Chicago Artists, Activists Remember the Legacy of Harry Belafonte

The legendary singer and activist had many connections to the Windy City

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Julieanna Richardson can't help but smile when she thinks back to the first time she met Harry Belafonte, who passed away this week at the age of 96.

"I remember my call to him because we were nothing but an idea," she said. "I called him to say could he be our inaugural program."

That program drew 1,000 fans to the Art Institute of Chicago for "An Evening with Harry Belafonte," moderated by Danny Glover. The event raised $300,000 and would eventually help to launch what is now The History Makers.

"He knew the importance of the cause, and the dream, and he showed up, and he showed up well. That’s the thing about his life, he was always showing up," said Richardson, the founder and president of The History Makers.

The nonprofit is the nation’s largest African American video oral history archive, housed at the Library of Congress.

"We have interviewed almost 3,600 people in 451 cities and towns, and we owe all of that to Harry Belafonte," said Richardson.

The Belafonte event led to many more featuring other celebrities. Eventually, Richardson says she raised a total of $36 million for the project.

"We often say at our organization that death represents the burning of many libraries, but today we lost a forest," said Richardson.

From the stage to the pulpit, Belafonte had an influence on many in Chicago, including pastor and social activist, Father Michael Pfleger.

"He had such an influence on me," said Pfleger, the pastor at Saint Sabina Church. "He dedicated his life to keep the legacy of Dr. [Martin Luther] King alive. Dr. King was the reason I’m a minister today. We shared so much in common."

Pfleger fondly remembers when Belafonte spent his 90th birthday at Saint Sabina with cake and song.

"[We] ended up singing ‘Day-O" before he got up to the sanctuary to [address] the people," he said.

Perhaps the most monumental for Pfleger, however, was a roundtable conversation with Belafonte, Dr. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Joseph Lowery, and Louis Farrakhan.

"We sat at that table for I bet three hours just sharing amongst ourselves," said Pfleger. "To have them all in one place, the inner circle of Dr. King, to have them all here together speaking was something I’ll never forget."

Pfleger says Belafonte spoke to the congregation at St. Sabina more than a dozen times over the years, and the two would catch up often.

"This was his Chicago church, and he would come here whenever he was in town," he said. "We talked on the phone a month and a half ago, one of the thing he used to say, 'let’s get into some mischief.' I said, 'Mr. B.,' I always called him Mr. B., I said, 'you take care of yourself. We have plenty of time for mischief.'"

Those who knew him best says Belafonte was consistent, passionate, and even at the height of his fame, dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement.

In a statement, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said in part, "I recall when Harry Belafonte took the stage during the event to give Aretha Franklin flowers, they were told to evacuate. Harry Belafonte would not budge."

"Harry Belafonte mentored us and he remained a mentor to us. As he rose as the public leader, he taught us how to survive. He was not just a champion. He was a hero. We stood on Belafonte’s shoulders. He was our most senior statesman.

He fought for the right to vote. He would not perform to segregated audiences. He was a man of great stature and substance. We are better because Harry Belafonte lived. I miss my brother beloved, so much already."

Belafonte was 96 years old.

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