segregated area at the Award Ceremony. (

Moreover, Hollywood during these earlier days would have an actress confined to singing or dancing. The actress had no interaction with other non-Black actors, and their scenes could be edited if needed when showing the movie in Southern movie houses. Horne's ambiguous appearance, and pressure from the NAACP helped her to become the first African-American actress to receive a major Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM) contract.

Lena Horne was more than a pretty faced, entertaining fashionista. She protested her less than honorable treatment and was active in the Civil Rights movement. The multi-hyphenate was friends with controversial leaders such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois. (They were accused of being Communists and blacklisted*). Ms. Horne was greatly revered and respected by Black America.

Praise for Lena Horne
The late Sixty Minutes journalist, Ed Bradley, known for his intense and provoking news segments, stated that the chanteuse was one of his favorite interviews. In the video, the usually unflappable Bradley is seen fawning over Ms. Horne, who by then was still stunning in her sixties. Actress Halle Berry tearfully thanked Lena Horne and other who paved the way for her. Berry won a Best Actress Academy Oscar in 2002 for the film Monster's Ball. Her acceptance speech usually ranks as one of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches ever.

Eugene Robinson, of the Washington Post, on Lena Horne:

"During World War II she complained about how Black soldiers--who had made her a popular pin up, essentially the Black Betty Grable--were being treated in the segregated Army. Her refusal to perform for segregated audiences got her disinvited from USO tours."

Robinson also referred to Lena Horne as a "glamorous revolutionary" and an "infiltrator".

So, the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalion certainly got it right. Similar to Lena Horne, these Montford Point Marines were trailblazers and created history. Naming the anti-aircraft artillery after the great Ms. Horne was indeed prophetic. The 90mm "Lena" can be viewed after being missing for so many years at the Montford Point Marines Memorial Museum in North Carolina.


*blacklisted: shunned, to be excluded from opportunities or banned. Being a Communist was considered Un-American.

 Note:  In 2010 Mo'Nique received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Precious. She proudly wore a flower in her hair, in tribute to Hattie McDaniel.
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