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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 the age of 14 and became a jockey at the racetrack in Saratoga, New York.
After four years of that profession he took up prize fighting, compiling a record of 200 wins and 25 loses in the welterweight division. A detached retina ended his boxing career. At age 28, he then began acting through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, working as a stevedore, or dockworker on the side. In 1936, Lee appeared in the all-Black production of "Macbeth" produced 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.
Married with one child (a son named Carl), and financially troubled, he persevered. The conservative movie industry would not consider him as "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.