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Julie Robinson Belafonte, dancer, actress and activist, dies at 95

Julie Robinson Belafonte, dancer, actress and, with singer Harry Belafonte, half of an influential interracial couple who used their fame to help the civil rights movement and the cause of integration in the United States, died on 9 March in Los Angeles. Angeles. She was 95 years old.

His death, which occurred at an assisted living facility in the Studio City neighborhood, was announced by his family. She had been living there for a year and nine months after living in Manhattan for decades.

Ms. Belafonte, who was white and the second wife of Mr. Belafonte, a black Caribbean American artist and activist, had an eclectic career in the arts. She has been a dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, actress and documentary film director at various times.

Ms. Belafonte traveled the country and the world with her husband and their children during Mr. Belafonte’s sold-out concert tours in the late 1950s and 1960s, presenting the image of a close interracial family who was otherwise rarely seen on television or in newspapers and magazines. .

She was at Mr. Belafonte’s side as they planned and organized fundraisers for civil rights groups, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Non-Student Coordinating Committee. violent, more militant.

Mr. Belafonte has died last April, at the age of 96, and at a memorial service in her honor on March 1, at Riverside Church in Manhattan, Mrs. Belafonte’s efforts were remembered by their son, David Belafonte. “She marched, she endured racial hatred and abuse over the years,” he told the crowd, “while a highly publicized relationship between a black man and a white woman was a very risky.”

Julia Mary Robinson was born on September 14, 1928 in Washington Heights in Manhattan to Clara and George Robinson, both of Russian Jewish descent. She grew up in what she called “an interracial environment,” raised by liberal parents and going to school with both black and white children, she told Redbook magazine in 1958. She attended High School. School of Music and Art in Manhattan (now the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan). Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), where she was an art student.

Around the age of 16, Ms. Robinson won a scholarship to the new Katherine Dunham School of Dance in Manhattan and dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a dancer. (She later earned her GED.) She quickly rose through the ranks to become a student teacher at the school; among his students were Marlon Brando And Alvin Aileywho would become famous as a dancer, choreographer and director.

When an opening arose in Ms. Dunham’s famous all-black dance company in the mid-1940s, Ms. Robinson auditioned in Philadelphia and was hired as the first white member.

“I never thought she would join his company,” she recalled in a 2015 interview with WBAI radio, “but I knew I was a good dancer.”

Ms. Robinson, recognizable by her dark eyes, olive skin and black hair, which she wore in a distinctive ponytail or braids that fell almost to her waist, toured the world with Dunham’s dancers , sometimes sharing the room with his fellow dancer. Eartha Kittbefore Ms. Kitt became a famous singer and actress.

When the company was barred from hotels because of race, which is not uncommon in the United States and abroad, Ms. Robinson insisted on staying where the other dancers were staying. She stayed with the company for seven years.

By the early 1950s, her parents had moved to Los Angeles, and Ms. Robinson found herself in Hollywood, helping to choreograph dance sequences in at least one film and later landing small roles in a few others, including “Mambo” a 1954 drama set in Italy and produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti, and “Lust for Life,” the 1956 Vincent Van Gogh biopic starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. At that point, she was called Julie rather than Julia.

She met Mr. Belafonte on the set of “Carmen Jones” the 1954 musical in which he starred opposite Dorothy Danridge, was introduced to him by Mr. Brando, a good friend of Mr. Belafonte. She had dated Mr. Brando on and off for several years after appearing with him in a touring production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Ms. Robinson and Mr. Belafonte became lovers, even though Mr. Belafonte was still married to Margurite Belafonte, a black teacher and psychologist. He and Margurite (his first name also appears as Marguerite) separated soon afterward, although they maintained the trappings of a happy marriage in public for the sake of his soaring career.

Their marriage ended in divorce, in Las Vegas, in February 1957. Eight days later, Mr. Belafonte, about to turn 30, and Ms. Robinson, 28, pregnant, were married in Mexico , Mr. Belafonte wrote in his 2011 book. “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance.” »

They had initially sought to keep the marriage secret to protect Mr. Belafonte’s two young daughters, Adrienne and Shari, with his first wife, he wrote. But white columnists and the black press were hot on their trail, forcing her publicist to announce the marriage.

