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This date marks the birth of Canada Lee in 1907. He was a Black actor and one of the leading Black actors of the 1940s and 1950s.
(Lionel Cornelius Canegata, his name at birth) was from Harlem, New York City, the son of James and Lydia Lee, and a boyhood friend of future congressional representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Lee studied concert piano but ran away from home at 14 and became a jockey at the racetrack in Saratoga, New York.
After four years of that profession, he took up prizefighting, compiling a record of 200 wins and 25 losses in the welterweight division. A detached retina ended his boxing career. At age 28, he began acting through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, working as a stevedore or dockworker. In 1936, Lee appeared in the all-Black production of "Macbeth" by John Houseman and Orson Welles.
Three years later, he appeared in "Mamba’s Daughters," starring Ethel Waters. Lee met with difficult times when the Hollywood blacklist began keeping so-called radicals out of work. It is believed that he was kept out of 40 productions by 1952.
He persevered because he was married with one child (a son named Carl) and financially troubled. The conservative movie industry would not consider him "safe." His film credits include Alfred Hitchcock’s "Lifeboat" and Robert Rosen’s "Body and Soul." He was known for his dignified presence, a rare image for Black screen actors of that time. Canada Lee died from uremic poisoning on May 5th, 1952.
African Americans/Voices of Triumph
by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Copyright 1993, TimeLife Inc.