February 20, 2013 - Happy Birthday, Sidney Poitier

There are so many pro athletes, musicians, and actors who happen to be black, it's hard to remember—hard to believe, even—that there was a time when these professions were basically closed to people of African or African American descent. But in all these fields, there were “firsts” who strove and tried and worked and cried, and who broke down racial barriers.

Sidney Poitier, who was born in Florida on this date in 1927, lived with his family on Cat Island in the Bahamas and traveled with them as they sold produce from their farm. At age 15 he moved to the U.S. for good—first to Miami with his brother, then, at age 17, to New York City. He earned money by washing dishes at restaurants, and he learned to read from a kind Jewish waiter who sat with him every night for several weeks helping him read a newspaper. He served in the army; when he got out he continued to work as a dishwasher until he landed a spot in the American Negro Theater.

Audiences didn't take to him at first. They expected black actors to sing—and he was tone deaf. They probably didn't understand him very well—because he had a noticeable Bahamian accent.

There was nothing Poitier could do about his tone deafness, but he worked hard to get rid of his accent and dedicated himself to his acting. He started to get good reviews, and soon he was getting noticed in interesting and challenging roles.

Sidney Poitier became the first male black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, for 1958's The Defiant Ones, and later he became the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for 1963's Lilies of the Field. Later he made such popular films such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, To Sir with Love, and In the Heat of the Night. For years he was the only major black actor in the American film industry.
I only saw a few movies when I
was a kid. (I'm talking maybe five
times before I was in college
that I went into a movie theater!)
And two of those movies were
these, starring Sidney Poitier!

In 2002 Sidney Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award, and in 2009 he received the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama.

Also on this date:

Frederick Douglass Day

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