Interracial marriage was rare in America then — half the states still legally banned it — and the fact that Mr. Belafonte divorced a black woman and so quickly married a white one carried the whiff of scandal. While the liberal entertainment circles in which the Belafontes traveled largely accepted the union, Mr. Belafonte faced harsh criticism elsewhere, particularly in the black press, where some columnists disparaged him as a wealthy black man and prosperous man who was no longer satisfied with a black wife. .

Mr. Belafonte, then a well-known supporter of civil rights and integration, took to the pages of Ebony, the leading African-American magazine, writing an essay proclaiming that race had nothing to do with with marriage. “I believe in integration and work for it with all my heart and soul,” he wrote. “But I didn’t marry Julie Robinson to advance the cause of integration. I married her because I was in love with her and she married me because she was in love with me.

The turmoil eventually died down, and Ms. Belafonte put her career aside to start a family in Manhattan. But racial animosity still followed them. When their first child, David, was born in the fall of 1957, Ms. Belafonte received racist hate letters. “My first child,” she recalled in the WBAI interview. “Can you imagine?”

For months, the Belafontes couldn’t get a bigger apartment in Manhattan because landlords and real estate agents refused to rent to an interracial couple, a predicament that made headlines. They eventually found an apartment on West End Avenue, where they lived for decades.

Their daughter, Gina, was born in 1961, and the family was frequently photographed arriving at the airport on concert tours, taking vacations, or posing for newspapers and magazines, helping to destigmatize marriage interracial in the United States.

As Mr. Belafonte’s role in the civil rights movement deepened, so did Mrs. Belafonte’s. She planned fundraisers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC, hosting events at their homes and hotels for New York’s wealthy liberal class. She co-founded, with actress Diahann Carrollthe “women’s division” of SNCC, remained loyal to the organization even after it began to lose favor with many white Americans during the Black Power era.

At the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, in which both Belafontes participated, it was Mrs. Belafonte who told the orange-jacketed private security forces that the ordinary citizens of Selma deserved to be at the vanguard, in front of celebrities and dignitaries, and that’s where they were placed.

During her 50-year marriage to Mr. Belafonte, she participated with him in strategy meetings with Dr. King in the couple’s apartment, dined with presidents at the White House and with foreign leaders at the foreigners, including Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. At a time when Cuba and the United States did not have official communication channels, she relayed messages from the government in Havana to U.S. officials, according to a declassified State Department memo.

Mrs. Belafonte distanced her own causes from those of her husband, helping in one case to organize, with Coretta Scott Kingwife of Dr. King, during a women’s march against the Vietnam War in Washington in January 1968. Before the event, she took out an ad in the New York Times asking women to “give political power to the power of women “.

She occasionally joined Mr. Belafonte’s tours as a dancer, and as their children grew up she appeared in a few more films, including “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), in which she appeared with Mr. Belafonte and Sydney Poitier as the wife of an Indian chief, which won her critical praise. She had learned a Native American dialect for the role.

The Belafontes divorced in 2007, and Ms. Belafonte kept a low profile afterward. In her later years, she made two documentaries, “Ritmo del Fuego” (2006), about African cultural heritage in Cuba and the Caribbean, and “Flags, Feathers and Lies” (2009), about the resilience of the Indian tradition of Mardi Gras in Cuba. New Orleans.

After the death of Margurite Belafonte Mazique in 1998, Ms. Belafonte assumed the role of family matriarch, not only to her own children but also to those from Mr. Belafonte’s first marriage, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte. All children survive him, as do three grandchildren.

“She was a true aggregator of types and created an atmosphere of diversity that was our home growing up,” David Belafonte said in an interview. “She opened the house to a small number of people – it was astonishing. And Julie was the social glue that held it all together. There was no person too big or too small that she wouldn’t put her arms around and make them feel like part of the crew.

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