Julie Robinson Belafonte, dancer, actress and activist, has died at 95

Julie Robinson Belafonte, dancer, actress and, with singer Harry Belafonte, half of an interracial power couple who used their high profile to aid 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. He had resided there for the past year and nine months after living in Manhattan for decades.

Ms. Belafonte, who was white and the second wife of Mr. Belafonte, the black Caribbean-American entertainer and activist, had an eclectic career in the arts. At various times she has been a dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, actress and documentary producer.

Mrs. Belafonte traveled the nation 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-knit interracial family that otherwise would have been rarely seen on television or in newspapers and magazines. .

He was at Mr. Belafonte’s side as they planned and hosted fundraisers for civil rights groups, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the more militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Mr. Belafonte died last April at age 96, and at a memorial service in his honor on March 1, at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, Ms. Belafonte’s efforts were remembered by her son, David Belafonte. “He marched, he endured racial hatred and abuse over the years,” she told the crowd, “when a high-profile relationship between a black man and a white woman was a seriously risky business.”

Julia Mary Robinson was born in 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 went to school with both white and black children, she told Redbook magazine in 1958. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), where she was an art student.

Around age 16, Ms. Robinson won a scholarship to the newly opened Katherine Dunham School of Dance in Manhattan and dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a dancer. She (She later earned her GED diploma.) She She soon worked her way up to becoming a student-teacher at the school; Among her students were Marlon Brando and Alvin Ailey, who would become famous as a dancer, choreographer and director.

When an opening opened in Ms. Dunham’s renowned 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 integrate her company,” she recalled in an interview with radio station WBAI in 2015, “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 nearly to her waist, toured the world with Dunham’s dancers, sometimes staying with fellow dancer Eartha Kitt, Before Ms. Kitt became a celebrated singer and actress.

When the company was kicked out of hotels because of race, a not uncommon occurrence in the United States and abroad, Ms. Robinson insisted on staying wherever the other dancers were staying. She remained with the company for seven years.

By the early 1950s, her parents had moved to Los Angeles, and Ms. Robinson ended up in Hollywood, helping choreograph dance sequences in at least one film and later landing small parts 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 biopic of Vincent Van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. She at that point was called Julie rather than Julia.

She met Mr. Belafonte on the set of “Carmen Jones”, the 1954 musical film in which he starred alongside Dorothy Dandridge, 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.”

Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Belafonte became lovers, although Mr. Belafonte was still married to Margurite Belafonte, a black teacher and psychologist. He and Margurite (her name also appeared as Marguerite) separated shortly thereafter, although in public they maintained the trappings of a happy marriage for the sake of her skyrocketing career.

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

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

Interracial marriage was rare in America then — half the states still legally banned it — and the fact that Mr. Belafonte had 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, especially in the black press, where some columnists denigrated him as a wealthy, successful black man who was no longer content with a black wife. .

Belafonte, now a well-known supporter of civil rights and integration, took to the pages of Ebony, the leading African-American magazine, writing an essay to proclaim that race had nothing to do 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.”

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

For months, the Belafontes were unable to get a larger apartment in Manhattan because landlords and real estate agents refused to rent it to an interracial couple, a situation 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 often photographed arriving at airports on concert tours, going on vacation or posing for newspapers and magazines, helping to destigmatize interracial marriage in the United States.

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

At the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery 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 on the front lines, ahead of the celebrities and to others. dignitaries, and that is where they were placed.

During her 50-year marriage to Belafonte, she attended strategic meetings with him with Dr. King in the couple’s apartment, dined with presidents at the White House and with foreign leaders abroad, including Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. At a time when Cuba and the United States had no official communication channels, they passed messages from the government in Havana to American officials, according to a declassified State Department memo.

Mrs. Belafonte distanced her own causes from those of her husband, in one case helping to organize, with Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, a women’s march against the Vietnam War in Washington in January 1968. Before the event she launched an ad in the New York Times calling for women to “make political power women’s power.”

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

The Belafontes divorced in 2007, and Mrs. Belafonte kept a lower profile thereafter. In recent years you have produced two documentaries, “Ritmo del Fuego” (2006), on the African cultural heritage in Cuba and the Caribbean, and “Flags, Feathers and Lies” (2009), on the resilience of the Indian Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans.

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

“He was a real aggregator of types and created an atmosphere of diversity that was our home as we grew up,” David Belafonte said in an interview. “He only opened the house to a group of people: it was disconcerting. And Julie was the social glue that held all these things together. There wasn’t a person too big or too small around whom she wouldn’t hug and make them feel like part of the crew.