March 3, 1907 Lionel Cornelius Canegata (Canada Lee), pioneering stage and film actor, was born in New York City.
Lee was a concert violinist at the age of 12 and in his early teens became a professional jockey. After that, he became a professional boxer, but was forced to quit due to an injury in 1933.
Lee began his acting career in the 1934 production of “Brother Moses” and his first major role was in “The Voodoo Macbeth” (1936). After his appearance in the 1941 production of “Native Son” the New York Times called him “the greatest Negro actor of his era and one of the finest actors in the country.” Other stage appearances included “South Pacific” (1943), “The Tempest” (1945), “On Whitman Avenue” (1946), and “Let My People Go” (1948).
Lee also appeared in several films, including “Lifeboat” (1944), “Body and Soul” (1947), and “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951). A champion of civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s, Lee was blacklisted by 1950. When the FBI offered to clear Lee’s name if he would publically call Paul Roberson a Communist, Lee refused and said “all you’re trying to do is split my race.” Lee died May 9, 1952 and his biography, “Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee,” was published in 2004.
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