Quvenzhane Wallis is making history as the youngest actress ever to receive a Best Actress nominee. As a nod to the Oscars airing tonight, Southern Journeys would like to honor Jeni le Gon, the first black woman signed by a major Hollywood studio, as part of our Black HerStory Month celebration.
Le Gon (born in Georgia Aug. 24,1916; died December 7, 2012) was the first African-American women to sign with a major studio, but there was more to it that that. From the loving obit by Stephen Bourne in the Independent:
"Following her screen debut, the vivacious Le Gon was signed by MGM and paid the huge sum of $1,250 a week. They gave her a role in Broadway Melody of 1936 but, she said, "MGM hosted a party for the mayors of various cities and the cast of Broadway Melody of 1936 entertained them. Eleanor Powell, the famous tap dancer from Broadway, had also been signed for the movie and after I stopped the show on performance night at the mayors' party, MGM decided they couldn't have two tap dancers in the picture and I was dropped from the studio. If I had been white, they would have kept me because I could have developed into something, but they let me go. While I was at MGM I was told I wasn't allowed to eat in the main dining room. Here, they were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn't good enough to eat in their dining room. But Hollywood was no different to the rest of the country in that respect."
Also from the obit:
" She played maids to Maria Montez in Arabian Nights (1942), Ann Miller in Easter Parade (1948) and Betty Hutton in Somebody Loves Me (1952). Tiring of maid roles, Le Gon faced humiliation in 1950 when she joined a group of black actors to call on Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. They raised their concerns about the stereotyping of black actors, but Reagan showed no interest: "We tried to get him to intervene for us, but he wasn't the least bit sympathetic. He didn't even lie about it."
Le Gon lived her life in a "great big way" and set the stage for black entertainers who followed her. To read more about her amazing life and career, visit Roger Ebert's blog post on le Gon.
Above is a video of Jeni dancing at the age of 92, decades after she was the first black actress to dance with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Fred Astaire on film.
Think this is news worth sharing? Share this post with others on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest using the hashtag #BlackHerStoryMonth and let us know what you think. We'll be featuring notable women in black history in our blog all February.
You only have just a few more days to take advantage of our storewide sale of 15% off all items. Visit here to shop using the code BLACKHERSTORY13 at checkout to receive your Black HerStory Month discount.