Hollywood’s First Black Movie Star-The Iconic Sidney Poitier

By Carla Calhoun

Sidney Poitier was a Bahamian-American actor, director, producer, and activist born on February 20, 1927.

He was born prematurely during his parents’ vacation in Miami, Florida, thus giving him American citizenship.

Poitier grew up on Cat Island, Bahamas until the age of 14, when he returned to the United States to live with relatives. The move was a cultural shock to him.

During a CNN interview in  2008 on Larry King Live, Poitier stated that he couldn’t shop at certain stores in both the US and the Bahamas, but in the Bahamas he never had to ride on the back of the bus. “It was a big disappointment,” Poitier said. (Reference: The Philadelphia Tribune writer Nicole Chavez).

At the age of 15, Poitier moved to New York City and found a job in a student production called, “Days of our Youth,” as the understudy to up-and-coming, well-known actor Harry Belafonte. During one of the performances, Poitier replaced Belafonte who did not show up for the performance. Fortunately, in attendance at the performance was a Broadway producer who recognized Poitier’s acting abilities.

Poitier experienced challenges due to his heavy accent and was refused a place with ANT Productions. As a result, he studied American enunciation while listening to American accents on the radio. He then  reapplied and was hired by ANT Productions where he appeared in various movie productions.

Poitier broke the color barrier in the motion picture industry. He redefined roles for African Americans by rejecting racial stereotypical roles. In 1946, Poitier made his Broadway debut in “Lysistrata,” and the rest is history.

During his career, he performed in approximately 39 films. In 1964, Poitier became the first Black American to win an Academy Award for the box office film “Lilies of the Field.”

Poitier was also known for his activism. In 1964, he attended the March on Washington and traveled to Mississippi to meet with activists following the brutal torture and murder of three young civil rights workers.

He was a dignified and beloved actor who was respected by millions. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paid tribute to Poitier by stating, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.” (Reference: International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.)

Poitier is the father of six daughters, (which he described as his greatest legacy), four from his first marriage to black businesswomen Juanita Hardy (1950-1965), and two daughters from his second marriage to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian actress. He and Joanna were married from 1976 until his recent death on January 6, 2022.

Poitier passed away peacefully of natural causes in his Los Angeles home.

The iconic Sidney Poitier, trailblazer, illustrious actor, and activist will be missed, but vastly remembered.