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Trailblazing African American singer, dancer and actor, Lena Horne (1917-2010), was in kinship and foster care as child. 

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York City to Edna and Edwin, both members of prominent black middle-class families. The couple separated when Lena was two years old, after which the child lived with her paternal grandmother until she was four. In 1921, Edna took Lena to live with her in Philadelphia. 

For the next eight years, Horne shifted between her paternal grandparents’ Brooklyn home, boarding houses, and family friends or relatives (some of whom reportedly physically and sexually abused her) in Florida, Ohio, and Alabama…(Pullen, 96). 

Lena did not see much of her father, although at some point he moved in with Lena when she was living in Fort Valley, Georgia, with relatives.

Lena was sent back to Brooklyn and her paternal grandparents in 1929, and remained with them until her mother again retrieved her in 1932. 

Lena Horne was fifteen years old in 1932 when she began singing at the Cotton Club. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem’s segregated Cotton Club was famous for its white “slumming” audience, black jazz headlines, and beautiful, light-skinned chorus girls (Pullen, 96). 

Lena quickly became a “featured performer” but she hated the club and moved on to appearing in Broadway shows.

Then, in 1941, Lena Horne signed a contract with MGM and in Los Angeles she made twelve films, one musical after another. Some of her songs were taken out of the movie when it played in the South, as it was considered inappropriate for a black woman to be in an assertive role and singing with a white cast. 

Lena Horne also sang in nightclubs throughout the United States. Along with recording, she continued with this work after MGM did not renew her contract in 1946. 

Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, recorded during a well-received eight-week run in 1957, reached the Top 10 and became the best-selling album by a female singer in RCA Victor’s history (Harmetz). 

Horne became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, attending rallies and marching with Martin Luther King 

She remained active in black advocacy until the end of her life: her last public appearance was at a 1999 benefit gala for the Lena Horne Youth Leadership Scholarship Awards, which offered training in community organization of urban black youth (Pullen, 98).  

Lena Horne received many awards during her career, including a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998 and an Honorary Doctorate from Howard University. 


Harmetz, Aljean. ‘Lena Horne, Singer and Actress, Dies at 92’. The New York Times, 10 May 2010. 

Pullen, Kirsten. Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood. Rutgers University Press, 2014. 

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