HARLEM, N.Y. (PIX11)– Without a doubt, Harry Belafonte was a global celebrity in his career that spanned more than three-quarters of a century. He was also a lifelong New Yorker, deeply invested in the city where he lived, as well as in the neighborhood where he was born and raised: Harlem, in Upper Manhattan.
Ken Sunshine, the founder of one of the country’s largest public relations firms and close friend of Belafonte, said that the 96-year-old icon had told him about how he’d sneak into Harlem’s Apollo Theater to see performing acts when he was a child.
On Tuesday, hours after the legend’s passing, Kamilah Forbes, executive producer at the Apollo, talked about how Belafonte came to be emblematic of the historic entertainment venue.
“He’s always been a son of the Apollo, part of the Apollo Family,” she said in an interview, adding that the theater had hosted his birthday celebration, months before the pandemic began. He showed his affection for the venue and the community it serves, she said. “Whenever we’d put out the call, he’d always show up. His love for humanity and community always rang true.”
Outside of the historic theater on 125th Street, where Belafonte’s name was emblazoned in memoriam on the marquee, local residents were talking about the loss of the icon.
“Wow, I can’t believe that,” said Richie Gethers. “He just crossed my mind. Wow.”
“We lost someone,” said another passerby. “He was a fighter.”
Indeed, in addition to being the first solo performer to sell a million records, the first Black man to win an Emmy Award, and other accolades, Belafonte was an outspoken activist. Among countless social media posts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice, tweeted an image
of Belafonte with Coretta Scott King at Dr. King’s funeral. Belafonte is visibly saddened over the loss of his friend.
In fact, he and King were so close that the pastor always stayed in Belafonte’s spacious Upper West Side apartment during the many times that King was in the city. Belafonte had also paid the life insurance policy for Dr. King, which ended up being a generous safety net for the King Family after he was assassinated in 1968.
Belafonte also gave millions of his own dollars to support the Civil Rights movement. He also helped to organize many milestone civil rights events, including the 1963 March on Washington.
Belafonte donated his personal papers and effects to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It’s also in Harlem, Belafonte’s birthplace. Among his effects that were on display on Tuesday was sheet music for The Banana Boat Song. Its familiar, signature phrase, “Day-o” was mentioned by many local residents in their remembrances of the legend.
Joy Bivins, the director of the Schomburg Center, said in a news conference on Tuesday afternoon that cultural artifacts like the sheet music, and thousands of other items now in her center’s care can be helpful to people who want to follow Belafonte’s example.
“[It can] provide a blueprint for some young people who are thinking about how to model and shape their own careers,” Bivins said from the theater space located in the Schomburg, where Belafonte got his start.
“They can think about not only being entertainers but educators, activists,” she continued, “and using their platforms to make the change that they’d like to see.”
Malena Belafonte, the daughter-in-law of the deceased icon, gave a statement to PIX11 News on behalf of her husband David, Harry Belafonte’s son, and his grandchildren Sarafina and Amadeus:
“It is with a heavy heart that we have said goodbye to our beloved dad, father-in-law, and grandpa, the beyond amazing Harry Belafonte. To the world, he was a legend, but to us, he was Dad, Harry, Farfar – which means Grandpa in Danish – and he will always mean the world to us. We are heartbroken to have lost such a big presence in our lives and we will honor him in everything we do. His legacy is passed on to his four children, Adrienne, Shari, David, and Gina, as well as his five grandchildren, Rachel Blue, Brian, Maria, Sarafina, and Amadeus, all of whom he was so incredibly proud of. He also leaves behind his ex-wife Julie, his sparring partner for 50+ years and the mother of his youngest children David and Gina, along with his third and current wife Pam, as well as his in-laws David Biesemeyer, Sam, Scott, and Malena. We will miss him terribly!”